Friday, January 20, 2006

On the Parliamentary Elections in Egypt

By Taher Laswad (*)November 2005
Throughout these coming weeks an historic event will be unfolding in Egypt. The parliamentary elections disputed in three phases, which do not implement usually any serious impact on the political structure due to both the legal and illegal policies of the regime, are for the first time in a long stigmatized political history bringing widespread hopes of a serious breakthrough in the nature of opposition to the regime: instead of the usually disconnected efforts of weakened and isolated forces of opposition the Egyptian political landscape has been radicalized with the announcement of a front of opposition coordinating the opposition efforts in the legislative elections. Moreover the current electoral campaigns have shown a wider space for dissent, which is manifested through the anti-regime’s marches in popular streets, unusually left without any harm by the security forces.
Various reasons are behind this developing situation, which was certainly unexpected only a year ago. One of the obvious reasons is the serious pressure by the US administration on the regime to embrace some democratic reforms. But as some of the White House’s most influential sources in strategic affairs are beginning to argue, especially after the deterioration of the administration’s plans in Iraq, countries in the Middle East that are characterized as “friends” of the US should be “encouraged” rather than violently pressured towards political reforms. For instance Charles Krauthammer has argued in a recent article promoting a “more mature Neoconservatism” (Commentary July/August 2005), such friends, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, are very valuable in the combat against the “existential threat” posed by al Qaeda, which makes the need for a democratization process secondary in the priorities of the US regional agenda. Still this is does not mean any qualitative change in the new strategy of the White House. It is rather an indication of a quantitative reduction in the amount of the pressure that has been already applied to such “friends”.
What is more interesting is that the reduction in the intensity of external factors has encouraged a serious regional interest in the liberal agenda. The major political forces of opposition in Egypt, which promote a strong patriotic discourse fueling their popular appeal, are understandably weary of foreign intrusion. And if they would not mind any political anomalies between a distrusted regime and the White House, they would never tend, or especially appear to be, the agents of a foreign agenda. Meanwhile as much as the US policy that is encouraging political reforms maintains a low profile a wider spectrum of more influential forces is getting into the process of seriously embracing a liberal agenda promoting structural changes in the political system towards democratization. Added to that, the political decisions taken by the Egyptian regime with regards to its future have introduced more reasons that have helped to create an unprecedented political front of opposition. Regardless of the technical outcome of these elections one thing is sure: from this point on the nature of the opposition will never be the same. This is a major key to any democratic changes not only in Egypt but also across the region.
The regime’s unsuccessful presidential elections
When recently Moustafa Hussein and Ahmad Rajab, the first a caricaturist and the second a political critic who co-author illustrated satires in the “national” (i.e. governmental) Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar, started to take on the stiff image of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek many were stunned and wondered whether the president himself was behind the move. The fact is there is a new political era that has started in Egypt though it would take some time to be widely recognized. Until then conspirational explanations might prevail.
Even though the electoral outcome of the last presidential elections in Egypt was obvious most indications pointed to, and still point to, the unprecedented openness of the political debate, which was allowed thanks to the very happening of the elections. The excessive imposed restrictions on the conditions of presidential candidacy, which greatly narrowed down the chances of democratically deposing Mr. Mubarek, did not prevent the independent newspapers and most of the Egyptian opposition to take profit and create a serious context of political dissent that touched on regular citizens. It was not even necessary for the opposition forces to be officially part of the presidential elections to engage in the political intensity that surfaced on the verge of the electoral campaign. The few opposition candidates were just a small entity among the groups that led this preliminary political “unrest”. Actually it could be that one of the major mistakes of presidential candidates such as the pretentious Aymen Nour is a false belief that the presidential and not the parliamentary elections are the serious bid in this new political season.
If the technical outcome of the presidential elections was the reelection of Mr. Mubarek its most serious outcome is its political repercussions. On one hand the governing party and the dominant forces of the regime (including the apparent forces in the army) decided to make of the elections an opportunity to introduce the fact that their next presidential candidate is Mr. Jamal Mubarek, the president’s son, which seemed like a platform of their political “future” that is their version of a “post-Mubarek” era. On the other hand the opposition found itself due to the circumstances, partly engineered by the regime itself, in one bench promoting exactly the prevention of a ridiculous “Mubarkian post-Mubarek” alternative. In other words the regime’s insistence on the highly contested subject of promoting a provocative and shockingly “presidential heir” rather than a less blunt undemocratic transfer of power (by promoting one of the members of the old guard like Arm Sulayman as was widely believed two years ago) has created a context where the regime’s life expectancy is becoming less and less longer because simply the stakes that it has set for its political agenda are too high to be appropriately met in either the long or the short terms.
