The continuously complex political scene, partially due to the positions and competence of those in power and the opposition, is an expression of the conflict between two visions of governance.
One is of the authoritarian state that existed before the revolution, the other of a society seeking democratic means (in the political and social sense) of governance. This cannot be achieved without exploring the causes.
Events have shown the failure of key political players in finding legitimate solutions to existing problems, whether security, economic or judicial.
The government was “surprised” by resistance of state agencies to its agenda, and used that as an excuse for the discrepancies between reality and what the president had promised. But the surprise is unjustified because it was not caused by a sudden natural disaster, but rather an expected tug of war between politics and bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the opposition narrowed its political agenda to criticising those in power, without presenting alternatives for policies, decision making or governing systems that promote a different vision of dealing with the challenges facing Egypt.
But limiting the issue only to those in power and the opposition is also erroneous, because it excludes the main player, the “state” composed of bureaucracy and military that Mohamed Ali created more than two centuries ago to support the foundations of his rule.
In its corridors was born the “cognizance of Egyptian iderntity” which preceded even nationalist groups; it was its founder, the leader – on behalf of the people, irrespective of their will – of the modernisation process in the economic, social and religious realms.
This state, like in many third world countries, adopted a political agenda and naturally produced elites who promote this agenda and all its parts. Its disciples rose to senior positions in both the government and opposition, starting with the rulers of Mohamed Ali’s state, through to Ahmed Orabi and Saad Zaghloul and ending with Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his successors.
In general, the “state” project governed Egypt over the past two centuries at least, and remains a main player after the revolution.
On the other side from the state was society and its main institutions, such as unions, Sufi groups, the mayoral system, the institution of religious endowments, and other agencies that intersected to achieve the desires of the community in several and various domains.
Their role has retreated with the rise of the modern state, whereby the modern central government replaced them, and gradually their self-sustenance on ideology, customs and social links diminished. They became part of governing agencies not a reflection of society’s will.
Thus, when the authoritarian state’s project partially retreated because of the revolution, this society was unable to move forward and occupy some positions because the platforms that can be relied on no longer existed.
The retreat of the state left behind a vacuum, which the state is now somewhat returning to fill (when we hear calls for the “return” of the army to the political scene and “reconciling” with figures from the Mubarak regime, etc.)
The only thing stopping the state from returning at full force is the fact its bludgeon has been broken, and fear of it has dissipated, and anger towards it is based on genuine grievances linked to blood spilling and livelihood. All these factors produce weak demands for its return that are not likely to be heard.
The current crisis at worst is a conflict between an authoritarian state that no longer possesses the tools and legitimacy of oppression that it had relied on during its tenure, and a society that wants to express itself and change its relationship with the state without possessing the necessary tools.
The end of this crisis is either to retreat backwards and empower the state or move forward to empower society.
Empowering society requires re-establishing civil institutions that represent it and putting its fate back in its own hands, not in the hands of the state. This would also empower it over the political system so it becomes subservient to society, not the other way around, as well as finding natural leaders whose priorities and positions are aligned with those of society.
At the same time, they need to have the competence to enable it to run the state, which can be done through two key institutions: local governments and unions.
Both these agencies intrinsically are and need to be focused on the people’s affairs, whether professional or services, in a manner that goes beyond partisanship that obstructs movement and thought. This enables candidates who are not affiliated with major groups to win elections without much financing, which is better than in legislative elections.
The winner maintains his membership to his group (whether professional or location) while becoming involved in the process of running the state, in a manner that enables him to attain experience and promote him in political circles of society’s agenda, not the state’s.
These social vessels are a natural by-product of effective political leadership that empowers society. This is most apparent, for example, in Norway where 60 percent of MPs hail from local governments as well as union backgrounds. They express their biases by pushing towards more empowerment for society.
In Brazil, former President Lula da Silva greatly benefited from his long history in activism within labour unions, which enabled him to resolve economic problems related to income gaps and levels within a few years.
In Turkey, the experience of Prime Minister Erdogan as mayor of Istanbul was key in enabling him to understand bureaucracy, and thus successfully unsettle the Ataturk system. Meanwhile, in Iran Ahmadinejad still relies on a base of “simple folk” after a similar experience in local governments.
The project to empower society, which is the core of democracy and at the heart of the revolution’s demands, can never move forward by just pushing back the state agenda, since sooner or later, partially or completely, it will return if the vacuum remains. The project requires platforms to launch forward, most notably local governments and unions that need legislative and political reforms that have so far been neglected.
Perhaps they deserve more attention in a separate article.