[Viewpoint] Democracy doesn’t come easy

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[Viewpoint] Democracy doesn’t come easy

Three things surprised me during my visit to Egypt a few years ago. The first was the subway system in Cairo, the first metro system in Africa. The stations were named after former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat as well as then the incumbent President Hosni Mubarak. The Mubarak station was located under Ramses Square, the center of a transportation interchange. A giant stone statute of Pharaoh Ramses II, taken from an ancient temple, stood at the congested square. During the attempt to use the thousands-years-old ancient treasure to honor a dictator, it was severely damaged by the polluted fumes from cars. My tour guide joked that Mubarak used a pharaoh as his bodyguard. I could smell the stench of the dictatorship in Egypt.

The second surprise was the crosses that I saw in many places. They were placed by the Coptic Christians of the country. More than 10 percent of the population was of this religion. The third surprise was the people that I met at a hotel restaurant on a Thursday night.

They were dancing under the fancy lights. I could understand that Egypt was the most secular country in the Middle East. The tolerance toward other religions and the flexible lifestyle were the charms to foreign tourists.

And now they are all memories of the past.

First, Mubarak was removed from his control after 18 days of bloody protests last year. He was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison - a lifetime term in Egypt - on June 2, but protesters demanding capital punishment occupied Tahrir Square - their symbol of democratization - again.

Before the verdict came out, the country had its first-round presidential election on May 23 and 24 to elect a new leader under the new constitution. Egyptian voters must have had a happy dilemma because they had 13 candidates to choose from.

In fact, the Egyptians had not elected their own leader since the military coup in 1953. The basics of a democratic election were unheard of for Egyptian voters. But in the first presidential election after removing the dictator, the turnout was only 46.2 percent. Could they have been mistaken that democracy automatically comes once they expel a dictator?

The Egyptians were also surprised at the outcome of ballot counting. Two candidates who represent the extreme opposite ends of the society’s spectrum earned the most and second-most votes and moved to the final round. Mohamed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood won 24.78 percent, while Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general, won 23.66 percent.

If Morsi, supported by the fundamentalists who want to rule the country based on the Islamic law, becomes the president, the strength of Egypt - the tradition of flexibility - will disappear and women’s rights will likely be violated. The Copt Christians are already worrying about a religious oppression.

In contrast, Shafiq was the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime. If he is elected, it means Egypt’s democracy will take a step backward.

The Egyptian people are facing a tough choice. No matter who will be elected, it seems like the fruits from ending a dictatorship were hijacked by the wrong person.

In this era of extremism, reasons and pragmatism - the basis of a democracy - are losing ground. The country is seeing increased attacks on politicians as well as street demonstrations.

Now Egyptians probably understand that a democracy does not automatically come when a dictatorship ends. There is an old saying that “You can win the world on a horse, but you cannot rule the world on a horse.” The path of ending a dictatorship and the path of achieving a pragmatic democracy for the people are two different ways. And the Egyptians are learning the lesson through trial and error.

We were no different. We achieved the current system of a direct presidential election through the June democratization movement in 1986. Twenty-six years have passed since then, and it probably is time for us to see an evolved politics of dialogue and compromise. But lawmakers are still using swear words and acting roughly as if they were fighting a dictatorship. A former prime minister-turned-lawmaker is not an exception.

Democracy doesn’t just come at the end of democratization movements. We have to learn that we must achieve it through endless concessions and compromises.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chae In-taek

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