An effective patriotic front promoting democratic changes
The much helpless energy spent by an increasingly less-confident regime to make the presidential elections politically successful, in addition to the contested restrictions being imposed on them, are all factors that have helped create an unexpected situation only a year ago: the serious chances that a strong opposition would have to at least stand for the first time unified against the total dominance the governing party has had on the marginalized legislative institution.
The regime’s imposed platform pushed in effect for both an apparent need and an opportunity of an unprecedented united front of opposition. Such a development, however, was inconceivable without the accumulation of the political investments made by new organizations during the recent months. While until very recently the legal-traditional parties, notably al-Wafd (Liberal), al-Arabi al-Nasiri (Pan-Arab), and al-Tajammu’ (Leftist), were struggling, though without success, to come up with some basic platform so that they can matter electorally, it took only few months in this new political context to create an effective front of opposition.
This historic political event was the apogee of various political initiatives that were strongly characterized by cross-ideological and multi-organizational aspirations. The first is obviously the now well renowned movement of Kifaya, which was a successful political frame that included illegal and usually marginalized political elites. Its most striking aspect is the preliminary demonstration of a possible liberal platform that can bring together ideological tendencies such as Islamism, Pan-Arabism, and the Left, in a simple and practical, sometimes even innovative, forms of protest that introduced the political liberal aspirations into the open streets.
The inclusion in Kifaya of the Islamists, who represent the political and ideological pattern that still have the strongest popular appeal, included them into a politically liberal agenda, which was particularly a breakthrough that will have very quick and profound repercussions. Besides, and from the beginning, such a liberal framework was based on a very strong patriotic sense that defended the need for both a strong Egyptian patriotic sense and a wider Pan-Arab interest that reflected the strong commitment of regular citizens to the support of the causes of occupied populations in Palestine and Iraq. These positions formed obviously a thick fence that prevented any attempts from the regime to discredit the movement as unpatriotic especially within the context of the increasing pro-democratic discourse of the US administration. This has proved that the intersection, which had failed for a long time, between the patriotic and the liberal discourses is actually possible. Eventually it caused many potentially popular forces to embrace such an agenda, and be politically effective for the first time in a long period.
By the beginning of this year and especially towards the summer two major political initiatives enunciated the new face of the opposition. The major political force of the opposition, the Muslims Brotherhood, usually cornered in a generic and religiously driven patriotic discourse, decided to engage into the political liberal project by engaging itself into street demonstrations that promoted democratic changes as its main concern. Shortly later, this initial step was taken further by announcing the foundation of the Patriotic Front for Change, which included, in addition to the Brotherhood, smaller forces, on a platform that promoted the urgency of democratic changes as its main political program.
Almost at the same time another interesting movement was formed. A group of Egyptian personalities originating mainly from pro-Nasserite milieus, including ex-officials in Nasser’s era side by side with a younger Nasserite generation, who announced the formation of the Patriotic Assembly for Democratic Change. Even though pro-Nasserite groups have always existed this new initiative has successfully brought together influential figures who have built through the years a moderate tendency, which made it influential even within the ranks of the regime and mainstream non-Islamists intellectuals. Two figures summarize such a movement: Aziz Sidqi, Nasser’s Prime Minister for some time and a widely trusted economic expert (with a PhD degree from Harvard), and Moustafa Bakri, an enthusiastic journalist who successfully engaged his newspaper (al-Usbu’) in anti-corruption battles throughout the recent years, but with good connections with some circles in the regime, which always provided him with useful sources from within. The Nasserite connection here is not only a reflection of a Pan-Arab agenda but it is also, and more importantly, a reflection of a certain trend within the bureaucracy of the regime that still looks with great nostalgia to Nasser’s era; in their eyes an era that definitely built the Egyptian nation-state with its large social and economic projects, which are still viable even in the current system (of which the nationalization of the Suez canal is only the most famous example). In fact such a trends provide a huge amount of the remaining legitimacy of the regime. The erosion from the ranks of the regime of groups like these through initiatives such as the Patriotic Assembly for Democratic Change should be seen as a major way to deconstruction of the authoritarian system as important as the street movements like Kifaya.
When Mr. Aziz Sidqi played a central role in the formation of the very new agreement few weeks ago between most of the opposition forces (including by the way the legal-traditional parties), which made an effective electoral platform possible, notably with the Muslims Brotherhood with their newly formed front on board, he showed how much influential the moderate Nasserites can be.
It is true that the agreement did not reach the form of a structured organization that would guarantee a continuity of the political momentum after the election. Still the decision of distributing the electoral districts among various political forces, which was particularly possible with the Brotherhood decision limiting their electoral presence to less than 160 districts, has laid the basis for a practical coordination that will implement trust and end an era of temporary “coordination” that has been for long based on good intentions usually apparent only on occasional statements.
