While democracy is generally defined as that "institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote,"1 I argue in this article that in the absence of grass-roots political institutions, civil society is the only bridge between the public and the elite. Moreover, it is my contention that a strong civil society appears to be more important than electoral rules in encouraging a stable system.
Historically, Egypt has had a very rich associational life. Yet, because of the "Algeria complex," secular leaders of the civil society fear the Islamist extremists more than the government does. Their advocacy of issues that infuriate the Islamists make them more vulnerable than the government to Islamist opposition. I argue that, as a consequence, secular opposition leaders have sought government protection, which in tum has diminished their efficacy. We are thus faced with a structural problem that paralyzes the prospects for the institutionalization of conflict and the working of democracy and creates a void that did not exist before.
I also focus on the fact that in order to nurture a strong democracy, cultural factors are even more important than economic ones. What is needed to provide a basis for democracy is not merely efficient democratic institutions and electoral systems. A supportive culture must undergird these institutions, a culture of tolerance of the "other." The citizenry and the political elites must accept the rights of opposition parties and the idea of a ''dialogue'' in which different perspectives coexist and in which minorities and other opposition groups have a functional role.
The real payoff of an effective national dialogue would be less in the immediate institutional consequences and more in acculturating elites and the public to the notion of political tolerance and political consensus as opposed to power politics.
CHALLENGES FACING CIVIL SOCIETY
As Huntington, Lipset and others argue,2 the world has experienced a "third wave" of democratization since the mid-1970s. The wave began in Southern Europe, spread to Latin America and parts of Asia, and then moved on to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This third wave is striking not only for its geographic diversity but also for its cultural diversity. It encompasses an extraordinary range of religions, cultures and civilizations.
The Arab world has not been completely left out of this process. While authoritarian regimes still predominate in the region, several countries have taken steps toward political liberalization. For example, parliamentary elections have been carried out over the past five years in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and Morocco. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary have been strengthened, as reflected in the increasing assertiveness of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court as well as the establishment of constitutional courts in Lebanon and Yemen. Even in the states of the Gulf, regimes have begun establishing "advisory councils" that provide a mechanism for elite participation in politics and may eventually develop into democratic institutions.
Egypt, in particular, has taken important steps toward a more democratic regime. The country began opening its political system in the mid-1970s by allowing the emergence of multiple parties and the holding of elections for local councils and parliament. The judiciary, which was seriously weakened during the Nasser period, has been revived to the point where the Administrative Court regularly challenges the actions of the executive branch, and the Supreme Constitutional Court overturns important laws and decrees.3
In addition, Egyptian civil society has become more vibrant and diverse since the 1970s. It now includes 13 political parties, more than a dozen major professional syndicates and numerous research institutes, human-rights organizations and charitable groups. Indeed, of all the factors favoring the development of democracy in Egypt, the revival of civil society is the most encouraging.
Traditionally, Egypt has had a rich associational life. In the interwar period, for example, the country had a wide variety of political, cultural and economic groups, ranging in sophistication from the Wafd party and its offshoots, to the myriad informal seminars (nadwas) held by intellectuals and artists in the cafes of Cairo. This rich network of nongovernmental groups was suppressed during the Nasser period. Under Nasser, the state sought to dominate all aspects of social life. Instead of multiple parties and diverse cultural groups, we had large, monolithic, state-run organizations such as the Vanguard Group and the Arab Socialist Union. The country still suffers from the legal structures created during this time, particularly Law 32 of 1964, which grants the government sweeping power over the formation, financing and leadership of all nongovernmental organizations. This law is clearly incompatible with developing an autonomous civil society.
The continued existence of Law 32 illustrates a curious tension in the development of Egyptian civil society. As mentioned earlier, the number of organized groups has proliferated dramatically since the end of the Nasser period. Some estimates place the number as high as 14,000. Yet, at the same time, the government retains Law 32. In other words, the government retains its desire to control these groups. The regime is still unwilling to allow civil society the autonomy needed to function freely. Thus, we have a regime which allows a proliferation of groups and permits a wide range of cultural, political and social activity within them, yet it reserves for itself the power to rein in or even eliminate this activity at any time.
In short, the regime wants to open up the political and social system of Egypt, but not too far. It wants to allow a proliferation of groups and a thriving debate, but it does not want these developments to run "out of control" from the regime's standpoint. From one perspective, the regime lacks sufficient confidence in its popularity and legitimacy to allow open debate. Put differently, the regime remains sufficiently suspicious of its opponents' intentions that it is unwilling to allow them any unfettered action.
