Elections in a new Egypt

Abdel-Moneim Said , Saturday 27 Nov 2010

While some foreign powers and their respective media are keen to paint Egypt as politically stagnant, the reality is quite different

Two outlooks, whether explicitly stated or implied, have prevailed in commentaries on this year’s People’s Assembly elections. The first believes that Egypt lived in an electoral heaven before the 1952 Revolution. In those days there were really free elections, representatives from an erudite elite who were conscious of the higher interests of the nation, and parliamentary traditions and conventions on par with those in the British House of Commons or in the US Congress. Then the revolution hit and founded a system that has remained unchanged for six decades and that has no free elections or popular representatives. The second outlook does not hold the pre-revolutionary period in such high regard, but it does revere the post-revolutionary era and espouses the same traditions, illusions and attitudes. It is as though time, which leaves nothing immutable, has made an exception of the Egyptian political arena.

The two outlooks differ in their chronological preference: while the first reminisces wistfully over the long lost days of the monarchy, the second pines for the great republican era. Yet they share the same understanding of change. They do not see it as a gradual accumulation of small, sometimes imperceptible, yet complex changes, but rather as a sudden qualitative shift no less clamorous than the cry of a newborn child. Consequently, they both wonder at all the fuss over the forthcoming People’s Assembly elections, on the grounds that the results will differ little from previous rounds. Also, given their understanding of change, they both agree that the 1952 Revolution marks a complete and absolute rupture with the pre-revolutionary state. They refuse to acknowledge that the continuity and traditions of the Egyptian state have remained constant regardless of the form of the state and the individuals that stood at its head.

Perhaps some of the wind would be taken out of the sails of any of the proponents of the first outlook if they read the Diary of a Country Prosecutor, Tawfiq El-Hakim’s semi-autobiographical account of life in the depths of rural Egypt in the pre-1952 period. It relates the story of the peasant who was driven by abject poverty to steal a cob of corn, how the village barber-surgeon obtained a permit to bury one of his patients by paying a five piastre bribe to the local coroner, and how the district police chief curried favour with the local mayor by filling his prison cells to capacity in the pursuit of perpetrators of a crime. We also learn how election results were forged in favour of the government candidate: after voters ticked the name of the candidate of their choice and placed their ballot in the box, the box itself was tossed into an irrigation canal and replaced by another ballot box whose contents would yield the desired official result. Life in those times was not as rosy as some people imagine. The elite formed a very narrow upper crust that floated on the surface of a small and not very influential middle class, at a time when average life expectancy had not even reached 50. If conditions were so blissful and politicians so high-minded, why did the British occupation persist? How do you explain the defeat of 1948? Why had education not yet become as “free as air” as Taha Hussein called for towards the end of that era, whereas Japan, for example, had introduced free education as early as 1906?

However, such details from the pre-revolutionary period, or from the post-revolutionary period for that matter, are not the issue. What concerns us here is the continuity of the Egyptian state, which spans both eras. This state developed in its own way from the time Mohammed Ali laid its foundations in the early 19thcentury, through its formalisation with the declaration of independence in 1922 and up to the present day. Along the way, it underwent countless processes of adjustment and adaptation to changing international and regional circumstances, to technological revolutions, and to quantitative and qualitative demographic booms until we arrived at 2010 and this November’s parliamentary elections.

During the past three decades, there have been a number of fundamental developments that have had an inevitable impact on the political sphere. Two very significant developments occurred at the national security and strategic level. The first was the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979 leading to the Israeli evacuation of Sinai in 1982. For the first time in thousands of years, Egypt was truly free of foreign occupation and foreign rule. We do not even have to look that far back to see the truth of this. The British occupation, which began in 1892, remained heavy during the so-called liberal period from 1922 to 1952, but it also persisted after the revolution until 1956. Subsequently, Sinai was occupied twice, once between October 1956 and March 1957, and once again between June 1967 and April 1982, after which the whole of Egyptian land became free. The second strategic/security development is the government’s victory over the terrorist threat, a blight that has come to plague the entire world.

