"Social democracy did not come to us translated, but with the needs of the moment," said Farid Zahran of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, addressing an international conference of social democratic politicians which concluded on 20 January in Cairo.
Zahran went on to say that in the midst of the political battles of the previous two years, his party, and other social democrats in Egypt, had hardly had time to consolidate a clear, independent idea of what social democracy in Egypt might look like.
The conference brought together senior representatives of Europe's established social democratic movement and those of nascent social democratic parties in the Arab world, and in the process, perhaps raised more questions than it answered.
While participants from both sides of the Mediterranean were certain that certain broad values of European social democracy – variously identified by participants as including peace, egalitarianism, and secularism – could be translated into Arab political contexts, no one was quite sure what that might mean in practice.
European social democracy arose in the late 19th century. Although now it is identified with relatively moderate center-left ideas, at that time its predominant sentiment was revolutionary, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were some of its most influential thinkers.
By calling themselves "social" democrats, they meant to imply that they were in favor of something more than just "political" democracy, that is, of a system of democracy which would be extended to other areas of life, including the economic.
Social democratic ideas became popular amongst Europe's industrial workers, and the association with the trade union movement continues to this day, albeit in a radically altered form.
When mainstream social democracy voted to support the First World War, more radical socialists split away, creating a divide which continues to this day.
Social Democrats first entered parliaments across Europe between the world wars, but it was after World War II that they were to establish themselves as one of the main poles of political power in Europe. It was at this time, in the context of the global post-war economic boom, that parliamentary social democracy established itself as the advocates and defenders of the "welfare state," a program of government incorporating free, universal education, healthcare, and unemployment insurance.
The social democratic movement increasingly related to workers through "corporatism," which sought to involve trade unions and workers' representatives in the development of economic policy and business planning.
The welfare state and corporatism are still relatively strong in France, Germany, and the Nordic countries, but even in these countries they are weakened, and seem to be on the retreat. The workers movement struggles to assert itself politically, and the global dominance of neoliberalism puts ideological and economic pressure on the sorts of fiscal policy necessary to maintain welfare states.
This in turn has placed pressure on social democratic parties to either move to the right or cede power to right-wing alternatives. In many countries, political debates over immigration have sharpened the pressure still further, as politicians from all parts of the political spectrum compete to secure the votes of citizens hostile to immigration.
The current global economic crisis has already led to swinging cuts in welfare provision in Britain, and reductions are expected in France. In recent years, the “Hartz Vier” cuts restricted income support in Germany, and the Swedish national education system has been opened to participation of private companies.
"The social democratic order from Europe cannot be implemented in Arab countries [because they are] are so different, and also because the social democratic model in Europe is in crisis," French Socialist Party MP Jean-Christophe Cambadélis told Egypt Independent.
If egalitarianism is the goal, and the welfare state is the means, Egyptian social democrats, and those elsewhere in the region, are seeking not only to emulate a model which is in crisis, but to do so under what are arguably highly unpropitious circumstances. Europe after World War II was also massively in debt, but the international community in the form of the United States was willing to finance high-growth state spending programs in order to shore up demand for American goods, discourage social upheaval, and stave off Soviet influence. The world war had also provided a wealth of new technology, ripe for commercial exploitation and encouraged the public to accrue savings. For some powers the colonies were also a source of wealth.
None of this is true of Egypt today.
Yet for all that, the atmosphere at the conference was enthusiastic.
“We need a mixture of capitalism and socialism, no?” asked Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi in his typical avuncular manner, as if the answer were the most obvious thing in the world. “For Egypt, it means we can't continue with the same economic plan of [Presidents] Mubarak and Morsy, because they have the same philosophy: the open market mechanism. We don't believe in it. We need some kind of mixture, a social market.”
He stopped to have his photo taken with yet another admirer. “A real push for both public and private sector!” he concluded, before making his way cheerfully through the crowd which had congregated around the canapes.
Several participants stressed the correspondence between the basic values of social democracy as they see them, and the goals of the Egyptian revolution: bread, freedom, and social justice. Many also stressed the virtues of social democracy as an idea which could counteract religious or ethnic sectarianism, while stressing shared economic interests amongst different groups.
If one issue encapsulates the interconnectedness of the social democratic projects in Europe and the Arab world, perhaps it is immigration. Cambadélis of the Parti Socialiste says that economic development in countries outside Europe is the only sustainable way for economic migration – the issue which has proved so destructive to European social democracy at the polls – to be curbed. And that means the leadership of parties committed to both economic growth and social justice.
Urban Ahlin, deputy chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Swedish parliament, and a member of the Swedish Social Democrats agrees. He also argues that the EU's Common Agricultural Policy – which harms the ability of farmers in the Third World to export to Europe – “is a totally screwed system, hurting people all around the world,” and retarding development. He says it needs to go.
The persistent criticism of Egypt's secularists, social democrats included, is that they are elitist and poorly organized, and consequently have little prospect of challenging the Islamists for the support of those whom they claim to be working on behalf of.
One SDP MP insulted a Salafi preacher last year by calling him a “vegetable seller,” hardly a line likely to engender support amongst people who do such work for a living.
Maha Abdel Nasser, deputy secretary general of the SDP is frank when questioned about the social strata most of her activists hail from: “the upper middle class.” But, she says, that's changing, and 18 months after its foundation, the party now has 70 branches in 20 governorates, although funding can be hard to come by, and activists are inexperienced. “It will take more time to get out to village level,” she says.
When Ahlin reflects on the history of his own party, one of the most successful anywhere in the world, he sees in Egypt's working class the potential basis for a mass movement.
“In Europe and in the Nordic countries, during industrialization the ordinary people had pretty much the same. Now it looks different. The labor market is more split into different segments. But in Egypt, the working class does have very great similarities among themselves, there is a big layer of people that can easily recognize that 'we belong to the same group, and we need to increase our economic chances in this society,” he argues.
Social democracy changed a great deal in the century and a half of its life in Europe, and its content varies across the continent from one country to another. What social democracy might come to mean, in Egypt is extremely uncertain.
“It's up to Egyptian social democrats and others in the Arab world to come up with smart solutions,” says Ahlin.