Thus, Egyptian civil society is at a crossroads. The people of Egypt are eager and willing to develop a rich and dynamic associational life, which could become the foundation of a strong democracy. However, the regime remains fearful of what such political and social activity may bring. The experience of Algeria, of course, looms in the background of this discussion. Many officials fear that some opposition groups (particularly Islamists) proclaim fealty to democratic principles merely for tactical purposes, as did the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. Once in power, these groups would discard any semblance of democracy and seek to impose a religious order through the instruments of the state. The Algerian experience has led to a profound cynicism on the part of the Egyptian regime toward all social groups, particularly those with an Islamist bent. This phenomenon, which we might call the "Algeria complex," fuels the regime's sense of uncertainty and suspicion and, in tum, prevents the regime from allowing civil society to develop along its natural course.
The key to overcoming this "Algeria complex" is the gradual building of trust between the regime and the citizenry. On the regime's part, the government must come to realize that civil society can be trusted to play a responsible and constructive role in governance. The people, on the other hand, must come to regard the government, despite its many flaws, as a legitimate and sincere promoter of the public interest.
THE RELEVANCE OF A NATIONAL DIALOGUE
Egypt took an important step toward attempting to build trust between the government and the civil society during a series of meetings known as the National Dialogue, which took place in late June and early July of this year. The question is, was the dialogue a genuine attempt by the regime to broaden political participation in Egypt? Or was it merely a tactic to create a united internal front against terrorism and to satisfy Western calls for democratization? The idea for a National Dialogue was raised by President Mubarak during his reelection campaign in October 1993. He called for a conference of all political trends in Egypt to discuss the major problems facing the country.
The dialogue finally began eight months later. The regime held the dominant position in organizing and carrying out the dialogue. The meeting was convened by a presidential decree, which set the agenda and identified the 240-odd participants. As was expected, the list of participants consisted primarily of members of the ruling National Democratic party. However, it also included the leaders of three opposition parties (the Islamist Labor party, the Liberal party and the leftist Tagamo party), as well as several prominent Islamists. Some important political actors did not participate in the event; the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was excluded, and the Wafd and Nasserist parties chose to boycott the dialogue on the grounds that it failed to address basic issues of constitutional and electoral reform.4 Despite these problems, the National Dialogue represented the first sustained, serious discussion between the government and its opponents since the 1952 revolution. As such, its importance should not be underestimated.
The format of the Dialogue was straightforward: the participants were divided into committees that discussed politics, the economy and society. Each committee met at least 20 times over the course of 11 days, and developed recommendations that were forwarded to the general assembly of the Dialogue and then on to the president. He will now choose which recommendations to act upon.
Among the recommendations, the most prominent was a strong condemnation of terrorism. It is clear that the government's primary motive for convening the Dialogue was to achieve an unequivocal public consensus condemning acts of political violence. Another important recommendation suggested adopting a system of proportional representation in parliament, rather than the current system based on election of individual candidates from each district. The idea was also aired of having an ''ombudsman., replace the socialist prosecutor's position. While the recommendations of the National Dialogue may have a significant impact on Egypt's development, I believe the Dialogue' s lasting importance lies more in the process and the attitudes that it engendered.
During the course of the Dialogue, the government participated in a serious and detailed exchange of ideas with its opponents. Through this process, the government learned that the opposition is capable of serious and responsible discussion and that it can be trusted to make a useful contribution to public debate. The Dialogue has helped the government to realize that it could compromise with its opponents without creating instability. For the opposition, participation in the dialogue showed that the government was willing to listen with some courtesy to the views of its opponents and was prepared to engage in a serious exchange of ideas. This openness and tolerance by the government is in sharp contrast to its past attitude, in which the government generally regarded the opposition with disdain and indifference.
In short, the National Dialogue furthered the process of building trust and cooperation between the government and its opponents. If the Dialogue is regularly reconvened-and if it is enlarged to include a broader representation of the main tendencies in the political arena-it may well provide the setting in which the '' Algeria complex'' mentioned earlier can be permanently overcome, clearing the way for the development of a more vigorous democracy. This implies that the impact of a national dialogue should not be assessed merely by reviewing the written list of recommendations that it produced. The informal bonds that emerge between the regime and its opponents may well be more important than any formal documents that are produced.
Furthermore, the Dialogue allowed most of the major political actors to develop the habit and mentality of democracy, i.e., the habit of the regime's discussing issues with its critics rather than suppressing them and the habit of the opposition's engaging in dialogue and compromise with a regime that it opposes rather than simply declaring the regime corrupt and illegitimate. The Dialogue may well provide the setting in which the government and its opponents work out a modus vivendi for continued progress toward democracy.
We should not be overly optimistic, however, about the prospects for the Dialogue, nor should we ignore the formidable challenges that Egypt must overcome before a viable democracy takes root. As noted earlier, important groups such as the Wafd, the Nasserists and the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate and clearly must if democracy is to take shape in Egypt. In addition, there is no mechanism for implementing the Dialogue's recommendations, nor is there a clear plan for reconvening it.