Economically, Egypt has changed considerably, at least from how it stood three decades ago. For one, the private sector has returned to work. During the last decade, its contribution to the national economy rose dramatically, increasing at an average annual rate of 7.8 per cent. This growing private sector contribution, in turn, has made our economy more robust and diverse. Egyptian GDP stands at $215.845 billion this year and per capita GDP at $2,752 (compare this to per capita GDP of $300 in 1980). Moreover, calculating in terms of purchasing power, GDP has reached $496.604 billion and per capita GDP is $6,347.

Demographically and socially Egypt has certainly undergone a sea change. The population of 40 million in 1980 has risen to 79 million, with between seven and eight million now residing abroad, most of these youth working in the private sector. Although poverty is still rife, the greater majority of Egyptians —around 80 per cent —now live above the poverty line. The education rate today has reached 72 per cent, nearly twice as high as it was in 1980 (40 per cent) and a long way from the rate of 25 per cent in 1960. Average life expectancy is now 72, up considerably from 57 in 1980.

Such changes are impossible to ignore and it is equally impossible to imagine that they could not have affected the course of political life in Egypt. Had it not been for these developments, the size and influence of Egypt’s civil society could not have grown to some 30,000 NGOs and civic associations. Nor would we have seen that amazing burgeoning of the Egyptian media, which now offers more than 500 newspapers and periodicals, including 21 dailies, and which also boasts 54 television stations broadcast via Nilesat, of which 31 (or 57 per cent) are privately owned. Nor are these the only media available to Egyptian audiences. They now have access to about 700 channels from the rest of the Arab world and elsewhere in the region that broadcast entirely in Arabic or that feature Arabic speaking broadcasts. Consider, too, that as of January 2010, 69.8 per cent of Egyptian families owned satellite dishes, compared to 48.3 per cent in May 2008. Now cast your mind back to the 1960s and 1970s, or even the 1980s, when all we had were a few state-owned television stations. Moreover, on top of this vast expansion in the Egyptians’ media horizons comes the digital revolution that has enabled 20 million Egyptian youths, so far, to connect to the internet, the electronic press and the blogosphere, driving the final nail into the coffin of the state monopoly over the media.

Such changes could not occur in any country in the world without having a profound effect on the political system. Of course, one could argue that the changes here have been smaller than they could have been and that other countries in our position have made larger strides forward than we have. Still, it is one thing to grant this possibility and quite another to claim that there has been no change at all. It could be that part of the reason for the lag between us and others is due to the fact that our admiration for the Turkish, Malaysian and South Korean experiences was not matched by an equal admiration for the means they used, by a willingness to pay the costs needed to accomplish what they did, and by sufficient awareness of the fact that progress is a product of the sound management of wealth, not of the avoidance of poverty and its effects. This said, the progress Egypt has made is not inconsiderable, especially over the past five years when our country began to pick up pace on several economic and political fronts, to which testify numerous reports by international organisations and their indicators on human resources, economic competitiveness, and the business and investment climate. When four million youths become owners of small and mid-size enterprises, and when 95 per cent of the job opportunities that offered employment to four million people came from the private sector, this can only mean that the economic reform process that was set into motion three decades ago is on course. And when a society’s economy can sustain positive economic growth rates at a time of global economic crisis that means that the options open to Egyptians will continue to increase.

