Ending political monotony
|Wednesday, March 3,2010 22:03|
|By Amr Hamzawy|
I would bet that a large number of Egyptians feel the way I do, which is very alienated from political events and discussions. We read the newspapers only to find that the news of today seems like a rehash of yesterday's news. We listen to debates only to sense that issues, hopes and expectations on, say, the next president, corruption, poverty, pollution, housing, political reform, economic development and social justice have remained exactly the same for decades.
In a security clampdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, several leaders were arrested on precisely the same prefabricated charges, on which some of them had already been tried and sentenced to jail not all that long ago. The sweep was then followed by the usual debate in the press, in which some writers displayed their flair for establishing the credence of the charges while others, as expected, lashed out at the government's constant repression of the opposition movement which, they argue, has been reignited by a determination to debilitate it in advance of the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, your average citizen who takes an interest in politics shuts his ears to the din and yawns at the monotony of this confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has continued for decades in accordance with the same rules without significantly affecting political life in Egypt.
The regime is not interested in completely eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore it uses its executive and legal instruments to contain the Brotherhood's organisational efficacy and political and social influence. The Muslim Brothers, for their part, have grown accustomed to the ups and downs in their relationship with the state, during which a degree of active participation in legitimate politics is followed by a wave of security clampdowns and propaganda attacks.
It also appears that the Brothers have structurally and mentally fine-tuned themselves to deal with these fluctuations instead of evolving a new political outlook that might lead them out of a vicious circle. The perpetual confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood has become such a fixed feature of Egyptian politics that it has acquired a kind of folkloric nature. It looks like it will be around for a long time to come, without changing any of its essential characteristics and, hence, without bringing relief to the general tedium in the country's political life.
Speaking of tedium, here we are at the outset of a parliamentary election year and the opposition parties and movements are reproducing the same hackneyed ideas and wearisome practices that have long lost them the confidence of voters and driven away their supporters. Although the elections are only a few months away, we have yet to hear any proposals for, or serious discussion of, an opposition party platform or strategy for competing against the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
In addition, as has long been the case in spite of their limited ability to attract the attention of the press when forming alliances or launching joint initiatives, the protest movements and alliances for change have been frittering away their energies in internal spats (as was the case with the 6 April Movement) or in mutual mudslinging campaigns during which they hurl accusations of treachery and being in the pay of foreign powers at each other.
We were treated to an example of the latter during the recent verbal tussle between Kifaya (Enough) Movement coordinator Abdel-Halim Qandil and the leaders of other opposition parties and movements.
This behaviour is far from indicative of any great political sophistication among the opposition parties or of a discerning awareness of the world around us and the real roles (positive or negative) played by Western governmental and non-governmental organisations in the spheres of civil society, human rights and civic freedoms in Egypt. However, we can be pretty sure that the opposition's lack of effective coordination and strategic action is very comfortable for the NDP, which no longer fears rivals and, indeed, perhaps does not even see them as such. The political costs for the ruling elite of their authoritarian monopoly of power have dwindled considerably.
Moreover, the opposition's debilitated and deformed condition is unlikely to be remedied any time soon. This will take place neither through the search for a saviour in the form of a prospective presidential candidate nor through the opposition's persisting in the habit, which has also become legendary, of convening "coordination meetings" that lack all substance in terms of strategy or aims.
It is painful that the monotony the permeates Egyptian political life, combined with the opposition's inability to pose a decent challenge to the ruling elite, alienates broad swathes of the public from political engagement and perhaps even from an interest in politics given the concerns raised by the current economic straits and poor standards of living. Public apathy, too, works to the benefit of the ruling elites, who breathe easily in the absence of effective public scrutiny or accountability.
Yet, although political apathy remains widespread, to which voter turnouts in the 2005 presidential and legislative elections and in the referendum on the constitutional amendments in 2007 testify, there is still a significant segment of the population that takes in interest in public affairs, and this phenomenon has acquired impetus as various youth groups have become engaged in politics and as modern communications technology has opened up new avenues for the expression of opinion and political organisation.
But however diverse opinion in this segment of the population may be, there are two central questions it should ask itself. What should we focus on in public affairs, and what can we do to stimulate change in the monotony of political life? What follows is a list of issues or opportunities that could be explored in this regard.
