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Egypt: What causes civil servants and policemen to protest?

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , Sunday 30 Aug 2015
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Understandably, the sit-in by junior policemen in Sharqiya made the headlines this week, just as last week’s news led with the demonstration against the new civil service law by Finance Ministry employees.

Both incidents are serious because they’re both an expression of tension at the heart of the state, specifically two bodies crucial for economic and security stability. Unfortunately, state-aligned media hastily declared that conspiracies and foreign interference were behind both incidents.

Meanwhile, Muslim Brotherhood media reported that these were sure signs that the regime was near collapse. Both interpretations miss the point. The issues raised in both cases are genuine, but at the same time they are resolvable and do not threaten the state if dealt with wisely.

Both incidents speak to a more profound problem than simply a dispute over incentive and bonus pay for policemen or provisions of the new law for civil servants. That problem is the lack of a political climate and framework that permit society to resolve conflicts between diverse interests. 

In other words, the crux of the crisis illustrated by these two events is not that there are disputes and conflicts in society—that’s natural and shouldn’t be a source of concern - but rather the lack of mechanisms to resolve such conflicts in a legal and fair way before they spiral out of control. And that absence of a healthy political climate is due to three principal factors:

First, the institutions that allow social forces to organize, express their demands legally, and bargain with other parties are incomplete. That doesn't refer only to the parliament—the primary arena for hammering out the country’s policies and legislation—and elected local councils.
The role of investors’ and business associations is similarly ill defined and underdeveloped, professional and trade unions suffer from weak institutional structures, and there is also a lack of information that would normally allow people to follow, discuss, and think about alternatives.

The second factor is the curtailment of civil society over the last year, including political parties, NGOs, and independent media, due to legal, security, and economic pressures. This has narrowed the space for political dialogue and with it society’s capacity to voice the interests of its various groups in a natural way and find compromises before conflicts reach a boiling point.

The third factor is an official and media rhetoric that sees every opinion counter to state policies, every objection to legislation it issues, and every request for more information as an attempt to destroy national solidarity, shake state foundations, and destabilize the state and economy. In such conditions, demands by workers are seen either as an expression of hidden Brotherhood sympathies or an attenuated national loyalty.

In fact, what threatens the country’s stability and its prospects for development is the closure of all channels for the legitimate expression of grievances; with no place to go, these fester into resentment, violence, and chaos. In contrast, respecting the right of expression and demands and negotiations for rights supports social unity and cohesion.

Just to be clear: this doesn’t mean that the demands of Sharqiya’s policemen are all legitimate or that civil servants’ objections to the new law are all on point. I am not here assessing their claims or judging events on the ground on either occasion, especially since many details are still fuzzy. My point is simply that the lack of mechanisms for political debate and discussion is what turns every collective issue into an occasion for resentment, tension, and violence.

These missing mechanisms in fact constitute the essence of democracy because they alone are able to balance competing social interests, direct state resources to sound and fair spending, and ensure popular oversight. As long as democracy is presented to the public as just a struggle over parliamentary seats, long-winded theorizing on Facebook, or an imported system that suits the cultural elite and impedes the state’s battle against terrorism, society will be unable to resolve its problems and conflicts through peaceful negotiations, and every dispute is liable to turn into a street brawl or worse.

The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.

This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday, 25 August.
 

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