by Jennifer Keene
CAIRO, Egypt — Libyans voted for the first time in more than 40 years on Saturday. Egyptians watched their first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, take power less than two weeks ago. And Tunisians? They’ll return to the polls for their first full post-revolution parliament within the year. The dream of representative government is coming true across North Africa.
However, true representative government is only possible when there’s a way for one to freely describe how he or she wants to be represented. Elections, while important, are only one way for people to make their voices heard, and that fleeting moment with the ballot paper is only a snapshot of opinions on the day of voting. Ask any political pollster – minds change by the minute, as do the individual needs and desires of the voters.
Instead, what’s important to remember is that these elections are a product of the popular movements we collectively call the Arab Spring, not the means by which Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Ben Ali were ousted. Rather, it was the widespread and proactive dissent on the part of each country’s people that drove these revolutions – and that ability to dissent and protest has yet to be enshrined in law in these countries.
Dissent is protected in democratic societies by the freedoms of speech and expression. These freedoms are recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in particular Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. And, for most of the democratic world, they’re also incorporated into constitutions, where the rights of all citizens are clearly stated and codified into laws.
Here in Egypt, explicitly protecting these freedoms isn’t on the immediate political agenda; in fact, President Morsi’s 100-day to-do list includes addressing bread shortages and the capital’s monstrous traffic, but not drafting a constitution. The problem is that there is no transparent plan for what happens if his administration cannot keep their promises and people react with protests, rallies and other forms of activism.
Egyptians, like Tunisians and Libyans, are keenly aware that their voices matter. The challenge for each of these “Arab Spring governments” is to define the line at which speech and expression is acceptable – even when it isn’t favorable to those in power – and when it constitutes a threat to public order. It is a difficult line to find for even the oldest and most seasoned of democracies, but one that is all the more important here.
Tunisia has already felt the growing pains in the exercise of these freedoms. During President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, the rights and freedom of Islamists were so tightly controlled that gatherings of “men with beards” had to register with the police. After the “Jasmine Revolution” ousted Ben Ali, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won the plurality of votes in the country’s first free election. As a friend recently put it, “suddenly you saw men with beards everywhere.”
In an open-air art exhibition in mid-June, several works of contemporary art provided commentary on the relationship between Islam and society. One painting depicted shadowy, bearded male figures surrounding a bare-chested woman with a bowl of couscous at her groin. In another piece, the phrase “Subhan’Allah,” or loosely translated “Glory be to God,” was written in dead insects, a sardonic critique analogous to deriding those who believe the Virgin Mary has appeared in a piece of toast. A small group of protesters came during the day to complain that the works were morally offensive, and later a larger group returned at night with swords. Several works were destroyed, and small riots erupted across the capital city of Tunis, leading to three nights of government-enforced curfew.
One of the artists present at the exhibition later explained, “I didn’t find anything offensive in the art, but of course some people will. But since the revolution gave us greater freedoms to speak out, it has encouraged some to believe they must be heard. It has to stop somewhere.”
Here in Cairo as I write, two rallies – one supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the other opposing it – are gathering across the city. On July 9, President Morsi ordered Members of Parliament back to work less than a month after the Supreme Constitutional Court – the vestiges of Egypt’s long history of military rule – declared the earlier parliamentary election invalid. Regardless of how this supposed showdown plays out, one of these rallies will not like what they hear. For now, the larger demonstrations seem to be in support of Morsi and the Brotherhood. How will the administration respond in six months time if those crowds are no longer in their camp?
Law isn’t everything, but enumerating and protecting the freedoms that make elections worth their while is crucial to laying the foundation of a stable, representative government. The true test of the Arab Spring then is not the ability to have elections, but rather what laws, protections, and processes flow from them.
About the Author
Jennifer studies security and international humanitarian law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Previously, she interned for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a unique organization advocating for recognition and remedy for civilians harmed in armed conflict. Additionally, Jennifer has taught in Rwanda, worked as a field organizer for the 2008 campaigns of Senator Mark Warner and President Barack Obama, and interned for US Senator Patrick Leahy and UK Member of Parliament Bob Blizzard. Jennifer holds a BA in Government from the College of William and Mary.