Firstly, as the forthcoming mid-term legislative elections approach, all possible stress should be placed on the importance of registering to vote and then participating in the voting process. In the course of the campaigns and public debates, it will be important to call the NDP to account on its performance over the five past years, and attention can be drawn here to such issues as the levels of poverty and unemployment, standards of living and unplanned housing conditions, the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the government's responsibility for ensuring social justice and equity through such instruments as a fair tax structure, subsidies and assistance for the poor and those on a limited income.
Other issues to focus on would include the state of healthcare, education, transportation and other public services, as well as widespread corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. There are diverse ways to participate in promoting government accountability to the public, which include participating in the initiatives of civil-society organisations concerned with monitoring government performance and the accountability of officials, taking part in organised grassroots activities aimed at protesting against unjust social and economic conditions or calling for the improvement of public services, and prevailing upon the press and other media to act as vigilant monitors of government performance and of the behaviour and actions of individual officials.
Noteworthy models of the foregoing types of action are the Land Centre for the Defence of the Rights of Agricultural Tenants, the recent wage and working condition demonstrations organised by workers or staff in various factories and government utilities, and the press coverage of reports from the Central Accounting Authority.
Secondly, the 2010 election year affords an opportunity to call the government to account for its performance on political reform, especially in the light of its many promises to promote democratisation, the respect for human rights, and a greater scope for civil liberties and individual freedoms. The government has also promised to support political parties and civil-society organisations and to raise the threshold of public participation in politics without monopolising most of the venues for such participation.
Yet, contrary to these promises the government systematically shut off all opportunities for democratic reform by means of the constitutional amendments in 2007 and the systematic repression of the opposition. Applied through methods similar to those described in the preceding paragraph, popular pressures for greater government accountability in the political reform domain would lay the groundwork for a similar public examination of President Hosni Mubarak's current term in office in the run-up to the 2011 presidential elections.
Thirdly, the mid-term legislative elections this year bring to the fore, once again, issues that are central to the democratic process, namely the legal and political conditions governing the polls and the availability of opportunities for fair play versus opportunities for electoral tampering. It goes without saying that we need some effective, independent and non-governmental monitoring of the polls, now that judicial supervision has been limited by the 2007 constitutional amendments. It will also be important to keep a vigilant eye out for attempts on the part of the official electoral agencies to engineer the forthcoming elections in the manner of the recent Shura Council and municipal elections, in which all avenues for competing against NDP candidates were effectively closed off.
Any individual concerned with promoting electoral integrity might consider participating in or supporting the one or more initiatives and campaigns organised by the civil-society associations that are pressing for effective independent local supervision of the polls in 2010 and/or for international monitoring. There is now growing consensus among opposition forces and movements on the desirability of one or both of these initiatives.
Concerned citizens should also insist upon the respect for measures that have been lacking in previous elections, such as accurate electoral lists, simple candidate registration procedures, the impartiality of the security agencies, and an end to unfair access on the part of the NDP to government resources and services (security agencies, media and the like) during the campaigns.
Undoubtedly, the best way of pressing for measures that would help ensure the integrity of the elections, in spite of limited prospects of success in the light of the intransigence of the ruling elite, is to support the civil-society organisations that are active in this domain, as well as to take part in peaceful protest activities and to intensify discussion on these points in various independent media and Internet forums with the aim of raising public awareness and stimulating broader and more active concern about the crucial matter of fair elections.
Finally, disheartening though the state of the opposition movements may be, concerned citizens should summon up the resolve to take them to task for the paucity of the substance of their economic, social and political platforms. At the very least, people should insist that each party or movement formulate a detailed vision of the Egypt that they aspire to help realise and outline their points of agreement and differences with other opposition parties and with the ruling party.
Without risk of security threats or surveillance, one can also take advantage of the letters to the editor columns in the newspapers to respond to articles by opposition leaders and opinion pundits (of which there are many), urging them to stop speaking in generalities and to lay out proposals for concrete and practical steps that will take the country towards democracy, development and progress. One might also take part in the meetings or rallies of the opposition parties, although these are few, in order to voice the same demand.
The foregoing article has only presented a preliminary list of issues of concern in this election year and recommendations on the ways in which ordinary Egyptians with an interest in politics might focus on these issues with an eye to introducing some fresh air into our political environment.
My hope is that this list will stimulate additional contributions from elsewhere, making up a widening circle of discussion and debate and, of course, increasing grassroots political involvement. This may be the key to dispelling the monotony of a political arena characterised by a weak opposition, an overconfident ruling elite and widespread political apathy.