Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Qena: The Revolution Moves On

            The last week, but especially the last few days, have placed in relief the great challenges that confront Egyptians now.  What kind of decisive role these events themselves will have on where things go is obviously difficult to say but they do indicate the immense problems that confront the core of a highly centralized government in Cairo as it attempts to deal with the demands for participation in a large, diverse and still significantly rural society.  There are now challenges to the authority and structure of the central state (and not only to the regime) at least two of which are serious and which, so far, the government has not been able to find a way to influence, let alone resolve.   These days will certainly test the political capacity of Egypt’s current government as well as the resolve and ability of the army. 

            To say that the capacity of the government will be tested does not mean that the government is about to dissolve, any more than nuclear disaster in Japan or the need to raise the debt ceiling of the United States indicate that those states are near collapse.  Nevertheless both social conflict and technological disaster do test the administrative and political capacities of governments.  In their wake, people ask themselves whether both their leaders and their institutions are up to the challenges. 

            If these events throw into relief the challenges the new government faces, they also indicate some of the positive changes that have occurred.  Most crucially what the present situation reveals is that for the time being the government either does not wish to or is not able to use the kind of force that the old regime more routinely used.

            Egypt, like 19th and early 20th century France (on whose example it is, in part, modeled) has a highly centralized state.  It is divided into provinces or governorates and the governors are appointed rather than elected.  They serve under the Ministry of the Interior and therefore are closely connected to a police force that is, in Egypt, itself a large, centralized and national force.  Although there are elected local councils their powers are relatively minor compared to those wielded by the local unit of the country’s executive authority. The provinces, or governorates to use a somewhat more accurate translation, are convenient administrative units for the central government.  They do correspond, in some rough way, to the country’s regions but—unlike the regions whose names they often share and which have known (even if sometimes imagined) characteristics—they have no independent political life.  An indication of how fluid they can be is that even as the government was appointing new governors it also abolished the two governorates of Helwan and October 6. They were transferred back into Cairo and Giza respectively whence they had been created in 2008.

            On April 14, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf re-shuffled the deck of provincial governors.  His choice for a new governor of the Upper (southern) Egyptian province of Qena was met with nearly immediate and widespread protests.   Sharif had chosen a police general as the new governor, Emad Shehata Mikhail, who is a Coptic Christian.  In the general re-shuffling he also chose new governors for Minya province (between Qena and Cairo), Daqahliya (in the northeast of the Delta), and Alexandria (in the northwest of the Delta).  In the past week protests against these choices have grown.  These protests necessarily link some of the most vital and unresolved issues of the future structure of the Egyptian state with very basic concerns about what the dominant values of the emerging Egyptian polity will be together with pressing and sometimes violent local social conflicts and national contests for influence.  In other words, it’s very very complicated. 

            To some degree what is at stake is whether the national government is able, and is seen as able, to resolve some of the most basic conflicts in Egyptian society.  There are also other questions of the resolve of the government to carry out decisions that may be unpopular with sections of society for what it deems to be illegitimate reasons such as religious prejudice.  In the absence of a clear sense of where the transition is heading there is also the question of whether the future Egyptian democracy is to remain a strongly centralized state ruled from Cairo or whether democracy also means allowing more local control.  These events will also reveal something about the relative balance of forces in the country between those committed to a vision of liberal democracy and those who see democracy as a path to the maintenance of Islamic supremacy or perhaps an Islamic state.  In practice the political preferences of the Muslim Brothers, the Azhar as the representative of official Islamic institutions, the armed forces, as well as Egypt’s left and liberal forces will become more apparent. 

            What makes this complex is that, as the late Isaiah Berlin put it, it is quite possible for fundamental principles to clash rather than to harmonize.  If you believe that all good things necessarily go together then the story I am about to tell will seem obtuse, bizarre, and perhaps morally bankrupt.  If you believe that democracy is about constant attempts to resolve conflicts based in principle as well as between divergent interests then what I am about to describe may make more sense. 

