Last week I spent a few days in Cairo encouraging some of the parties now preparing for elections. I first met members of the Lib Dem sister party, the Democratic Front, a few years ago when democracy in Egypt seemed to be a far off aim. None of them would have predicted the speed of change earlier this year when the protests in Tahrir Square led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
Meeting individuals who have fought for democracy and are preparing to fight their first free elections is always inspiring. Those of us who have criticisms about aspects of our own democratic system know that they pale in to insignificance when contrasted with the problems faced by people fighting dictatorships to establish basic democratic principles.
I met people who had camped out in Tahrir Square for weeks striving to play their part in bringing democracy to Egypt. One woman told me of how the person next to her in the demonstrations was one of the many casualties shot dead. I saw the burnt out remains of the old ‘National Democratic Party’ Headquarters next to the Square and I talked to people who have based themselves in makeshift HQs established by some of the parties and civil organisations.
Encouragement and advice on the forthcoming election campaigns was readily welcomed. Although a doctor who had helped to save many lives in the Square was quick to remind any visitor from Britain of how people in Egypt remained angry about our country’s support for the invasion of Iraq. Explaining that there were differences within and between parties on this subject, that my party had opposed the war and that some of us had joined the million people on the anti-war march in London did not satisfy the criticism.
The nationalist/Nasser tradition is now discredited in Egypt and the socialist tradition is not strong. The parties based on the Islamic religion obviously have a strong brand and well resourced organisational support. The word ‘liberal’ is not a helpful word in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but there is clearly a tradition in the country that supports the principles of ‘liberal democracy.’
I met several parties, including the Democratic Front and the Free Egyptians Party, who ascribe to this tradition. The parties preparing for the elections are in different stages of development and preparation for polling now due to take place in November. But the rising number of parties based on a similar outlook, with several more seeking recognition, inevitably reminded of scenes in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and the discussion led by John Cleese about the “People’s Front of Judea”. The people I met were nothing like Monty Python’s mythical revolutionaries. They were sincere, dedicated, professional people with strong democratic values who want to see a modern, tolerant society in Egypt and one that recognises the rights of women. If their parties can work together effectively to present a clear choice in the elections, they will make a big contribution to establishing a strong and stable democracy in Egypt.
In my discussions with several parties I reminded them all of the need to keep their messages simple and based on the most immediate needs of the people. In a seminar with young activists, I was asked what in my opinion was the best slogan a party had ever used? I told them that in my view the party with the best slogan in the 20th century was ironically the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1917, they campaigned on the message “Land, Bread, Peace and Freedom”. Of course they delivered the opposite of their promises. But for any party in a country’s first democratic elections, the challenge is to rise to the hopes of what democracy might bring.