Even as regards pure politics there have been a number of substantial changes, not least of which is the silent revolution that has swept the NDP over the past years at both the ideological and organisational levels. In spite of the fact that the party, in general, emerged from the cloak of the statist party that was more in the nature of a national front, embracing a whole spectrum of political hues, it has nevertheless succeeded in creating a general consensus over a bottom line of policies and principles that all who are eager for progress tempered by the prerequisites of justice can live with. No less important is the NDP’s development of state-of-the-art organisational machinery operated by young party members versed in the latest digital technology. This machinery is capable of rallying and mobilising supporters across the nation in different urban and rural environments. These changes were the daughter of necessity. In spite of all the claims about electoral tampering, the NDP won only 40 per cent of the votes in 1995, 38 per cent in 2000 and 32 per cent in 2005. Were it not for the fact that the NDP represents the Egyptian political centre, as defined by the consensus we spoke of above, it would not have drawn the MPs who had run as independents, of which 145 joined the party in 2000 and 218 in 2005.

Another political change is that some of the opposition parties, which had suffered a debilitating blow in the 2005 elections, have regained their strength during the past year after having resisted attempts to drag them to the political sidelines. Perhaps the turning point on this front was marked by the Wafd Party’s internal elections, which gave rise to a dynamic leadership armed with the organisational skills and media knowhow that enabled it to nearly triple the party’s parliamentary representation from five to 14 seats. This success helped give the alliance between the Wafd, Tagammu (Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party) and Nasserist parties the impetus it needed to expand its base into the Egyptian political centre and to inject fresh blood into its ranks. This alliance did not lose much with the absence of the Democratic Front, which never had a single member in the People’s Assembly and which would probably still be incapable of winning a seat, given that it barely has 3,000 members and that these are divided between those who in favour of taking part in the elections and those who felt that a “boycott” would secure for them steady appearances before the television cameras.

A third significant development is the declining influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is officially banned as an organisation but not when it comes to its individual members when they decide to field themselves in elections) as the consequence of a range of domestic and external factors. The performance of the Muslim Brotherhood MPs has proved modest, at best, largely because they were bent on heckling and harassment, rather than engaging in the parliamentarian’s task of reviewing and passing legislation. Not that this comes as a great surprise in light of the Brotherhood’s proposed political party platform, which exposed their rejection of the civil nature of the Egyptian state and their ultimate aim of creating a pure and unadulterated theocracy. The Brotherhood also underwent a number of hierarchical shifts that propelled it further to the right and towards the models of the failed theocratic experiences in Iran, Sudan and Palestine. More importantly, as far as their electoral prospects are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood has acted in ways that set it apart from the general Egyptian consensus that Egypt’s higher interests must reign supreme over all other considerations.

The fourth development involves the balloting process itself. Although Egyptians are virtually unanimous in their opposition to foreign monitors, a series of alternative measures offer increasing prospects for better safeguards of the integrity of the polls. These extend beyond such devices as glass ballot boxes and indelible ink that were introduced in the 2005 elections. The domestic and foreign media as well as a range of domestic and foreign NGOs have been gearing up to observe every detail of the campaigning and polling processes. On top of this there is judicial supervision, whether in the form of judges appointed by the Higher Electoral Commission or other judges eager to protect the electoral process, or on the part of the Administrative Court that has extended its jurisdiction into political territory that had been inaccessible to it until quite recently.

In light of all the foregoing, is it possible to believe that political life in Egypt is immutable or stagnant? Yet such is the claim not only among many Egyptian commentators but also among various foreign groups in Washington and other Western capitals, for whom, it appears, the only true mark of change would be the removal of the NDP from power. Naturally, such a criterion is unacceptable theoretically and practically, and not only because the Egyptian people are and should remain masters of their own processes of change. The NDP has a strong campaign platform and it has the proven experience and wisdom that has kept Egypt safe from the type of recklessness and adventurism that would have put its land and people at risk. In addition, as demonstrated above, the NDP has steered the Egyptian people ever further along the path to progress. The other parties might have more progressive ideas than the NDP. This is precisely why we have general elections —to give the opportunity for alternative ideas to compete for public favour. However, the question remains as to why they have yet to come up with a single new and popularly acceptable idea on the questions of economic reform, development and safeguarding national security. Perhaps for the moment it is best to watch the elections and then return to this question later.

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