Forget political fashions, start formulating programmes

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Sunday 2 Oct 2011

Mediocrity takes lessons from others, while the real work of securing the revolution is to think out a programme for the Egyptian people

Parliamentary elections are underway while Egyptian political forces remain incapable of developing coherent platforms. Incompetence of politicians manifests itself in their resorting to imitate readymade political projects that have dealt with other societies’ respective challenges, while hardly exerting any effort to scrutinise and contextualise them.

On the question of identity, political groups attempting to overcome the current Islamist-secular polarisation by promoting themselves as the Egyptian version of the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). Akif Beki rightfully noted after the party’s ascent in 2002 that it is capable of transforming “Islamism to Muslimhood,” but while Egyptian politicians attempt to mimic the JDP, they hardly scrutinise the experience of its members.

Jenny White highlights some catalysts leading to the Muslimhood’s ascent, including Necmettin Erbakan’s confrontational politics that increasingly irritated Muslim communities, the decline of old political parties, increasing cultural interaction between Islamist and non-Islamist intellectuals —particularly during the Abant meetings sponsored by the followers of Sufi Fethullah Gulen, and the latter’s long efforts to “Islamise Turkish nationalism; recreate a legitimate link between state and religion, and emphasise democracy and tolerance.”

But it was only through diligent efforts on both intellectual and political fronts that savvy JDP leaders were able to utilise the opportunity. Since the 1990s, they engaged in municipal politics, acquainting themselves with people’s real challenges, and practically illustrating how their “religious ethics inspired their public service,” as JDP minister Mehmet Aydin notes. During this process, key figures emerged, including Erdogan, a soccer player, businessman, and mayor who replaced Erbakan’s patronage-based politics with a more grassroots, participatory populist style. Accompanied by foundational political and intellectual work, these efforts pushed for the “personalisation of Islam, and Muslimisation of public and political spheres”.

The JDP’s political success could not be merely attributed to its stance vis-à-vis identity. In fact, extending their support base beyond the traditional Islamist constituency —as indicated by election results —is primarily an outcome of their success on both the economic and foreign policy fronts. On the latter, party leaders smoothly shifted the focus from Europe to the Middle East, transforming the country from being left behind with denial of access to the EU, to a regional leader. On the former, the JDP’s deep assessment of the country’s economic and political landscapes led to the adoption of a well-articulated and contextualised centre-right policy that soon transformed an economically ill country to the globe’s 17th largest economy.

Mediocrity leads Egyptian politicians to discard the efforts underpinning the JDP’s success and focus solely on mimicking its output in terms of identity. It is also mediocrity that causes most emerging political parties to avoid tough economic choices by adopting a “social democratic” stance; attempting to appease both rightist and leftist constituencies. The adoption of this stance, however, hardly says anything about a party’s economic orientation.

When the term was first coined, social democracy referred to radical left-wingers who, according to Richard Ely, had two distinguishing characteristics: “the vast majority of them are labourers, and, as a rule, they expect the violent overthrow of existing institutions by revolution to establish socialism.” Splits within the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) soon led to the term’s evolution, which had since been broadly defined in Eduard Bernstein’s words: a movement that ceaselessly labours to raise the workers from the social position of a proletarian to that of a citizen, and thus make citizenship universal.

Social democrats attempted to introduce gradual reforms within capitalist economies that lead to the emergence of socialist ones, adopting —in the Frankfurt Declaration —a stance that denounces both capitalism and Bolshevik communism. Another split amongst social democrats separated those who insisted on the necessity of abolishing capitalism —albeit gradually —and those who attempted to introduce dramatic reforms thereto. The latter trend witnessed further divides, with some of its advocates, notably Britain’s Tony Blair, adopting more centrist —or even centre-right —positions, leading to wider income gaps between the rich and the poor.

With this wide spectrum of orientations being labelled as social democracy, Egyptian “social democrats” need to embark on a more concrete platform that defines their stances. This spectrum is wide enough to allow for serious political rivalry. The Brazilian Social Democratic Party, in power until 2002, adopted policies defending economic liberalism, and eventually lost elections to Lula da Silva’s Workers Party, widely characterised as social democratic, promoting a mixed economy with welfare state policies and government regulation of private enterprise. Arguably, achieving social justice in Egypt —as defined by the Frankfurt Declaration —requires more than mild adjustments of economic policy, given the country’s experience with restructuring and liberalisation programmes. The magnitude, however, of changes remains vague in the parties’ programmes.

Different versions of social democracies also entail different foreign policies. During the world wars, major splits took place within the social democratic movement when some parties decided to side with their respective governments —a decision deemed by others as “outright treason” against the working class. While this clear local-international dichotomy seems less significant, Egyptian social democrats choose to adopt a rather vague stance on the local-regional dialectic.

This vagueness is only paralleled by their ambiguous stance on globalisation. Challenges on integration in the neoliberal global economy sparked serious debate after Mitterrand’s ascent in France. Although initially introducing sweeping socialist reforms, he soon chose to maintain his country’s membership in the European Monetary System over continuing reforms. Egyptian social democrats have not utilised these experiences or others to develop a clear, coherent stance on the matter. Their stances on issues like welfare, social security, government regulation and relations with international monetary institutions remain vague.

The success of Egypt’s revolution requires the emergence of competent, savvy politicians who successfully capture both the political and economic challenges of the Egyptian people and articulate serious programmes of reform. While the assessment of other success stories is necessary, focusing on the output thereof hardly provides any useful insights for the country. The emergence of competent politicians is likely to take some time, but it is, nonetheless, inevitable in a context of democracy and inclusion.

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