By Sonia Farid
May 09, 2013
There is not one European or North American city I have visited where I have not seen individuals or groups collecting signatures for one cause or another. The activists involved were lobbying for or against all sorts of things, but as far as I can recall it was usually about the cutting of trees, the rescuing of endangered species, or the renovation of some local park, a “make love not war” kind of cause that you only hear of in beauty pageants.
This is not in any way an attempt to belittle such causes or downplay the effort exerted by their initiators, but rather to underscore the fact that they are far from being make-or-break issues that would have an impact on, for example, the future of the state or the structure of the government. This is simply because such matters are determined in a totally different manner that involves ballot boxes, polling stations, vote counting, and all that jargon we have recently learnt as we try to decipher the mystery which is known as “democracy.”
In other words, those people leave national issues to their representatives, whom they have already elected, and focus on more local ones which they believe they can handle in a variety of ways including exercising pressure on the legislature to draft new laws that they perceive as solutions to problems facing the community. That is why in a democracy you don’t see citizens signing a petition to change the head of state or dissolve the parliament. True, there had for example been calls in the United States for impeaching George W. Bush when he went to war in Iraq, but such a demand had apparently no legal or constitutional grounds, so it never materialized.
In Egypt, the signature collection ritual takes a very different shape. Let me first point out that the practice did not actually exist in the country until 2010 when Mohamed El-Baradei founded the National Assembly for Change, which started collecting signatures on a document that listed a series of demands seen as a step toward democratic reform. The initiative was quite striking at the time, not only because it heralded an era marked by people’s realization that it was only through them that change could happen and that shedding their fear of openly opposing the repressive regime was the only means of doing so, but also because it underlined absolute lack of trust in the so-called representatives who belonged to the ruling party and who everyone knew came to power through rigged elections. Scoffed at by the regime and considered too idealistic to be true by the opposition, the initiative yielded stupendous results with one million signatures in less than seven months and the stage was set for a revolution that toppled the regime altogether.
Technically speaking, the signatures neither modified the articles of the constitution stated in the assembly’s statement nor did they determine the path Egypt was to take following the revolution, but they did change the face of the political scene in the country and effected an outstanding transformation in the balance of power between ruler and subjects with the latter no longer blindly subservient to the former and the former no longer capable of counting on the latter’s perpetual submission. It was, however, too early for the new culture to be rechanneled toward problems pertaining to trees, animals, and public parks.
The situation this time is as different as it is peculiar, for the new campaign, launched by one of Egypt’s leading opposition blocs, the Egyptian Movement for Change, is now collecting signatures to topple a “democratically” elected president and hold early “democratic” elections.
As absurd as the idea might seem to be, it does shed light on a very significant aspect of this phase of Egypt’s history and possibly that of several countries in transition: the gap between procedural and actual democracy, between elections as a timed process that ends with the counting of votes and as an ongoing system that brings the elected official to task with the slightest sign of mismanagement, between voting as a bargain in which religious, tribal, or financial factors take precedence and as a mature choice determined by objective assessment of the political situation and comprehensive awareness of national interests. This campaign, therefore, aims at revisiting the concept of legitimacy so that it is no longer solely contingent upon election results, but is rather measured by post-election performance. Therefore, the more signatures collected, the stronger the proof of the president’s failure in living up to the expectations of the people he was supposed to serve and who in turn should reserve the right to take back the privilege they had once bestowed upon him. It also pinpoints the fact that democracy can and does breed dictators and that is why, in a country where there is no actual separation of powers and where state institutions are in the process of being controlled by the president’s clique, it becomes time for the people to draw the line and teach the tyrant in the making that power is not a given.
There is little chance that those signatures, even if they reach the targeted 15 million, will actually strip the president of his legitimacy because, unless he chooses to step down, there is no law or article in the constitution that acknowledges the role of signatures in determining the duration of the president’s term in office. It remains, therefore, as symbolic an initiative as its predecessor insofar as it reflects the meagre, if any, change in the Egyptian people’s perception of their government and how elections do little to embellish the image of a head of state if his performance remains lousy. The act of signature collection also stresses that the new culture of popular lobbying is here to stay. The symbolic nature of the new campaign does not, however, make it any less influential. Regimes, thus, better beware that symbolic actions are not really that symbolic, exactly like signatures are not really ink on paper and like forests can redirect the course of motorways or halt the construction of entire housing projects!
Sonia Farid is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University.