Egyptians go to the polls Monday in a vote that is expected to turn the country's military leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, into its next president. Chilean author and intellectual Ariel Dorfman sees a number of troubling similarities between Gen. el-Sissi's rise to power in Egypt, and the rise of another military strongman, Chilean general-turned-president Augusto Pinochet. 

The Sunday Edition

On CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on May 25:

  • Michael Enright: How police record checks can harm the innocent.
  • Interview with Thomas Piketty: The rich are getting super-richer, and we need to address it as a society.
  • Documentary: The strange case of Michael Mvogo, the labyrinthine story of a man who came to Canada illegally, landed in jail on a minor charge, and who has been kept there for seven and a half years.
  • The novel cure: Are there remedies for what ails us between the covers of a book? Interview with Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, authors of "The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You."

"The first was the fact that you had a democratically elected government, and a military who was overthrowing it, and once again censorship, and once again tortured bodies in jail, and once again lying," Dorfman told Michael Enright during a feature interview for this week's The Sunday Edition.

"There was even the fact that el-Sissi had sunglasses through which he glared at everyone, just like Pinochet had done."

General el-Sissi was the leader and public face of a military coup that forced Egypt's last president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, from power last July.  

At least 638 Egyptians, and possibly as many as 2,600, were killed on a single day last August, six weeks after the coup, as police tried to clear Morsi supporters from two squares in Cairo. Another 4,000 were injured. In March, 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested at those clashes were sentenced to death - for attacking police. 

"It was very troubling to see that history was horribly repeating itself, that once again a democratic experiment that was so important had been brought to an abrupt end by unelected soldiers," Dorfman said.

Dorfman served as a cultural advisor to Chilean President Salvador Allende, whom Gen. Pinochet deposed in 1973. Allende's presidency was controversial; it was the first-ever democratically elected Marxist government. Richard Nixon's White House worried that Chile would become an outpost for Fidel Castro's Communist Cuba, the first in a wave of far-left governments sweeping to power across South America.

Four decades later, Morsi's rise to power was also controversial because of his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that had been outlawed for decades under former dictator Hosni Mubarek.

Ariel Dorfman

Playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman was the cultural adviser to socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende when General Pinochet staged a bloody military coup to overthrow the government. (Ho/Canadian Press)

Even though Morsi was legitimately elected, his presidency was hugely divisive within Egypt, especially among the country's secular middle class. Critics accused him of hoarding power and targeting opponents. Activists said human rights in the country actually worsened under his presidency. 

"I am in no way an enthusiast of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they were elected by the people of Egypt," Dorfman said. "And if you don't like the guy who is in, you vote him out in the next election. That is supposed to be the way democracies work. 

"When there are faults or failures in democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less democracy; not more repression, less repression; not less freedom, more freedom."

Dorfman said the similarities between Egypt today and Chile four decades ago do not end with the repressive qualities of both military regimes. In fact, he argues that Chile could provide a road map back to democracy for Egypt.   

"We ourselves in Chile did not create an alliance with those who were democratic but who were opposed to us," he said. "And Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood certainly did everything they could to alienate everyone who was secular in the country, everyone who was liberal, all the young people who were for the revolution, who were for change and the Arab Spring. They began to persecute them."

300px-ap-augusto-pinochet

Under the rule of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, pictured here at a 1974 press conference in Santiago, a quarter of a million people were detained for their political beliefs, 3,000 were killed or disappeared, and many more were tortured. (AP)

It took 15 years for President Pinochet's opponents to finally unite - but they eventually did, around a national referendum.

The vote, held on October 5, 1988, decided whether Pinochet should be allowed to extend his rule for another eight years: The "No" side won, ending Pinochet's rule.

Dorfman said Egyptians opposed to military rule need a similarly unified campaign.

"The only solution I see is to bring together all the forces that want democracy in Egypt, both religious and those who are secular, both those who are with the Muslim Brotherhood and those who have opposed it in the past," he said.

"If you have a large alliance of people who want something to happen, then eventually ... you are able to defeat dictatorship through non-violent means."

[Listen to the full interview with Ariel Dorfman, covering dictatorships and democracy, the rule of law, and his hopes and fears for the future of Egypt, on The Sunday Edition's website, in the link at the top-left of this page, or on CBC radio on May 25 starting at 9 a.m. Eastern.]