After protests, what Egypt can learn from Mandela

Mass protests in Egypt calling for the ouster of President Morsi reflect a young democracy in need of lessons in developing trust and reconciliation. Egyptians can find them on the opposite end of Africa in Mandela's example.

Opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gather June 30 in Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for the end of his rule.

Mass protests in Egypt on Sunday showed a society still sharply split over the future of its young democracy – and one badly in need of a lesson from the most famous advocate of democracy on the African continent.

Of Nelson Mandela’s many contributions, it was his generosity of spirit toward opponents that helped bring freedom and reconciliation in divided South Africa. Mr. Mandela embraced his captors and assumed whites were willing to treat blacks as equal. He replaced racial hate with nonracial kindness, and thus won freedom for his country from oppression.

If only Egypt’s political leaders could now understand the origin of Mandela’s ability to create trust by offering trust. Liberation, he wrote his wife from Kroonstad Prison in 1975, began in one’s thinking. “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life,” he stated.

In Egypt, political issues have turned personal since the 2011 ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The various organizers of the June 30 protests now seek to bring down an elected president, Mohamed Morsi, while Mr. Morsi offers harsh criticism of those who fear he is creating a nondemocratic Islamic state.

“Part of the problem is that neither side has presented its position in terms amenable to compromise,” writes Arab expert Nathan J. Brown of George Washington University in a Foreign Policy blog. An agreement on various issues of governance has been possible, he says, “but the political will was simply missing.”

Even in Iran, where elections are rigged by the ruling clerics selecting candidates, the results of a June 14 presidential vote revealed a missing piece for any democracy. When a chosen candidate with the most moderate views won and not the regime’s favored candidate, the ruling Muslim clerics realized that the people were sending a message on misuse of power. “We cannot run the country with a single faction while omitting another one,” said conservative lawmaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar on television after the results.

Democracy is more than ruling with a majority, as Morsi needs to understand. It must not alienate minorities. It must have permanent checks on power. Egypt is still missing those key elements. Morsi must also recognize that those seeking full democracy have distrusted the way his associates in the Muslim Brotherhood wrote a new constitution.

The presidency, the courts, the military, and the protesters are all at odds, often to the point of not even communicating. Gestures of generosity could go a long way. In the early 1990s after his release, Mandela met with the widow of the man who designed apartheid. He embraced the country’s white rugby team, the Springboks, by donning its jersey at a game.

Reconciliation in Egypt is urgent, as the defense minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, warned. “There is a state of division in society and the continuation of it is a danger to the Egyptian state and there must be consensus among all,” he said.

Morsi may have taken an important step by apologizing on national TV last Wednesday for mistakes he made last year. Notable among them was assuming authority over the judiciary, a decision he quickly abandoned and now regrets. Such humility has not been seen in an Egyptian leader for decades.

He must find ways to include the advocates of democracy in a power-sharing arrangement. They led the democratic revolution in 2011, not the Muslim Brotherhood, even if that well-organized Islamic group was able to then eke out a majority win in the 2012 election.

If anything, the sorry state of the economy and its hardship on the poor call for a government of national unity, not more power plays, insults, and polarization.

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