As Egyptians prepare to vote in the presidential poll, a cultural shift must accompany constitutional reform for a genuine democratic transition to take place, writes Kristin Debs.
Egyptians’ aspirations for democracy lie in the presidential elections and the constitutional drafting process.
But without a fundamental shift in the collective consciousness towards a universal respect for the rule of law, progress is illusory.
The education system must be completely revamped from a stale system of rote memorization to one that emphasizes critical thinking alongside modern technological training. The health system needs reform to incentivize the best and brightest doctors to stay, instead of migrating, in order to advance the medical profession. And the legal system deserves state investment and restructuring to allow businesses to rely on the courts to resolve disputes fairly and in a timely manner.
The underlying principle to such critical reforms is the commitment to the rule of law.
Universal respect for the rule of law, as simple and obvious as it seems in a North American democracy, may not be so easily integrated into Egyptian culture. Ubiquitous elements in Egyptian and Arab culture stand in clear dissonance with any notion of universal and equal application of the law. Bribery (“rashwa”) is so widespread that something as simple as getting a drivers’ license can be almost indefinitely delayed if you do not provide the right incentive to the right civil servant. For real change to occur there must be a change to the national culture, not only the system of governance.
Fortunately, Egypt’s population comprises an optimal mix of generations for such a shift to take place. At one end of the spectrum, Egypt’s youth are a large segment of the population eager to see change and motivated to strive for a just society based on merit instead of personal connections. At the other end, the nation’s seniors recall a flourishing pre-1952 Cairo as one of the world’s most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities. Having experienced the ugly consequences of a society that flouts the rule of law, these two generations constitute a recipe for a shift in the national consciousness.
Such shifts in consciousness have been attempted in a variety of contexts. South Africa, in transitioning to a post-Apartheid nation based on racial equality, is affecting this shift through efforts to redefine how South Africans conceive of race. In the United States and Canada, public health campaigns on drink-driving provide another example of a shift in national consciousness. Similarly, shifting Egypt’s national consciousness towards universal respect for the rule of law can occur through concerted efforts to educate the public on the dangers and consequences of such practices such as bribery.
Once this shift occurs, constitutional and legislative reforms will be much more effective, resulting in greater respect for minority rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and the creation of more fertile ground for international investment and tourism.
Kristin Debs is an Egyptian-Canadian lawyer working with a firm that provides consulting and program evaluation services to the non-profit sector and government. Ms. Debs is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association (EARLA).
This is a slightly edited extract from a contribution to EgyptSource, a project of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, that follows Egypt’s transition and provides a platform for Egyptian perspectives on the major issues at stake in the post-Mubarak era.