Egypt’s new political dawn

Egypt’s new political dawn

An understated cartoon by Amr Okasha published in the online version of the opposition newspaper al-Dustour, aptly expressed the pessimism that many people have about the upcoming parliamentary elections. 

Okasha’s cartoon shows the distinctive dome of the Maglis al-Sha‘b – the Peoples’ Assembly. A smirking general standing in front of it. The caption says “Businessman’s Assembly (formerly People’s Assembly).” 

As the cartoon implies, no doubt seats in the parliament can be bought (as of course is also the case in the American Congress). But more importantly, whatever the percentage of opposition candidates allowed to take parliamentary seats by the ruling National Democratic Party, the neoliberal businessmen’s agenda will remain untouched.

Privatisation of public services will continue, inevitably pricing many out of “markets” for services they had formerly received from the state. Society will be more sharply polarised between the few who benefit spectacularly from free market fundamentalism and the many who are increasingly impoverished by it.

An effective minister of parliament can bring some public or private money to his or her district, but nobody has the slightest expectation that parliamentary elections will create momentum towards democracy. The protection of powerful economic interests at the expense of democracy is business as usual in the logic of a neoliberal regime.

Possibility of transition

But this does not mean that interest in Egypt’s November 2011 parliamentary election is low. The election itself is not the real story. It is rather the possibility of a transition from the Mubarak era to something else that has powerfully caught the public’s imagination.

In this wider context, interest in politics is intense. Jaded intellectuals who would otherwise consider this sort of politics a bit vulgar argue vociferously about the fortunes of ElBaradei and the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). One sees such unfamiliar sights as men standing in the street having heated discussions about the latest headline in an opposition paper. An unfamiliar excitement is in the air.

The most important aspect of the parliamentary election is not how many seats are won on election day by opposition parties (or how many the NDP decides to let in the door). It is the decisions made by the major players to either participate in the NDP’s rigged game, or to boycott the elections altogether. 

The players

The major players are not political parties. One is Mohamed ElBaradei, the retired head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is admired as a native son who reached the highest levels of international diplomacy, and stood up to the Americans on the issue of nuclear weapons inspections in Iraq. 

ElBaradei has skillfully built a network of local advisors, and until recently has blunted any accusations that he is out of touch with Egypt after a career spent abroad. The NDP is alleged to have begun an offensive against ElBaradei’s character by anonymously publishing photos on Facebook of his daughter in a bikini and the family swilling alcohol.

ElBaradei is thought to have presidential aspirations, though he has never said so unambiguously. He has, however, formed a non-partisan “National Association for Change” which aims to reform the constitution, most crucially an article that effectively prohibits independent candidates for running in presidential elections. Whether or not ElBaradei ever becomes president, he is immensely important as a symbol of alternatives to the continuation of the current regime.

Ayman Nur of the Ghad (tomorrow) party played something of the same role in the 2005 election, and he was able to ride the momentum of the Kefaya movement (kefaya means “enough,” i.e. of rule by Mubarak, his son Gamal who is being groomed to succeed his father in the presidency, and the NDP).  But Nur was a former MP himself, and too much of a political insider to inspire the same hopes as ElBaradei. When Nur was incarcerated after the 2005 election on blatantly trumped up corruption charges there was no popular uprising in his defence. 

Untouched but in touch

By contrast, ElBaradei is seen as both a genuine outsider untouched by the rampant corruption of the Mubarak era and, thus far, as genuinely in touch with the political frustrations of average Egyptians. It might not be as easy for the state to push ElBaradei off the political stage as it was to neutralize Ayman Nur.

ElBaradei has already declared publicly that individuals and political parties should boycott the parliamentary election. 

This, he believes, will strip the NDP of all legitimacy and force a turn to true democracy. The country now awaits the decision on boycott of the other important non-party participant in the elections, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB has not been allowed to form a political party (though some of its adherents spin this as a tacit arrangement whereby the MB stays formally out of politics in exchange for the government ceding “the people” to it). 

However MB candidates ran as independents in the 2005 election, and currently occupy 20% of the seats in parliament. It would cause a political earthquake if they joined the boycott, but it is unlikely that they will do so. Nor is it likely that secular opposition parties such as the liberal Wafd or the socialist Tagammu’ parties will stay on the sidelines.

Hereditary succession?

Hovering over the entire parliamentary election process is the spectre of taurith – of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency. Gamal Mubarak has no natural constituency. He would be the first post-independence president to have attended a private university (the American University in Cairo) rather than a state institution. He never had to work his way up through the vast political patronage system of the Egyptian state, and he has never held a meaningful ministerial post. 

No doubt there are sincere Gamal Mubarak supporters somewhere, and a somewhat larger number of Egyptian citizens who support him as “the devil we know.” However it would be fair to say that most of the country loathes the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency. Hence the real issue in this election is not how many seats opposition parties might win, but how the political players position themselves through the election for the upcoming challenge of ElBaradei.

Dreaming of real democracy

It is still unclear whether the elder Mubarak is ready to retire. The presidential election is scheduled for 2012, and it is not inconceivable that Hosni Mubarak will announce that he is game for another term in office. 

However even if he does defer the expected attempt to handoff to Gamal, ElBaradei’s constitutional challenge will not disappear, and it ultimately implies a rejection of the endlessly extended “State of Emergency” law that has been in place since Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination in 1981. It is the State of Emergency that underpins the Mubarak regime and the rule of the NDP. 

Hence one might be able to posit a scenario in which the state is left with no choice but to throw the political system – both the parliament and the presidency – open to true competition. The emergency law would be abolished, state torture and police brutality would be curbed, and corruption would be tamed. 

However one can just as easily see this scenario leading full circle back to Amr Okasha’s cartoon. Would a freely elected government follow the businessmen’s neoliberal agenda? If not, would the businessmen and the army allow it to stay in power? Probably not. It is almost impossible to imagine the NDP allowing enough MB candidates into parliament to govern, but if the unthinkable happened, how would the United States react? 

Brutal sanctions imposed on the democratically elected Islamist government in Gaza perhaps give a hint as to how the US would deal with a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. A similar policy applied to Egypt would cause immense suffering, but the US has shown itself capable of such actions. 

If Gaza is not enough of a warning, one recalls the time when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked to comment on allegations that American-led sanctions against Iraq had caused the deaths of up to half a million children, she did not dispute either the claim or the numbers. Instead she replied that, “we think the price is worth it.”

Hopefully no such price will ever be levied on the Egyptian public for daring to dream of real democracy, but it cannot be denied that the coming cycle of elections will be both exhilarating and perilous.

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.