In addition, the Dialogue did not discuss several important conceptual issues that must be addressed before Egypt can continue its progress toward democracy. Among these is the position of the secularists and the religious minorities, and also of non-religious and many religious Muslims, that religious and political beliefs must be kept separate. All these groups have been rightfully concerned by the rise of political Islam in Egypt. Though Islamic civilization has a long tradition of respecting the religious rights of minorities, there is no guarantee that the Islamic politicians and intellectuals who shape political debate in Egypt will respect this tradition. Indeed, the attacks on secular intellectuals-the murder of the popular writer Farag Foda in 1993, the vicious campaigns against scholars such as Nasser Abu Zeid and Said al-Ashmawy and the latest attack on Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz-raise fears in the nonIslamist community that the legacy of religious and intellectual tolerance that characterizes Islamic civilization is being steadily eroded by extremists. In this climate, democratization is not an altogether appealing prospect for non-Islamists, for if democracy takes the form of unrestrained majority rule, members of this group may well find themselves discriminated against.5
There are certainly many other issues to discuss regarding Egypt's future as a democracy. The challenge, for example, of incorporating political Islam into the democratic process without provoking the fears of secularists must be addressed. In addition, the question of how to more thoroughly include women in Egyptian democracy needs careful thought and discussion. These are just a few topics that future national dialogues might consider in order to allay the concerns of these different groups.
I want to close with one final observation about the impact of the Algerian experience on the development of Egyptian civil society. Ideally, a key contribution of civil society to democracy lies in its willingness to serve as a constructive critic of the regime and the state. In a healthy civil society, intellectuals, artists, businessmen and others all feel free to identify flaws in the government's conduct and to use their groups to rectify these flaws. However, the Algerian experience has led to a striking muteness on the part of many Egyptian civil-society leaders. Secular leaders in civil society have come to rely on the regime for protection from Islamic extremists. Their very survival depends on the regime's capacity to maintain public order and security. As a consequence, secularists are very reluctant to criticize the regime or take any steps that might lead to its weakening, for fear of providing an opportunity for extremist violence. Thus, we face the rather odd situation in which Rifaat Said, the general secretary of the opposition (leftist) Tagamo party, supported President Mubarak's reelection last October on the grounds that all the likely alternatives to Mubarak would be hostile to secular intellectuals like himself and his followers in Tagamo. Fear of Islamist violence has led the secular opposition to move closer to the regime and to lose much of its character as an opposition.
Other civil-society groups-artistic associations and some professional syndicates-have a similar fear of the alternatives to Mubarak and thus have become supporters of the regime by default. While this phenomenon bolsters the president's popularity, it does not bode well for the development of civil society. The possibility of Islamist violence-of a repeat of the Algerian experience-has created an atmosphere of fundamental political uncertainty. In this atmosphere, many civil-society leaders exercise self-censorship in their interaction with the government, reluctant to take any step that may weaken the regime that they rely on for protection. In some respects, civil society is becoming the unwilling ally of the regime, rather than an articulate and tenacious critic or a mechanism for institutionalizing conflict. Such a development may perpetuate the corporatist traditions of Egypt, rather than nurturing the strong democracy we all seek.
Whether civil society will be reinvigorated continues to depend significantly on the commitment, behavior and particularly the ''social imagination'' of political leaders and groups. In fact, should future national dialogues be reconvened, we may see the early stages of cooperation and informal pacts that characterized the transition to democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Spain and Brazil. We must continue to build on what has been achieved. We cannot afford to be paralyzed by fear or futility; the stakes are too high. For what is democracy-building after all, if it is not a process of institutionalizing competition?
1 For elaboration, see Seymour Martin Upset, "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited," American Sociological Review, 1994, vol. 59 (February, pp. 1-22); also, Robert Dahl, lifter the Revolution: Authority in a Good Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1970).
2 Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1991); also Larry Diamond, Juan Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Politics in Developing Countries, Comparing Experiences with Democracy (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990).
3 Both parliaments of 1984 and 1987 were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court and were dissolved.
4 It had been announced that only legalized parties would participate in the Dialogue. However, individual Islamists attended through their membership in either the professional syndicates or the Liberal and Labor parties. (See Ros al-Yossef, February 14, 1994, where Mohammed Heikal warns against the establishment in Egypt of a political party on religious grounds.)
5 In one of the early studies on public opinion and Arab unity conducted by Saad Eddine Ibrahim (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1980, pp. 79-94), the concern for democracy and political participation was rated sixth out of seven "most important issues" that concerned Arab intellectuals and was seen as a major challenge by only 5.4 percent. In a similar study conducted in 1990, only 11 percent mentioned democratization as a major challenge. (See Diaa el Din Zaher, "On Elite Thinking about the Future of Education,'' Amman: Arab Thought Forum, 1990, pp. 105-7.) The other issues that had priority in order of importance were the economy, technology, environment, demography, social issues, Arab disunity and external threats, including that of Israel.