Egyptians’ lack of “personal space” = super democracy?

Despite the less than ideal voter turnout, Egypt’s first free referendum has delivered the final blow to the unfounded (and frankly racist) notion that “Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy.”

Me and my "minority" friends all voted "No"

Of course, having the capacity to freely vote is by no means the sole indicator of true democracy. But what Egypt witnessed in the three or four days leading up to the referendum revealed something key: for those who planned to vote, they could speak of little else other than the referendum, its implications, and the politics behind it.

But I don’t think this degree of discussion and debate took place only because of the novelty of the voting experience for us as a people. There is a cultural factor at play here, one that does not really exist in typically western democracies:

We Egyptians talk to strangers.

Whether standing in line or sitting in a microbus, Egyptians talk to each other. More crucially, asking strangers personal questions (something I tend find quite annoying) is by no means frowned upon here – unlike, say, in Europe. Moreover, the idea that your political stances are something personal to begin with, is even less so recognized.

That’s to say, the notion of “personal space” goes largely unregistered for most Egyptians.

The upshot of this is that if politics is in the air, strangers talk to each other about it: from those who cross paths at the urinals to those waiting for the bus, spontaneous political debate is not uncommon for Egyptians, especially these days.

Not to sound too prejudicial, but I don’t think this social force (and by force I mean the random conversations/debates that result from our general lack of concern for the notion of “personal space”) exists in typical Western democracies. Yet the wealth of discussions this force generates may be revolutionary in itself: in times of politics, it will press all strangers alike to become more aware of their stances and more able to justify their own opinions – surely a foundation for a deep and meaningful democracy.

If this is true, could this social factor mean that this aspect of our culture makes it particularly fertile for a kind of “super democracy” of truly engaged citizens?

I don’t know, but I do know there is an interesting counter-argument to all this, and it comes in the form of this question: Why are the world’s technically best democracies (specifically Scandinavia, Switzerland, among others) also stereotypically the ones with societies most concerned/obsessive with “personal space” and the right to “individuality”?

That is, why might it be frowned upon to start chatting politics with a stranger in Zurich?

I think this may all come down to a point about human nature: it might just be that we humans simply lack the ability to truly tolerate people with different opinions than our own while simultaneously being all warm and open towards them.

If this is generally true, we are met with two options: we either destroy the people who have different opinions than our own (along with any hope of democracy), or we try to accept our differences by emphasizing the idea of individuality and the right to a “personal space” and privacy generally.

This may be true to the extent that it seems countries where privacy and individuality are not encouraged (where large families live together/acceptable life style choices are limited) don’t tend to be democratic. On the other hand, countries that celebrate individuality and appear a little cold with their consecrated personal spaces seem to have established some kind of  a democratic process.

I am not advocating either, but it seems to be an interesting observation. At the least, it would be very odd (and arguably sad) if it turned out that in order for Egypt to become truly democratic, we would find that we have to give up our inquisitive and often nosy approach to others in the streets, queues and buses.

It might just turn out to be that being all open and easygoing with strangers is simply, and quite bizarrely, undemocratic.

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4 Responses to Egyptians’ lack of “personal space” = super democracy?

  1. taha says:

    nice post! some very provocative points. At this moment I tend to hope or lean towards your notion of a ‘super-democracy’ where all the debates, discussions, probing and inquisitiveness lead to a better informed and more critically engaged society.

    I would imagine a people where there is regular public jousting or sparring amongst strangers that end amicably and more importantly end with each person carrying on with their day.

    It seems it would mean a more collaborative democracy. One with less walls. And perhaps a bit like twitter, where it seems everyone is constantly invading everyones personal space.

  2. taha says:

    I wonder about countries that are said to have similar cultural tendencies and are usually regarded as upstanding democracies. Countries in South America like Chile or Argentina? Or more centrally, Mexico? What about a place like Greece or other countries along North Mediterranean rim?

    • HZ says:

      Nice Qs. I agree about the similar cultural tendencies you point out, but the central difference remains: individualism, and specifically the variety of lifestyle choices available to citizens of these countries, is vastly more prevalent compared to here. They (and I speak very broadly here) may still be relatively “warm” and easygoing with strangers like here, but there’s still that fundamental distance of “you do your thing and I do mine” … and don’t think that’s really rooted itself here.

      Actually Argentina is a good example of that: every attempt at democracy since the 1910s onwards was always foiled by a coup followed by dictatorship. You might argue that some kind of stable democracy finally established itself in the 80s only after the rise of individualism and its consequences.

  3. nevsh says:

    I just discovered your blog via Tarek on Twitter…looking forward to reading your articles!

    Also, Taha now has an online presence! Great to see 😉

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