Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Egyptian Democracy 101

With Egypt acclimatizing to its new found freedom and democracy, people are increasingly becoming active within their own communities. If Tahrir had one vital message, it was that the power of the people had the ability to change an entire regime.

I was able to witness the new form of democracy taking hold in Egypt first hand. Grass roots level. Community building and delegation of duties. The best way to describe it would be as a homeowner's associations meeting for the residents of Mubarak 6, a suburb here in Hurghada.

Roughly 40 residents from the area gathered together to elect themselves a new president, vice president, treasurer (or as the title was given "accountant"), and member. For anyone who has lived in Egypt, you will understand the chaos that involved bringing together this many people, who all had something to say. For those unfamiliar with business meetings in Egypt, allow me to paint a picture.

  • Manners are not key. If someone is speaking, and you just don't care what they have to say, don't listen. Turn around to your buddies, and engage in a loud and boisterous conversation. 
  • Phones do not need to be silenced. We all want to hear your conversations. Truly we do. 
  • Children, particularly loud children, are welcomed with open arms. 
  • Make sure that you always get the last word. People will only ever pay attention to the last word, or at least that is the prevailing mentality it seems when it comes to meetings here. 

So, you've got the picture in your mind. Chaos. Does order come from chaos? Not in this case, but what did emerge was something entirely different.

Work brought me to this meeting. I was there, to launch a new community driven project. My thoughts on that aside, it gave me the opportunity to watch these new democratic ideals in action.

First on the agenda, the election of the president. First guy up, Mr. M. Now, Mr. M speaks no English, and many of the home-owners do not speak Arabic. That in itself was a clusterfuck; Egyptians unable to understand the English speakers were just left looking baffled, while translations from Arabic to English were haphazardly thrown out there in bits and pieces. Mr. M pronounces himself as a police officer. This in turn pissed off a group of Egyptians in attendance, who were asking what kind of a joke this was, and announcing that they would leave. Mr. M finished his speech by proclaiming his qualifications entail his "connections in the government." Europeans in the room responded "there is no government, so your connections don't mean much now!" Mr. M was followed by a second candidate for president, equally long-winded, equally stressing his amazing connections with the government as primary qualifications. He left people with a gemstone of a quote though... "Important one is the one to do his best, with which budget. A president without resources, the result will not be anything." (hmm. fluff my pockets and I'll get you what you need.)

The remaining speeches basically re-iterated the same items again and again. Connecting with one's audience was not a strong suit. Perhaps it's a lack of knowledge when it comes to effective debate, but the same points were raised again and again.

My favourite quote from the night came from a local Mubarak 6 resident. "Can we change the name? We don't want to hear the name Mubarak anymore! How about Freedom 6?"

There were unfortunately a few elements that demonstrated that real democracy in Egypt will really take time to come into effect. I was told a few days before the meeting that "Mr. M and his VP would be the president and VP." This, before the vote even happened. In addition, came the accountant's speech, who assured people that it was illegal for a non-Egyptian to hold this position. This caused mass uproar, while laughter at the same time. You see, the treasurer for Mubarak 7 was sitting in the room; a lovely woman from Germany, who was very staunch in announcing that she was treasurer, and obviously foreign. Not surprisingly, this man was elected treasurer (and believe me, if you'd been in the room, you'd be surprised too!).

Overall an enlightening experience. Off to more meetings and "elections" later this week. Should be interesting to see what comes next!

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