Democracy: Egypt’s beautiful dream in the wrong hands

Editor’s Note: Aalam Wassef is a visual artist, musician and publisher, working in Cairo. Wassef is a fine arts graduate and his work spans disciplines from digital to live performance. From 2006 to 2011, Wassef’s works were anonymous as he engaged with Egyptian politics, describing, with humor, Mubarak’s Egypt. Wassef is the founder of and and a contributing founder to The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aalam Wassef.

Story highlights

Egypt has been in turmoil since the ousting of Mohamed Morsy, following Hosni Mubarak's fall

Aalam Wassef argues democracy in the country remains a dream, in the wrong hands

The activist says the bonds between people broke, revealing an industry of hate and division

But he says it is up to the individual, and every decision they make, to create democracy

CNN  — 

Egypt’s Mohamed Morsy, the nation’s first democratically elected president, was forced out of office in 2013 by the nation’s military and arrested following widespread protests and petitions calling for his removal. Opponents said he was a tyrant trying to impose conservative values. Supporters called his removal a coup and a blow to the democratic movement that toppled former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. As violent demonstrations continue to rock the country, CNN asked Egyptian artist Aalam Wassef how he saw the evolution of the democracy in Egypt.

Q: You have said democracy is not something you get, but that you aim at. Should democracy always be the goal and why can it not be achieved?

Aalam Wassef

A: In December 2013, at a time when Egypt was debating a constitution meant to fulfill the dreams of its revolution, one realized that having a good constitution isn’t an end in itself.

What would truly fulfill our dreams would be to guarantee that, indeed, each and every article of a valid constitution would be implemented and respected to the letter.

Without such guarantees and commitment of all instances involved in such a process, any constitution would be no more than ink on paper.

The same applies for democracy.

There is nothing wrong with democracy. We, humans, make it right or wrong and often concede to impoverished forms of democracy.

In Egypt, we let it be surrounded by corruption and serve the interests of those in power, and those of other nations that would gladly describe themselves as great democracies – at home.

This was and is the faith of Egypt’s democracy: A beautiful dream in the hands of the very wrong “implementers” – the army, the police, a disempowered political class, international allies that are either autocracies or democracies with double standards.

Q: When do you believe Egypt got closest to democracy and why was it unable to be sustained?

A: Egypt is close to democracy each time any of its citizens says no to anything the Bill of Human Rights would describe as an injustice.

This is democracy in action.

Although you don’t have it yet, you are implementing it in your own life. You might go to jail, be tortured and be sexually harassed. Indeed, many have – including prominent secular Egyptian activists and freedom fighters.

The arrest of these activists are under the very transitional government drafting the ideal constitution and laying the ground for Egypt’s democracy.

They are a living proof that the words democracy or constitution are meaningless without the guarantees of their implementation, which means the right people to be entrusted with their implementation.

Q: How do you see the role of the individual in a democracy and why?

A: An individual could potentially be more powerful than a fully fledged army, if – and only if – this individual would take the time to consider that all that happens in his or her direct environment is his or her direct responsibility, duty and right.

For some reason, the conceptual connection binding us to “our right and responsibility to act upon our fate” is broken or maybe simply sedated.

During the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution we were given the opportunity to realize what life looked and felt like when this connection wasn’t broken.

No longer sedated, we became awake, happy and powerful simply because we were strongly re-connected to each other and to our direct environment, to our needs and to our responsibilities towards each other.

What was emotionally devastating was that solidarity naturally emerged as a social project and modus operandi on all levels. We experienced an expanded version of what taxes, social contracts or solidarity meant on paper.

We were human beings in an environment that had to be taken care of, that had to be shared with others, and all of us – in solidarity – agreed to take care of it and of each other.

Whatever had broken this bond struck us like a slap in the face. We saw, in all its might, an industry of hate and division at work.

We saw controlled media, corrupt corporations and institutions, police, abusive nationalistic narratives based on conspiracy theories.

There was the brainwashing of children, taught that critical thinking is unpatriotic, corrupt politicians and as many structures of power, including entertainment networks, that needed to divide us, to maintain us in fear and in a state of dependence.

The sustainability of such structures could only be guaranteed by this very fear, dependence and political disempowerment.

The invisible hand, not only the one of the market, became quite visible and unforgettable. We’re seeing it at work, again, right now.

Q: What is needed in Egypt now and how could groups like Third Square have effected change?

A: It’s interesting to see the name Third Square written here, many months after its inception and evaporation. The Third Square was like an epidermic reaction, followed by many other reactions like The Masmou Campaign (“Be Heard”) and others.

This is really a phenomenon I think we should become aware of. These groups were not parties or sustained movements (or even meant to be).

They were crystallizations of thoughts embodied by a few hundreds who gathered three or four times in a physical space, whose echo in social media reached tens of thousands, whose message morphed into another campaign by other people or was incorporated in a politician’s speech, etc.

I feel one needs to surrender to something the Egyptian youth is not deconstructing or putting into words or statements.

The engagement of youth in politics could have led to the creation of political parties and traditional political formations. But they are obviously extremely reluctant to do so.

Maybe we simply do not believe in such models. I think this stubborn reluctance “to conform” is a self defense mechanism.

Indeed, in an environment that is profoundly corrupt and ill-intended, where those who claim to defend you are those who arrest you, the natural collective self-protecting reaction is to never concentrate all your power into one group (i.e a party) but to stay agile, in motion, nowhere and everywhere.

Haven’t old school politicians paid the price of wanting to establish an organized party?

One-time presidential hopeful Mohamed El Baradei left the country after successive smear campaigns against him orchestrated by the Army and the Secret Police.

The National Salvation Front is a subject of mockery, also because of the several deep State-driven smear campaigns against it, and also because of its intrinsic irrelevance.

Q: What is your ambition for Egypt and how do you plan to action that?

A: Since we’re using the word ambition, allow me to think big.

Egypt is an interesting subject, as I’m sure other countries are as well. Egypt is very much part of the world order. What happens in China, France or Ukraine will impact the lives of Egyptians.

Likewise, anything happening in Egypt and challenging the world order should logically have echoes in many other places, if not everywhere.

I warned you, I’m thinking big.

Consider again, the role of the individual, and allow me to turn the question to the reader. What are your ambitions?

I’m sure most of us have the same, for ourselves and for others.

My ambition, if I had a magic wand, would be to make us all convinced that there is nothing to fear and that we are responsible for our happiness or our unhappiness.

There is truly no one to blame, no corporation x, no double-standard democracy y, no dictator z. Did you guess who was responsible or should I keep going?

Read more: Why instability will continue into 2014

Read more: Egypt’s ‘poet of the people’ dies

Read more: Dangers of being a cartoonist in the Arab world

Read more: Why we need a ‘leg-up’ state

Read more: Davos and its dictionary diplomacy

Read more: The world’s most exclusive gathering

Read more: What’s your economic mood?

Read more: How much does it cost to go?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aalam Wassef.