Several days ago the first Social Democratic Forum of Social Democratic Parties in the Arab world was held in Cairo, organised with the support of a number of European parties and groups. To me the conference was a dream come true, as I was once among one of the first to promote social democracy in Egypt, back when I was a youth in the ranks of the country’s radical leftist movement, something I am not ashamed to say I took part in. Rather, I am proud that 35 years ago I was one of those who led the 18-19 January 1977 Intifada, and honoured that I was accused of being the fourth of 176 citizens charged with its organisation and execution. All of this when I was just twenty years old.
Twenty years later, in 1997, I participated with my now deceased colleague Ahmed ‘Abdullah, leader of the 1972 student movement, in organising the greatest alliance of our generation. In a series of dialogues that lasted three days, in the presence of nearly 1,000 activists of our generation, we realised that there existed an urgent need to create a new movement which would consist of two sub-sects. The first being made up of those who considered themselves leftists but who believed in the notion of democracy as if they were liberals. The second consisted of liberals who believed in social justice as though they were leftists. As time passed this new vision began to clash with that espoused by traditional leftists, and so we eventually became known as the “democratic” left. However we preferred to refer to ourselves as “social democrats” and were the first to launch the Egyptian Social Democratic Party two months after the outbreak of the 25 January revolution.
To me, it’s worth noting that in accomplishing all of this, we did not do so by modeling ourselves after social democratic movements in Europe, despite the fact that many of us were intellectuals who did in fact admire the history of world socialist thought that originated on the continent. The origins of our movement however are in no way linked to those of Europe.
After the creation of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party on 18 March 2011 and its emergence onto Egypt’s political scene several months later, I and several of my colleagues began considering our relationship to other social democratic movements worldwide, and coordinating with those movements both in Europe and the Arab world.
However we in Egypt did not come upon the ideas of social democracy by simply translating the books, teachings and preachings of western intellectuals. To us, social democracy was and is an ideology capable of helping us not only to understand the persistent hypocrisies seen in our society, but also to change them. This is possible because we are not just merely intellectuals, but also revolutionaries.
However unfortunately our actions during the 25 January revolution, which continues to this day, have not yet garnered the full attention they deserve. Because of this, we are in need of a way to institutionalise the gains and accomplishments achieved during the revolution in a way that will provide us with something upon which to build our movement, and help revive the notion of socialist democracy. It is true, that social democracy in Egypt has largely come to resemble in practice and in thought its counterparts in Europe, which can partially explain its lack of appeal among many circles in the Arab world. The retreat of social democratic movements in Europe, in addition to the failure of the broader movement itself to inspire revolutionary parties and movements in the global south, all point to the fact that a revamping of social democracy is in order, not just politically and on the ground, but also ideologically. We need to address the reasons behind this retreat and rehash the details of revolutionary social democracy in a way that truly adopts and disseminates the promises, ideals and dreams of the movement at large.
And it is here, in Egypt, and in the countries of the Arab Spring, where we are most capable of pursuing this goal and embarking upon a new stage of social democracy. That being said, I can’t help but feel a tad bit of hostility towards my counterparts in Europe, who tend to view the social democracy movement as merely a means with which to address the challenges involved in the implementation of mundane activities such as say, conducting local parliamentary elections in local villages, as opposed to a vehicle which can be used to spawn and create revolutionary parties and movements all over the world. Those who created social democracy did so in the form of preaching a series of dreams, values and promises. So the question now is: What is the dream that social democracy preaches today, and what kind of world are we struggling to create in its name?
Among western powers, the fate of social democracy in the global south warrants significant interest. Why? Because people of the third world view the west through one of two prisms: the first, through the lens of colonialism and its lasting legacy, and the second through its accomplishments in the way of helping to found modern civilisation and all that it brought with it in the way of inalienable social and political rights. Conservative and reactionary forces here in Egypt have always sought to trivialise these accomplishments by linking them to colonialism, rejecting what they brought in the way of gender equality, the outlawing of discrimination and the dissemination of civil rights, considering all of the above a form of sacrilege. Is it any shock then, that western colonial powers have cooperated with these conservative, reactionary movements? The traditional progressive powers in our country, in their struggle against colonialism, always made sure to clarify that this struggle did not emerge out of a disdain for basic civil rights or modern notions of humanitarianism. Fortunately, this position was reinforced, supported and disseminated by the progressive, anti-colonial forces in Europe. That being said, in order to combat the rise of discriminatory Islamist movements here in Egypt, who label the west as a society of infidels, who are inherently hostile to us in the global south, it is imperative that progressive, social democratic movements in Europe continue to grow, expand and regain their appeal. However, in the interest of pursuing this goal, I feel it is necessary to make clear to my European counterparts that previous mistakes made on their behalf, such as supporting repressive regimes like that of Mubarak, and the willingness of some to allow such regimes to be included as members of a broader global community of socialist democracies, are set to repeat themselves again unless my counterparts make a serious attempt to review and seek to apply within themselves the actual values of social democratic thought. For this to happen, serious analysis is required to identify what ideological grounds were used to justify making these mistakes, as we here in Egypt do not buy the claim that they were merely unintended transgressions made with good intentions.
If we can proceed from here, socialist democracy may in fact have a bright future throughout the world. However again, this future will not come if it does as a response to the type of question echoed by a prominent European social democrat who once asked: “What can we do for you?” Instead it must come as a response to the question: “What can we do together?” If we move from this point, then we in the global south, particularly those of us who have taken part in the Arab Spring, can benefit from the spread of socialist democracy and potentially regain some of the global appeal that we have lost, in the hopes of building a better future….hopefully.