Looking backward, looking forward

Looking backward, looking forward

At the threshold of a new year Egypt seems to be straddling two eras: that of a now decrepit political order, the life expectancy of which ended years ago but is still clinging tenaciously to life, and that of something that is still embryonic.

As difficult as it is to predict what will happen to this large and amazing country of ours, it is patently obvious that the Egyptian political arena is rife with conflict between forces dependent upon the old order and determined to keep it alive by all means, including life-support in the ICU, and forces that are eager to pull the plug and prepare the ground to greet the newborn.

Until recently, the current political order in Egypt, which has its roots in the July 1952 Revolution, has shown a remarkable ability to reproduce itself and, hence, to survive. Its success in this rested on its ability to control and manipulate political and security-related dynamics, in order to regulate social and economic factors, thus achieving a form of harmony between domestic and external pressures. However, this method has gradually corroded to the extent that it has now long passed hope of repair.

The 1952 Revolution gave rise to a political system essentially characterised by the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual (the president of the republic) and a ruling elite that held a tight grip over all aspects of political life through a single-party system and a bureaucracy operating under that party”s protection; and, lastly, through a powerful state-controlled media establishment. Since the revolution was spearheaded by the military, the military establishment became the effective guardian of the revolutionary order and the storehouse from which the regime derived its most important personnel, especially those in executive posts.

This system — theoretically — facilitates the self-perpetuation of the rule of the military, since the constitution allows the president to choose, independently and without restrictions, his vice- president who, in the event of the death or incapacitation of the president, would become the next president. The unwritten provision was that the vice-president had to be selected from the military, thus, reigns of government were passed on smoothly from Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Anwar El-Sadat and then to Hosni Mubarak. Since major political transitions in Egypt hinge upon the figures at the pinnacle of the order and since the death of Nasser (by natural causes) and of Sadat (by assassination) occurred suddenly and unexpectedly, the existence of a vice-president furnished a kind of “constitutional” safety valve for containing power struggle in the wake of a president”s demise. This safety valve does not exist under the Mubarak regime.

Armed with the laurels and political weight derived from his achievements in the October 1973 War, president Sadat sought to introduce several fundamental changes into the Egyptian political system. However his attempts to pave the way for the re-emergence of the multi-party system fell short of their aim and by the time he died he had effectively done no more than found a political party, led by himself and that was little more than an extension of the monolithic state party that had existed under Nasser.

Although Mubarak did not fundamentally modify the political system he had inherited, he has distinguished himself from his predecessors by two significant and potentially dangerous matters. The first is his stubborn resistance to naming a vice- president throughout his quarter of a century of rule. The second is allowing his son to play a high- profile role in politics, which, in turn, has given rise to the increasingly widespread suspicion of the existence of a design to groom the son to succeed him in the presidency. Against this backdrop there emerged a political movement opposed to any scenario of hereditary succession.

The majority of the Egyptians would have no objection to giving Gamal Mubarak every chance to fulfil his political ambitions, on the condition that his pursuit takes place within a truly democratic framework that ensures equal opportunity for all. Unfortunately, the train of events over the past two years leave little room for doubt that the constitutional amendments that were introduced have but one aim: to shoe the president”s son into the presidency without a serious rival. Article 76 of the constitution was amended so as to permit for multi-candidate presidential elections but upon application of its provisions only a handful of nominees managed to field themselves.

Among these are Ayman Nour who is now languishing in prison and Noaman Gomaa who was later ousted from the party he headed by an internal coup. The legislative elections that were held soon afterwards awarded, as usual, a very comfortable majority to the ruling party, which proceeded to pass through the legislature the other constitutional amendments needed to clear the way for Gamal Mubarak”s rising political star. That the constitution stipulates that a presidential candidate has to have been a member of his party”s executive leadership for at least a full year before presidential elections are held was only a minor hurdle. The NDP simply took advantage of its last convention to modify its bylaws so as to merge its political bureau and its secretariat (of which Gamal is a member and which party lawyers realised could not be technically termed a party leadership) into a single supreme executive body.

