Fundamentals of Change: Lessons from Ukraine and Egypt

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By Laila Elimam

This week, Ukrainians began voting for a new parliament at a defining phase when trust in the current government is waning. Analysts have described this as an election highly dependent upon the gains of the opposition, but many Ukrainians are still pessimistic. Preliminary election results have already shown President Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions in the lead, with over 30% of the vote.

Eight years ago, on November 22, 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the rigged elections between then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, which ultimately led to seventeen days of protest in the streets of Kiev. The Orange Revolution – as it became known – led to a re-election on December 27th of that same year, in which Yushchenko became Ukraine’s new President. Yushchenko quickly selected his fellow opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, as Prime Minister. But what was described as a momentous event for Ukraine’s democracy spiraled downwards with the presidential victory of Viktor Yanukovych against Yulia Tymoshenko in February 2010, and her subsequent imprisonment. Despite being regarded as unbiased by international observers, many believe the elections were rigged. The election, however, served as a marked reflection on the terrible economic conditions and internal political quarreling that caused the Orange Revolution’s leadership to falter. Kateryna Gaponova, who participated in the Orange Revolution and is currently a graduate student at the UCLA School of Public Health, expressed her disappointment in Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s leadership and commented that many in Ukraine do not like Yanukovych, but are also “afraid of uncertainty which comes [with] electing a new government.”

Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest is based on vague accusations alleging she abused her position as Prime Minister to make unfair gas deals with Russia, in addition to accusations regarding personal gains in her business in the 1990’s. European Union officials, as well as Russia, are frowning upon the arrest and political situation in Kiev as they express their disdain for President Yanukovych’s insincere political activities.

One year following Tymoshenko’s defeat, in February 2011, the former Prime Minister wrote an editorial addressed to Egyptians and Tunisians to learn from “Ukraine’s lessons” and pointed to the corruption of the judiciary as well as the loss of democratic freedoms that were acquired following the Orange Revolution. Perhaps the most distinguished point made by Tymoshenko is the need to maintain momentum following a revolution and more so, the fact that elections do not always prove that democracy has “prevailed.”

Tymoshenko’s warnings are particularly relevant for Egypt at this juncture. In a country where optimism was in full force following the January 25th uprising, a different path has “prevailed.” Despite the variation in the transition processes, political power struggles and stalemates are paralyzing change in both Ukraine and Egypt. Like Tymoshenko, several of Egypt’s former ministers and businessmen remain imprisoned under pending charges based on vague or unknown allegations. While some would argue that these figures contributed to the demise of political and economic life in Egypt, the legal process has been chaotic, at best, and more so, influenced by popular pressure and the desire for revenge based on former disputes. Regardless of whether or not the arrests are justified, this is not the right path for a healthy democracy. As Tymoshenko has noted, “democracy must be rooted in the rule of law.”

As Ukrainians are electing their new parliament, in Egypt, a constitutional committee made up of predominantly Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers has drawn heavy criticism. Religious clauses aside, the constitution provides the executive branch with significant powers. Naturally also, the process has been drawn out and strenuous, with actors from opposing sides of the political spectrum contending for influence. The potential disbanding of the committee, backed by liberals, is now in the hands of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Ziad Abdel Tawab, from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told The Washington Post that there will be a “‘confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Constitutional Court,’” likely to “‘linger.’”

The constitutional drafting process has further highlighted the desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to take over relevant positions of power – including the presidential victory in June 2012 – which has blurred initial optimism and left many Egyptians, feeling similar to Tymoshenko, “betrayed.” The question now is whether Egypt may be headed down a path similar to that of Ukraine, reverting back to a system resembling the old regime, with the Brotherhood as the new dominant force. Simply walking through the streets of Cairo or talking to Egyptians points to the difficulties they are currently facing. “The cost of food has gone up and the situation is worse now than the beginning,” one taxi driver told me last month as he drove through the crowded streets of Giza, “but you have to stay optimistic.” Likewise, a former UCLA student from Ukraine, who preferred to remain anonymous, informed me that citizens are hopeful for change. However, he added that Yanukovych has brought “Ukraine back to that initial stage of development as it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Regardless of the upcoming results for Ukraine and Egypt, there are some parallels between both countries that point to obvious morals and shared experiences. Perhaps most crucial is the need for democracy to be built upon fundamental values, including a well-functioning judiciary, and for leaders and revolutionaries alike to pay attention to the importance of social welfare and the well being of citizens during a political transition. In both countries, power hungry leaders have emerged, while the declining political and economic conditions have swayed initial optimism and contributed to a drop in morale among citizens.

At the onset of the Egyptian Revolution, Ukrainians expressed the happiness they felt for Egyptians, but also, the need for them to refer to the experience of the Orange Revolution and its aftermath. In both countries, the coming period will be crucial in determining the success or failure of fundamental elements of the transitions.

Laila Elimam is a first-year MPP student at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. She grew up in the Bay Area and studied and worked in Cairo for eight years before coming to UCLA. She is a co-editor with The Generation.

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