Activists and political heavyweights locked horns last night during a televised BBC debate in Cairo, asking whether elections scheduled for this summer should be shelved.
In a special episode of BBC World’s Doha Debates — the first ever to be screened from Egypt, and hosted by the Access to Knowledge for Development Center of the School of Business on the American University of Cairo’s Downtown campus — representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd Party traded verbal punches with activists opposed to a summer election.
The motion of the debate touched on a central theme being hotly discussed within Cairo’s political circles: “This house believes for the sake of democracy Egypt should postpone elections.”
Speaking against were Essam al-Erian, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Wafd Party executive bureau member Sherif Taher.
In favor were Marwa Sharafeldin, a women’s rights activist, and Shaheer George, a member of several pro-democracy groups, including the National Association for Change and the Kefaya movement.
The debate, which took place in the lavish surroundings of AUC’s Oriental Hall, got heated at times, with host Tim Sebastian repeatedly calling on those taking part to stop shouting over each other.
As a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the factions supporting early parliamentary and presidential elections this summer, al-Erian said he thought it was in the interests of the revolution to act sooner rather than later.
In his opening statement he said: “We are in a very critical moment in the history of Egypt. Egypt is making a historical revolution. Without handing power over in elections I think the military and army will keep the power.”
He was backed by Taher, who argued that deteriorating security on Egypt’s southern and western borders, coupled with the threat from Israel, meant it was in the nation’s interest to establish a civilian government quickly.
He said: “Libya has the potential of turning into another Somalia. In Sudan, there is a new government with a new position on the Nile Treaty. Our vulnerability is increasing, and the military situation is increasing that vulnerability. I believe the army should go back to doing what it does best and protect the country.”
But their position in support of early elections was criticized by Shaheer George, who said that more time was needed to cultivate a political system in Egypt.
He said: “Democracy without pluralism is a farce. If we have the same actors who have been there for 30 years… how can we claim this is the kind of democracy we want?”
His point was echoed by Marwa Sharafeldin. In her opening statement she said: “We’ve had numerous elections over the years. Has it brought us democracy? No.”
Later she pointed to the audience, and added: “One of these guys might be the future president of Egypt and we’re not giving them a chance. This fast food democracy can only create indigestion.”
During the debate, which lasted for around 90 minutes, a questioner from the audience probed al-Erian on why his party had stated it would only seek 30 percent of the seats in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary election.
Al-Erian responded by saying the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to leave the rest for “the competition”, and added: “All the time we said a strong multi-party system was the best choice.”
But he was challenged by another questioner, who said: “If you really want to play by the rules of the democratic game then from day one you shouldn’t take part of the cake by saying you will take 30 percent of the seats.”
One of the themes of the debate centered around the idea of a 12-month interim “presidential council,” which has been suggested by opponents of summer elections and which was again proposed by Sharafeldin and George last night.
Questioned by Taher on what form the council would take, Sharafeldin said it would have to arise through either appointment or elections.
Taher shot back: “Appointment by whom? By Marwa?”
He added later: “We need to know the process of the presidential council. If you have a general on that council and he has a tank on the street then we still have military rule.”
One audience member also brought up the issue of how the revolution is affecting the economy. She pointed out that people were suffering economically, and asked whether that would be exacerbated by the year-long process of having a presidential council.
Sharafeldin said: “If you have elections today do you think the problems of the people would be tackled? The problems would still be there whether we postpone the elections or not.”
The thorny issue of Tahrir Square “street creed” was also touched on during the debate. One questioner brought loud applause from the audience when he demanded to know from Taher where he and the Wafd Party were during the commotion in downtown Cairo.
“Where were you when we were suffering from the beginning?” he asked. “If you are trying to say you represent us then I’m sorry, but I was in Tahrir, and I’m sorry to say you don’t represent us.”
Taher responded by saying he was in the square and he was representing himself.
Al-Erian pointed out that “Egypt is not Tahrir Square only,” but Sharafeldin responded, telling him that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd had “serious problems” because “your youth are revolting against you” — a reference to a call by thousands of young Muslim Brotherhood members to overhaul policies devised by the senior leadership.
All four debaters rounded up their arguments with a summing-up speech, after which the audience was asked to vote on the motion.
The motion was carried by 88.4 per cent to 15.6 per cent.
Speaking after the debate, host Tim Sebastian said: “I thought the people were really hungry to get their views out there, expressing them in a free forum probably in a way they haven’t for the past 30 years.”
The debate is due to be broadcast on BBC World this weekend.