Under Nasser, the revolutionary regime profoundly changed the country”s economic and social structures. Massive agrarian reforms were followed, after failed attempts to foster autonomous development through market steered mechanisms, by the development of a state planned and controlled economy. The effect of such reforms was to uproot the political and social influence of the long-established feudal elite and the relatively newly emergent urban entrepreneurial class, to expand the middle class, and to open new horizons for the poor and underprivileged. However, this socialist-inspired programme began to erode with the onset of the Open Door policy under Sadat and the gradual decline in state intervention in the economy and reliance on market-driven forces.

In spite of outbursts of popular anger that this policy reversal triggered, such as the 1977 bread riots, the regime was initially able to keep a lid on social discontent, not always through recourse to its security apparatuses. However, as the push towards privatisation and the sale of public sector assets and properties intensified by the early 1990s, Egypt”s socio-economic map underwent a profound change and polarisation became sharper. The most salient feature of the new socio-economic map was the rise of a new entrepreneurial elite that was heavily dependent upon the regime and upon foreign aid and franchises in its single-minded drive to accumulate wealth, which, in fact, did accumulate into these few hands with astounding speed. As a consequence, the gap between rich and poor expanded rapidly and the standards of living of the lower middle class and the poor declined sharply. Meanwhile, the new entrepreneurial class became increasingly intertwined with the ruling elite, thus influencing national policies and playing an instrumental role in the spread of rampant corruption and organised crime on a scale previously unknown in Egypt. This resulted in a dramatic decline in public utilities and services, in fields ranging from transportation to public education and health. Such profound changes naturally impacted on social cohesion and political stability, as evidenced by the mounting wave of protest demonstrations and labour strikes in 2007.

In its early phase, the 1952 revolutionary regime was determined to secure Egypt”s national independence. Towards this end it waged a succession of major political battles (the Soviet arms deal, the Bandung conference and the founding of the non-aligned movement, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the construction of the High Dam, etc.) that affirmed Egypt”s international status and poised it to play an influential role in the regional and international spheres. This very self- assertiveness also rendered Egypt vulnerable to enormous outside pressures which often escalated to debilitating blows. The harshest of these was the defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

In spite of this crippling setback, Egypt refused to give in and, with the support of its Arab neighbours, it succeeded in turning the scales and erasing the taint of defeat. Yet, Sadat”s realignment following the 1973 War, which had a profound impact on Egypt”s management of the Arab-Israeli conflict, resulted in the gradual erosion of Egypt”s regional and international status. Moreover, it also became clear that the government”s new foreign policy orientation mirrored the very domestic changes that brought to the fore a socio-economic elite of a particular nature, an elite that had become a cornerstone of the ruling regime, the interests of which were organically linked with the West and, eventually, with the rise of Gamal Mubarak.

True, the foreign policy shift enabled Egypt to recover the Sinai Peninsula . However, it did not enable it, in spite of the long “peace” with Israel, to fulfill its aspiration for a major developmental leap forward to compensate through economic progress for the ground it had lost in political clout. As a result, Egypt became, at once, ever more dependent upon the West and ever more vulnerable. A quick glance at events in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan is sufficient to fathom the degree to which Egypt”s national security is in jeopardy.

Against such a historical backdrop, one can argue that Egypt is about to cross the threshold to 2008 caught in the mesh of hurdles generated by a teetering political system that refuses to give up the ghost and by the shadow of a new system the features of which remain unclear. At this juncture we have: firstly, a president nearing 80 without a vice-president to succeed him; secondly, a ruling party that derives its strength from the state apparatuses and that is effectively run by the president”s son who is being groomed for the succession. On the political arena there is a sharp polarisation between the ruling party and the legally banned Muslim Brotherhood, while on the socio-economic level an equally acute polarisation exists between the small group of the super rich and the throngs of the poor. In short, we have a perilously seething pot with no viable alternative political parties or civil society institutions to mediate between the polarised entities.

It may be impossible to say for sure whether Gamal Mubarak will succeed in reaching the presidency under such circumstances. But if he does, two quite significant changes will result. Power will effectively shift from the military to the civil establishment and a precedent of hereditary succession will be set for a republic with only a thin veneer of democracy. It is difficult to say which will pose the greatest dilemma.

Since it is impossible to halt or reverse the process of political and social catalysis, 2008 is likely to bring major developments that will mark a turning point between two eras. This likelihood increases given that 2008 is the year of the American presidential elections, the results of which might bring about a turning point in the international arena.