The basic demands of the January 25 protest including transforming local government. There have been proposals, in the wake of the collapse of the old regime, for governors to be elected. For now the Egyptian government remains largely as it was before January 25 albeit with very different people in charge.  Many of the old governors, both due to their career paths in the police and to the events surrounding the revolution, have been at least tangentially connected to severe repression and there have been claims that some of them participated in the decision to use deadly force.  As far as I know none of these claims has been substantiated but they certainly remain a potent political charge.

            There has been significant dissatisfaction with many of the new governors and demonstrations have occurred but in Qena a severe political storm blew up.  The police general placed in charge of the governorate, Emad Shehata Mikhail, is a Christian.  The previous governor, Magdy Ayoub, was also Christian.  Although the majority of the population of the province is Muslim, it most likely has a much largely proportion of Christians than Egypt as a whole (it’s a little difficult to be precise in the absence of some kind of census or survey records which I don’t believe exist). I have not been in Qena but I have followed the news reporting (print, state television and some of the large number electronic accounts via both Twitter and Facebook) from Cairo. 

            Within hours of the announcement of Mikhail’s appointment, and well before any similar protests against other governors occurred elsewhere, protestors gathered.  Appointing new governors seems to have been a decision by the government to respond to complaints that many of the personnel in the bureaucracy, and especially the police and administration, had not changed with the revolution despite the arrests of former high officials.  Some of the early reports of the unrest in Qena describe a demand to replace Mikhail with a governor who was both civilian and Muslim and the demonstrators themselves were frequently described as Islamists or salafiyyin. 

It is usual to describe salafiyyin as “rigorous” or “extremely orthodox” Muslims.  Whatever else can be said of it, its adherents claim to be adhering to an “originalist” reading of the Qur’an as a text.  At the beginning of the 20th century the Salafi movement as an intellectual current was often associated with liberal and modernizing intellectuals but during the last half century it has become associated with a radically conservative force in Egyptian society. Whatever name one wishes to use, it is clear that in many parts of Upper Egypt (and elsewhere as well) there are Salafi groups that practice what they claim is a pure form of Islam and which also seek to subject the entire population—especially Christians but also Muslims who they view as insufficiently or improperly observant—to their own political and social rules.  They are intolerant, often violent, and often refused to engage in politics until after the collapse of the Mubarak regime.  They generally oppose the concept of citizenship because it would allow non-Muslims to govern Muslims in a predominantly Muslim society (and usually also women to govern men) and also democracy.  They have had some severe conflicts recently with other religious trends, notably the Sufi orders and the mainstream Azhar clerical establishment.

            There was also some dissatisfaction within the Christian community at Ayoub's performance as governor.  During his tenure a terrible crime occurred in the city of Nag Hammadi when a drive-by shooting at a church as Christmas services were over took several lives.  Although the early claims were that the shooting was a generalized form of revenge for a sexual relationship elsewhere in the province between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, investigations by human rights groups indicated it was a part of a fairly cynical action designed to increase sectarian tension to allow a member of the national ruling party to regain a seat that the Mubarak machine had pushed him out of.  At least some members of the local Christian community felt that Ayoub had and Mikhail would not be able to deal with these kinds of issues given the emotional tensions they evoked.  They therefore also joined the demonstrations for his ouster.

            The demonstrators, who rapidly came to number thousands, quickly occupied the railway tracks that go through the city.  They were thus able to prevent train movement on the north-south rail artery that connects Cairo (at the head of the Nile Delta) with Aswan (where the High Dam is located in the far south).  For several days they also blocked entry to the central administrative headquarters of the governorate and allowed neither the governor nor his assistants to enter.  Toward the end of the protest they were also demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf who, despite numerous reports in the press of his intention, never himself visited Qena.

            The demonstrators were at pains to present themselves as part of the January 25 revolution and to avoid being described as motivated by religious prejudice.  They claimed that the appointment of a Copt as governor of Qena in the wake of the previous governor who had also been a Copt indicated that the government was operating under a “quota” system in which Qena would henceforth always be governed by a Christian even though the majority of its inhabitants are Muslim.  Quotas have become a more salient issue in Egypt in the past decade since the Mubarak government instituted a quota system to ensure the presence of women in the national legislature (and also to refine a different channel for its control over the legislative branch). 

