In pursuit of a revolutionary elite

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Thursday 22 Sep 2011

Blocked from everything but oblique criticism for decades, Egypt's current political elite is incapable of formulating a practical agenda for moving the country forward, hence the impasse

The countdown to parliamentary elections has started, and the scope of emergency law has been broadened, while most Egypt's politicians remain focused on less important issues that have only marginal impact on the future of both the country and the revolutionary process.

Over the past months, the question of identity has been persistently topping the public debate agenda, leading to a polarised split between two camps: one broadly defined as the "Islamist forces" and the other as the "civil forces". There are also subdivisions within each camp. On the Islamist side, less experienced Salafis emphasise the notion of "Islamic state," while the more experienced Muslim Brotherhood and its outshoots argue for a "civil state" with an Islamic framework of reference. On the other side of the spectrum, more centrist groups and politicians advocate a "civil state" that upholds Islamic principles, while less centrist ones call for a secular state that pushes religion out of the public domain.

This debate is both fruitless and meaningless. It is fruitless because it is more concerned with political philosophy than it is with practical matters pertaining to the state structure. In practice, and beyond terms, most groups are largely in agreement. They accept democratic political legitimacy, agree that laws should be drafted through an elected parliament, and that the constitutionality of drafted laws could be contested before the Supreme Constitutional Court, and want to see political institutions autonomous from religious institutions. Extremists on both sides, who want to restrict the system by excluding the other, are marginal, and could only be impactful in identity-based polarisation.

It is a meaningless debate because it is divides political forces based on their stance on vaguely defined terms that have minimal explanatory capacity. Advocating an Islamic, civil or secular state hardly says anything about a group's views on the economic agenda or foreign policy. In fact, insisting on drawing political separators based on group identities is harmful, as it pushes different groups into identity-based alliances that postpone discussing the serious and more pressing issues.

Some issues deserve more attention in public debate. Both revolutionary and state building agendas have pressing issues that are sidelined and neglected due to the persistence of identity questions. On the revolutionary front, Egypt stands — seven months after ousting Mubarak — with no clear roadmap for the transitional period. Parliamentary elections are due in a few weeks, but SCAF-proposed laws regulating them do not promise fair elections that would lead to a revolutionary parliament. Further, the elected parliament will have insignificant political power, as the SCAF will retain the right to ratify international treaties and appoint the government until a president is elected. No specific dates have been set for presidential elections.

Dismantling Mubarak's regime remains an unfinished job of the transitional period. Security institutions still needs restructuring, and while technical experts and human rights organisations have proposed several reform initiatives, there was no enough political will to enforce them. Both public and private sector media remain highly undemocratic, with the former being controlled by state authorities and the latter being controlled by a handful of business cronies.

Questions of policy and state-building are equally serious. On the economic front, there has been no sufficient discussion on Egypt's budget, and proposed strategies to handle the serious deficit therein. While the headline "social justice" appears in most parties' official programmes, there is no serious talk on what it means, nor how will it be achieved. Very little has been said about constitutional rights in the new Egypt, as politicians seem unconcerned about experiences of post-transitional countries like Brazil and South Africa.

While the question of the right of Egyptians abroad to vote has been raised, it was never seriously debated on both the philosophical and foundational and practical levels. Transforming the country's foreign policy has not yet been given deep thought by politicians. While there is a general orientation towards moving closer to Iran, no comprehensive strategy for this transformation has been presented, taking into consideration the impact and requirements of this move on different fronts.

Egypt's politicians are incapable of seriously debating these issues. The reason is rather straightforward: the contemporary elite is a product of Mubarak's regime, and consequently suffers serious deformations. Operating for decades under oppression, these politicians got used to their position as opposition with no hope of coming to power, or even impacting state policy. It did not matter, therefore, whether they discuss questions of foreign policy, what a female singer is wearing in a video clip, or educational reform initiatives, for the outcome in all cases would be no more than a few articles, or perhaps seminars, where no one has the responsibility of presenting coherent, sound and well thought-out ideas.

With no incentive to challenge, research and strategise, these politicians do not have a project for the country, and consequently feel more comfortable debating identity than more serious questions.

But Egyptians are not concerned with the question of identity. Gallup statistics reveal that most Egyptians support an Islamic identity of the state (84 per cent), but only a minority (27 per cent) supports Islamists who are — more or less — obsessed with this question. Most, therefore, stand in the centre between polarised groups on the question of identity and relation between state and religion. Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies statistics reveal that the five most important issues for Egyptians are: security, prices, unemployment, dismantling the former regime's remnants, and eliminating corruption. Lack of capability paralyses politicians' ability to address these concerns. 

This failure of politicians will inevitably lead to the emergence of a new political elite. With each system producing its actors, revolutionary Egypt will eventually produce a new leadership that deals more confidently with the question of identity, and moves forward to discuss questions that matter to Egyptians. Unlike the previous political leadership, these new leaders will not gain their legitimacy from state appointments and recognition, and/or experience with Western institutions, but rather from their relevance to the people's demands, and their ability to truly reflect their views and aspirations.

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