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Who owns politics in Egypt today? On emerging practices in political landscape

 

In this book, Hesham Gaafar, a political researcher and commentator, examines new players and emerging practices in Egypt’s present political landscape.

Released by El-Maraya in 2023, this nearly 300-page volume is essentially a compilation of articles written by Gaafar over the past few years, some of which were previously published on various websites. In its four chapters, Gaafar adeptly and cautiously argues that a shift in the nature of the republic, established by the Free Officers in 1952, is underway. This shift is evident in many aspects that are not all controlled by the state.
“The republic that was set out by the Free Offices has come to its concluding point and Egypt today needs a new social pact,” Gaafar wrote. He argued that “the new players” have their strong and unavoidable imprint on the making of this new contract.
In an almost “empirical” approach, Gaafar shows the declining monopoly of “actual” politics by the state in line with its receding role of the state in the economy – with the informal economy expanding to count for close to half the GDP.

In a sense, Gaafar seems to trace the beginning of the end of the Free Officers Republic to the 1970s when the state started to give up on big parts of its role as the number one provider of social protection, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s.

What started under Anwar El-Sadat, Gaafar shows, continued more profoundly under the much longer rule of Hosni Mubarak, with the state increasingly giving up on more parts of its socio-economic responsibilities and, consequently, on shares of its political monopoly – thus allowing for new – some of them are actually old – players to have an increasing say.

For Gaafar, the 1977 riots and the majority of subsequent protests up until the almost-nationwide protests of January 2011 and June 2013 are in essence about the receding political monopoly practised under Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

The book shows that the decline of this monopoly occurred without the full attention of the state which, at certain junctures, wielded control over public mobilization, particularly in times of crisis. However, it did not take long for this control to be contested and ultimately rejected by the people.

Going through the history of the Republic of the Free Officers up until the January 2011 Revolution, Gaafar provides a concise timeline of the gradual recession of state monopoly over politics, monitoring the highs and lows of the role of civil society in the political scene between 1952 and 2011.

At many points, the book draws comparisons between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and the subsequent regime – only to show that the equation of extreme political monopoly and full socio-economic support that Nasser mastered so well, never managed to stay in play with subsequent leaders, including those who adopted Nasser’s extreme security approach, allegedly to protect the state, “often under the call of national security.”

The book contends that the diminishing dominance of the monopoly is not inherently negative, as it provides an opportunity for the state to better heed the voices of the masses and for the public to become more engaged in politics. However, Gaafar argues that, thus far, it has been infrequent for the state to genuinely listen to society. "It is not customary for the Egyptian state to view society as a potential partner in a dialogue simply because [the state] believes it has the right to decide on behalf of society."

This “assumption” on the part of the state has become unsustainable with the growing role of social media. It is a matter of time before the state would have to realize its interest lies in creating a space – even if limited and closely watched – for the condoned political powers to act.

Gaafar's new book is part of a bigger project meant to examine the social and political topography of the Arab world. A previous title that subscribes to this project is his 2021 The Arab Spring Narratives', also published by El-Maraya. His most recent volume, The Battle on the Spirit of Islam was published at this year's Cairo International Book Fair by Madarat.