There is significant discrimination against Copts including in the presumably more liberal confines of higher education.  The late Ra’uf Abbas, a prominent historian, revealed some extremely crude instances of the exclusion of Christians carried out by Muslim colleagues.  In the typically thoughtless way of those who discriminate they assumed that Abbas, a Muslim, shared their views.  In the broader society one tactic of extreme Islamist groups has been to call for boycotts against Coptic businesses.  In the fall of 2010 the Azhar Scholars Front called for such a boycott, but they were far from the first.  In his memoirs, Brigadier General Aziz Ghali, a Christian who commanded a division in the 1973 war, describes his shock at hearing such a call broadcast over a loudspeaker from a mosque in Cairo one morning in 1990.  In the 1990s as well members of armed Islamic groups robbed Christian jewelers and shopkeepers to finance their own activities under the pretext of carrying out war against the enemies of Islam.  The police played a significant role in repressing armed Islamist organizations in the 1990s but in the process it more or less trampled on the rights of anybody who even remotely got in the way, leaving a further tangled legacy.

As is often the case with disadvantaged regions where people are poorer, education is less common, spending on public welfare lower, access to upward mobility less frequent, and extensive family connections stronger there is also significant prejudice among more sophisticated and wealthier against people from the Sa’id as Upper Egypt is called in Arabic.  Stereotypes abound and Sa’idis, whether Muslim or Christian, are said to be not very bright, hot-blooded, excessively religious, generally emotional and prone to violence. 

There was unhappiness in many of the 20 governorates which woke up, had occurred in the past, to discover that they had suddenly had new governors who they had not chosen.  The promises of the revolution, coupled with the uncertain political structure of the country and the degree of centralization that would continue to exist, along with the powerful forces of discrimination made Qena a particularly complex flashpoint.  Moreover, the kind of open discrimination against Christians which was until quite recently not merely open but a proudly acknowledged part of some Islamist discourse has now receded.  Not the discrimination and disdain, certainly, but the degree of openness with which it is expressed.  So even many of those in public life who completely disdain Christians have been cautious about placing the grounds of their opposition on religious supremacy.  They have, more recently, at least verbally accepted the construct of the civil national state and equality of citizenship between Muslims and Christians.  This is a question that has particularly bedeviled the Muslim Brothers whose draft program for an election campaign in 2007 pointedly refused to accept the idea of a Christian (or woman) as president.  Some of their leaders have recently said they could accept such a president and the former Supreme Guide of the Brothers has even been quoted as saying that the head of the Brotherhood itself could be a Christian should the members so choose.  In the past few days the MB, mindful that the constitution will not allow the creation of a political party (which they desperately wish to form) which preaches religious discrimination have announced that although anyone, whether Christian or female, can be nominated for president no one is obliged to vote for such a candidate.

A plethora of slogans and explanations for the revolt in Qena emerged.  There was and is no doubt that a significant portion of the antagonism to Mikhail was that he is Christian and that many Qenawis, especially but not only the salafis, simply refused to accept the appointment of a Christian to govern Muslims.  The government despite (or because) it’s the creature of the armed forces will not use massive violence.  This has also led critics of the government, especially in Cairo, to wonder if the army has made some kind of agreement with both the Brotherhood and the Salafis.  After all, they argue, in early April the Armed Forces used violence to disperse peaceful secular middle-class activists in Midan al-Tahrir in downtown Cairo which is far less important to the country’s economy than the major north-south train line.  The army, for its part, denies that it favors any particular political group in the country.  There was therefore an important struggle both in Qena and elsewhere to define the nature of the demonstrations which brought together an array of different forces. 

