x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Political debate in Egypt, not endless protest

As long as the democracy remains robust, political progress in Cairo should be via the ballot box, not the streets.

Two years ago today, Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square to demand change. Since then Egypt's politics have been remade - but now elements of its political culture, too, must change.

That electrifying first day of mass protest had been inspired by Tunisia's sudden popular uprising, which resulted in the flight, on January 14, of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In Egypt, events also moved rapidly: on February 11, Hosni Mubarak, for decades the centre of the Egyptian state, resigned as president, which in turn spurred more "Arab Spring" movements in the region.

Today, new protests are expected in Egypt as opposition factions strive to sustain the spirit of what is now called the January 25 Revolution.

But circumstances have changed. A president has been fairly elected, and parliamentary elections begin one month from today. The interior ministry says the menacing atmosphere of 2011 - water cannon, armoured cars, riot police - has given way to respect for peaceful protest.

That is in itself a measure of the success of Egypt's revolution so far. Compared to some countries in the region, Egypt has managed its political transition with a degree of restraint on all sides.

The organisers of today's protests have perhaps not realised how much change there has been. In just a month, all Egyptians will be free to vote, wielding a weapon far more potent than the rocks thrown in 2011. What Egypt needs now is electoral debates, not protests. It is no coincidence that societies governed by ballot boxes and compromise, rather than by street protests, tend to be more prosperous and peaceful. At present, rowdy street protests may do Egypt more harm than good.

However, democracy does not make prudent governance easier, it only makes it more likely. Here is an example: this week, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated cabinet outlined new health, education and housing measures - but did not explain how it will pay for all this. That is a question opposition politicians should raise.

To be sure, many Egyptians will not want to hear questions like that. But Egypt is in an economic crisis and all parties owe it to the people to tell the truth about unpalatable choices ahead.

Every party will campaign against corruption, as well they might, but how many will explain to voters that the country's ruinous consumer subsidies must be reduced, for example? Even experienced democracies have trouble doing that. But Egypt has progressed: the ballot box, not Tahrir Square, is where change will now be found. If the Muslim Brotherhood does not abide by the vote in the future, there will be time enough to return to the streets.