Is politics in Egypt merely a struggle for power?

Samer Soliman , Tuesday 30 Oct 2012

The revolution showed that there can be more to politics than Machiavellian self-interest

Former US President Ronald Reagan famously said that: "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

This bleak outlook on politics is found everywhere in the world. In Egypt, a large portion of the citizenry – including political scholars and experts – believe that politics is nothing more than a struggle for power between individuals and groups.

In its extreme form, this perspective holds that politics is innately corrupt as an arena of self-interest, lies and underhandedness. It is essentially an arena for open conflict, where battling individuals and groups use all legitimate and illegitimate weapons; it is a means to swindle people.

It’s what we commonly refer to in Egypt as “polotica” which means politics in Italian – a term that Egyptians adopted after thousands of Italian nationals immigrated to Egypt in the 19th century and early 20th century.

In fact, Italian Niccolo Machiavelli is the leading promoter of politics as a dirty game of conflict. Millions of people around the world share the same view by either mistrusting or despising politicians; some politicians even agree with him about themselves and their profession as we can see by Reagan’s quote.

They say it is naïve to believe that politics can be ethical; the most we can dream of is that politics evolves from being “fisticuffs” between thugs to a boxing match where each player can beat up but not kill or permanently disfigure his opponent.

This dark view of politics is contrasted with an opposite perspective that sees politics as a means to serve the people, for altruism and sacrifice – or at least that what it should be. This is an ancient view found in the works of Greek philosophers who derived the word ‘politics’ from the word for city. This is how they defined politics, namely managing the affairs of the city or public affairs.

Individuals look after their personal affairs such as their own households but if there are common areas, such as the street, then this must be managed through an organised group effort.

I believe a key error of these views on politics is that they are limited to either the first or second definition. Yes, politics is a struggle for power which if not regulated and structured deteriorates into a fight between thieves and bandits. In the end, power is a tool to manage public affairs, namely delivering a number of services to the public such as security, traffic and clean streets, which anyone who wins power must deliver and anyone who is trying to reach power must discuss and highlight their skills in managing it.

Thus, a more accurate description of politics, in my opinion must be based on combining the two aforementioned definitions, making politics a struggle over power to manage the public domain.

The genius of the Egyptian revolution is that its dynamics and symbols involved both definitions of politics. There is no doubt there was a power struggle between Mubarak and his ruling entourage on the one hand and millions of citizens and hundreds of major and minor political groups on the other.

At the same time, an integral part of this revolution was hundreds of thousands of citizens who replaced the collapsed and paralysed state in running public affairs during the revolution. This included providing security via neighbourhood committees and cleaning up and beautifying Tahrir Square, which was a potently symbolic act that sent a message - we not only came out to remove Mubarak or battle for power, but also to change public discourse in Egypt and participate in managing and regulating it until it becomes civilised.

The problem in Egypt today is that the battle for power has overwhelmed the desire to manage public affairs. Today, the political scene is dominated by those who believe that politics is only a struggle for power and narrow interests, since hundreds of thousands who believe politics is about managing public affairs have decided to stay home.

Egypt and its policies will never be fixed without this group returning to politics; and they will never return to politics unless they uphold their belief that politics is both conflict and cooperation.

If politics is reduced to conflict, lies and fraud, then this type of politicking is designed to fit only one type of people – those with the loudest voices – but in no way represents all citizens.

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