Egypt: How to fulfill the president’s call for national alignment?

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Thursday 5 Feb 2015

Terrorism has again struck in Sinai, claiming the lives of Egyptian soldiers and civilians and filling Egyptians with grief, rage, and a desire for retribution.

Many questions and too few answers, but in such difficult moments there can be no division, no discord. Unity is essential to honour the sacrifices of the martyrs and wounded, respect the grief of their families, and resolve not to let their lives be in vain.

In the address given upon his return from Ethiopia, the president called for national alignment, which he reiterated in his meeting with army, police, and party leaders two days ago. His appeal is well placed, for Egypt needs society—all groups, classes, and generations—to stand by the state in its battle against terrorism. The military response alone, no matter how noble the sacrifice, cannot eliminate terrorism at the root and dry up its wellsprings. For this, society must come together and support the state and its armed forces. But how can such a national accord be achieved?

This must go beyond the sloganeering prompted by every national trauma, a unity soon undermined by renewed dissension and conflict.
In fact, there are conditions and costs for the success of national accord. If the state is not willing to meet these, the alignment will be no more than a photo op for the heads of parties and religious leaders.

The first condition for a successful national alignment is that it reaches beyond the most recent act of terrorism in Sinai to unite national ranks around major contentious issues. We are facing serious security, economic, and social challenges, all requiring the kind of national accord the president seeks in order to overcome them.

We must also reconsider the policies, decrees, and laws that have split national ranks, which 18 months ago united in their rejection of Brotherhood rule and remained so through the adoption of the new constitution. These divisions weakened the home front and, as the state moved further from the democratic course, led many of these forces to withhold their support.
Moreover, to achieve a new national alignment, the state must initiate a dialogue over four channels. The first is with the young revolutionaries of January and June, which should also entail an end to media and security harassment, the restoration of the right of expression and peaceful protest, and the release of those detained on charges of peacefully demonstrating. A second channel must be opened with university students. Their concerns and complaints should be considered and addressed, as well as their suggestions for restoring campus peace that do not rely on private security companies, student searches, and threats of expulsion.

The third channel involves building trust with civil society, which performs an important social and development mission, and ending the arbitrary harassment of civic associations. Finally, a serious and continuous dialogue must be initiated with political parties and forces, to make them a partner in decision-making. Political parties—opposition included—ensure balanced governance and decision-making based on consultation.

I chose these four groups—youth, students, civil society, and political parties—because each one represents a part of the public that is pained by the death of terrorism victims, appreciates the role of the armed forces in protecting the nation, and seeks to be part of the national accord, but at times is subject to state persecution and abuse and is targeted by state-controlled media, which makes no distinction between a terrorist carrying a gun and a woman carrying flowers.
As for the price of this national concord, it is simple: the state must agree to partner with the forces it wishes to rally around it, which means it must accept differences of opinion and opposition. It must share information with its partners, and listen to and consult them. In other words, it must treat its partners with respect and generosity; they cannot be summoned at will, expected to have no opinion or stance.

The unity to which the president appealed is the armour that the nation needs at this critical moment. But it cannot be summoned out of thin air when terrorism is at issue only to be disregarded, even spurned, when the need passes. It must be built gradually and patiently. Officials must realize that popular participation and support does have a cost. But the payoff in consensus, stability, and development is well worth it.

- Ziad Bahaa-Eldin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.

This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 3 February.



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