Egypt: The problem of technocratic government

Amr Adly , Saturday 7 Jul 2012

Technocratic policymaking has been the unspoken hallmark of authoritarianism in Egypt, excising politics from the public sphere. After the revolution, politicians cannot — and should not — escape accountability

A week has passed since the official inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s first freely-elected president. The new president has been engaged ever since in continuous trials to form a Cabinet of technocrats headed by an independent premier who belongs to no particular political camp or party. The immediate goal of such a proposition is to share the burden of running the country in such tumultuous times with other political and social forces.

It is not clear yet what exactly the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi want from the upcoming Cabinet. Some Muslim Brothers are invoking the idea of a coalition government where various parties hold ministerial posts and bear joint responsibility for applying a common programme. Meanwhile, others are talking more clearly about a technocratic government formed primarily of independent and apolitical experts rather than politicians. It seems that the Brotherhood want to have the best of two worlds by forming a government of technocrats — mainly of economists — with the unanimous support of major political parties.

The immediate goal of such a move is twofold: on the one hand, it would dilute Morsi’s direct responsibility for the economic and political hardships that are likely to emerge in the coming months. On the other, it would supplement the Brotherhood with technical and administrative expertise that they simply lack at this stage. Indeed, Egypt’s deteriorating financial, fiscal and economic status requires immediate and decisive actions to speed up economic recovery. Yet, is the country really in need of the rule of experts? And will it do any good to the Brotherhood’s Morsi to minimise the political cost of dealing with Mubarak’s troubled legacy? My answer tends to be in the negative for both questions.

The rule of experts, be they engineers, economists, financial wizards and the like, has been a close feature of authoritarianism in Egypt. Following the July 1952 coup and the establishment of an autocratic regime, politics was purged from Egypt’s public sphere. Politics was deemed divisive, irrational and conflict-ridden. The new age of state-led industrialisation since the late 1950s was based on technical efficiency where the country’s public good was defined by a closely-knit elite of officers and implemented by experts, technocrats and bureaucrats. There was no room for the expression of social or economic conflict in the very definition of public good. The rule of experts proved to be quite resilient as it outlived Nasser’s statist era and passed into his successors’ more liberal policies. Under Mubarak, the same formula continued. Public good was defined by the wise and rational leadership with no room for dissent. Politics was no more the means through which social conflict and competition could be managed or mediated. Rather, policymaking was devoid of politics and given totally to the realm of experts coming from IMF and World Bank backgrounds. This was especially the case under the Nazif Cabinet (2004-2011).

The January revolution has brought politics back to Egypt. The political sphere was finally opened after six long decades of authoritarianism. The expression of dissent became a common feature of everyday life. Critical and sensitive issues such as the identity of the future Egyptian state, the distribution of wealth and power and civil rights and liberties should all be decided upon through an open and competitive political process. Politics means that social conflict won’t be banished from the management of state affairs. Rather it will become the institutionalised medium through which these very affairs are to be managed.

In this context, decisions in the form of laws, decrees and regulations issued by the state will all be subject to complex political calculations through which a concept of the public good is to emerge. This is not longer the case when the leadership defines the public good as an objective truth that lies outside social and political interaction. The newly-elected leadership will be accountable for decisions that have distributive repercussions be they political or economic. The presence of technocrats in Mosri’s Cabinet is not likely to change or challenge the new reality that politics is back and that Morsi will pay — and most probably dearly — for any “wrong” decisions. The role of experts will be reduced de facto into the minor and meager role of technical consultants to the politicians who will take risks, bear responsibilities and pay for mistakes.

Hence, whether Morsi manages to appoint a technocratic Cabinet won’t change the new reality that policymaking is above all political and that winners and losers of governmental actions are much more important for decision-makers than the objective rationality of some policies. The harm has already been inflicted and there is no way out for the new president. He has to bear the political responsibility for painful economic and political decisions that are likely to follow in such turmoil. One possible remedy is to form a broad coalition that would include the Brotherhood together with other forces to their left and right as well as the military and the bureaucracy. Such a broad coalition has to agree on a minimal political platform, especially regarding the constitution. This way the Brotherhood can share the cost of taking decisions that will displease many citizens and remove the incentive of others to capitalise on their failure. However, this is all dependent on the political skill of Morsi and his company that failed to be demonstrated in many instances earlier.

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