If the moderate Nasserites proved that they are highly significant politically the Brotherhood has succeeded in breaching the general political embargo imposed on them. Not only the anti-Islamist forces like al-Tajammu’ found themselves isolated and weary of being left out of an effective front if they continue to oppose any form of coordination with the Brotherhood, a sign that anti-Islamism is being seen increasingly as anti-democratic, but also the regime itself is starting to send messages indicating its willingness to accept a serious political presence of moderate Islamists.
Meanwhile old anti-democratic groups such as old members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad are participating in these elections with a new discourse approving the need for political reforms proving even more that the Islamist forces are increasingly moderate and embracing the democratic rules of government. The regeneration of local extremist forces that reject political liberalism as a religious apostate, which is the position of newly formed groups influenced by al Qaeda as was clear from the Sharm al-Shaykh attacks, is far less significant than the increasing rise of moderate Islamists. It is more and more apparent that Egyptians are developing a stronger political sense that terminates with a tradition that could not perceive political struggle without violent means. The very widespread belief in the pacification of political life in a system founded on a military coup and had witnessed various movements promoting military opposition should be viewed as one of the major signs that we are already in the process of democratization.
The Arabic significance of the parliamentary elections in Egypt
The neoconservative rosy plans that preceded the Iraq invasion preached a “wave of democratic change” scenario that will unfold as soon as an Iraqi democratization process would begin. We all know by now that if any “wave of change” scenario has been generated throughout the region from Iraq is both a reinforcement of anti-democratic forces like al Qaeda and its followers and the rise of anti-American sentiments on the basis of an increasing distrust of precisely the US intentions of establishing a democratic regime in Iraq. The recent Iraqi elections and referendum outcomes, which promoted unprecedented levels of religious and ethnic factionalism in addition to unpopular pro-American politicians, did not do more than solidify such widespread trends.
It is difficult, however, to downplay the strong effect that a spectacular fall of an Arab dictatorship has had on the minds of millions of Arabs. It is true that the sentiments were confused because of a combination of a refusal of a foreign shameful aggression on an Arab leader, whoever he was he still holds a high symbolic position, and an acceptance of the repercussions of an unjust system of government throughout the Arab world that usurped the basic political rights. Still the last part must have had an impact that made each Arab citizen look down at his own ruler.
The current intensification, however, of a democratization process could not be credited to the neoconservative adventure in Iraq. If there is a country that its developing situation should be now credited any special impact on the rest of the Arab world it would be Egypt, one of the closest regional “friends” of the US, a country that the White House did not plan in any consistent manner to push it towards democratization. In fact the war on Iraq has emphasized the strategic position that Egyptians believe their country holds in the national security of the region, which made the rise of Egyptian patriotic movements during and after the war an opportunity to materialize their right of political expression. These movements’ enthusiastic popular effervescence that increased due to the war (for example the phenomenal street demonstrations in Alexandria by the Muslims Brotherhood) has paved the way for the belief that they actually matter and that they would provide a proud alternative in face of the scary alternatives of foreign invasions even though the US has never planned to invade Egypt. It was a typical Pavlovian reflection to the occupation of Iraq by defending Egypt. This recalls another significant event which is partly similar to what is happening now: when the Egyptian army lost the battle in Palestine in 1948 it was overwhelmed by the feeling that the true problems lies in Egypt not elsewhere, which triggered Nasser’s military organization and the July 23, 1952 revolution afterwards.
President Nasser’s led revolution and its increasingly Pan-Arab regime had an enormous impact throughout the years on the Arab world. This with less variable conditions has established Egypt as the most influential regional power. Even the event of President Sadat’s controversial peace treaty with Israel did not prevent it up until this moment to be the major player in the official Arab system. This time, however, the most serious impact coming from Egypt to the Arab world might not come from the official levels but rather from the anti-official milieus that is the opposition front promoting democratic changes. With the fabulous immediate and more direct (visual rather than vocal) effect the Arab satellite TVs and internet interaction are introducing in every Arab house the impact of what is happening in Cairo streets will exceed by far the memories of Nasser’s influential voice during the 1950s and 1960s through the new tool of radio stations like the renowned Arab Voice (Sawt al-Arab).
Last summer when a new brand of the Jazeera Channels called al-Jazeera Live (something similar to the American C-Span) started transmitting to the whole region the anti-Mubarek speeches from the Egyptian electoral campaign and sometimes even Kifaya’s news conferences many Arab viewers were stunned and hardly believed their eyes. The discourse of dissent is no longer limited to isolated critics of invited guests that have to go to studios in Doha, London, or Paris to be able to say what they want. This is being said on the spot, in popular assemblies, and, better, with direct transmission. It is very hard even for the most pessimistic observers to suppose that these images will have very minor effects on the Arab streets.
(*) A Tunisian Researcher Living in North America
© aqlamonline 2005


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