I write this article from a quiet office in an English university – far removed from the popular protests that swept Egypt, with their epicentre on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And yet there is a connection: my own grandfather – an Armenian refugee fleeing the Ottoman Genocide of 1915 – settled in Sudan; and my own father trained in Alexandria and then studied medicine at the American University of Beirut. It seems incredible that Grandfather started in Armenia, and that here I am born an Englishman! It reinforces the idea that we are all connected. And that popular protest for democracy in one place creates waves across the globe: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen... and surfaces in places like England with protests against Government plans to increase student payment for a university education.
The extraordinary events of the first half of 2011 demonstrate just how powerful speaking out and solidarity can be – in overturning the established order and replacing authoritarian regimes. And yet, if we think of another Square – not Tahrir, but China’s Tiananmen Square (in 1989) - we see that democratic and peaceful protest can be crushed by authorities thatThe “strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach.” Alexis de Tocqueville don’t give a damn about their own citizens - an event with strong echoes in 2011. In this respect the lessons from Egypt are precious - a popular uprising has sown the seeds of democracy. Now those seeds must be ‘watered’. The democratic ideal is a long-term undertaking and needs to start with the individual and work outwards through local communities to build towards an entire nation committed to democratic principles and action. As the great French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said in the nineteenth century, the “strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.”
I would humbly suggest that a next step in the democratic rebirth of Egypt (and other emerging states such as Tunisia) is to concentrate on the modest, humdrum, everyday renewal of life in its villages, neighbourhoods and cities. Take a look at the French model, whereby every little place has a Commune (very local council) – “Mayors are locally powerful, with ownership of state property and effective control over planning, the environment and civic ceremony.” The result is a fierce civic pride (according to English journalist Simon Jenkins writing in 2006). The ideal would seem to be to combine the popular energy bravely displayed by ordinary Egyptians in Tahrir Square, and across the country (participatory democracy), with dynamic local politicians who are voted in by democratic means to serve the people and improve the lives of the local population.
As the pacifist activist Mahatma Gandhi urged: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I am humbled by the bravery of many Egyptians in the face of violence and wish you well in the country’s continuing moves towards full democracy. We in Europe have much to learn from you about actively defending and promoting democratic action.
James Derounian, BSc (Hons) MPhil MRTPI FHEA FILCM, is a National Teaching Fellow and Principal Lecturer in Community Development and Local Governance at the University of Gloucestershire, England