Some of the demonstrators objected to Mikhail because he was involved in repression in Giza during the January 25 revolution the shooting of demonstrators.  This objection might be a good one if Mikhail’s former posting in Giza had not been in the office concerned with tax evasion.  On the other hand, former Presidential candidate Aiman Nour has accused Mikhail of personally overseeing his torture in 2008. Mikhail has twice offered to resign with the understanding that if he leaves Qena he would return to his former unit.  Both times the government has refused to accept his resignation since to do so, under pressure, would appear to be an act diminishing the authority of the state.  If Mikhail were in fact guilty of any criminal acts the evidence would by now have surfaced and the government would have been compelled to let him go.

The refusal of the government to accept Mikhail’s proferred resignation indicates another dimension of these events.  The government certainly wants to appear (and probably to some degree actually to be) responsive to popular protest and preference.  But both the government and political activists are painfully aware that the authority (or haiba which has overtones of “awe” as well as power) will be damaged if it accedes to every protest including those that have one clearly illegitimate dimension even if that one has popular resonance and is associated with other, more politically palatable issues.

Once the demonstrators had occupied the train tracks and as the interruption of traffic spread from the train to the major road arteries as well, Qena became a source of national debate.  As far as I can tell from a quick Google search this has been almost completely absent from the Western media, but it has been in the headlines nearly every day in Egypt.  The demonstrations took place in the capital city of the province, also named Qena.  Not far from anyone’s mind, however, is that the nearby city of Nag Hammadi where as I mentioned above a horrific drive-by shooting occured a couple of years ago.  Stereotypes aside, therefore, there is a legitimate fear that sectarian violence could occur which, once begun would be difficult to end.

 Some indication of the religious and political divisions in the region is found in the recent plebiscite result on amending the constitution.  The central Qena city electoral district voted “no” by about 20% as did Nag Hammadi.  In the areas surrounding the city fewer than 5% did. 

Although the Prime Minister did not go to Qena, fairly early on he sent the Minister of the Interior, Mansour al-Issawi and the Minister of Civil Management, Muhsen al-Nu’mani to negotiate with the demonstrators.  Several prominent Muslim preachers, including from among the Salafi groups, also arrived in Qena to attempt to bring the protests to a conclusion.  Priests and Muslim clerics held meetings and at one point jointly led a demonstration calling for a new governor. As the affair continued on, however, it was increasingly clear to all concerned, as summed in an op-ed published in one of the Cairo dailies on April 24, that there were three clear dimensions to what was happening:  the need to preserve the authority of the central state, the need to insist on the equality of all citizens (both in terms of holding power and being subject to the law), and the need to ensure that private individuals not commandeer public property and prevent free movement and commerce.  Parenthetically under the recently promulgated laws governing both thuggery and demonstrations, it is very difficult to understand how a demonstration that effectively prevented commerce and industry in a large swathe of Upper Egypt from functioning for over a week do not merit criminal prosecution. 

Toward the very end, some members of the January 25 movement went to Qena to try to find a resolution.  Mostafa El-Naggar, a prominent activist now closely associated with the candidacy of Muhammad al-Baradei for the presidency, wrote of his visit to Qena.  El-Naggar met with several different groups including Christian and Muslim religious leaders and came away with the dominant sense (shared by others) that the urban elite in the capital have misunderstood events in Qena.  He and his group proposed a different solution in which Mikhail would indeed cease to be governor but in which Qena would become the laboratory for democracy: after a three-month caretaker arrangement the governor of Qena would be elected and henceforth all governors would be elected. As part of the solution both the government and demonstrators would have to formally recognize that denying political authority to an Egyptian citizen because of religion was unacceptable.  Attractive as this sounds it is doubtful that either the government, the army, or indeed the population at large is really prepared for such an undertaking. 

Just before the crisis ended, the Muslim Brothers (moving in the opposite direction from El-Naggar although they had been involved in pushing the demonstration forward in its earliest days) issued a stinging critique of the demonstrators in Qena.  They called the demonstrators remnants of the old regime and warned of the danger both of diminishing the authority of the state and of evoking civil conflict.  At the same time the Muslim Brothers, who were evidently not invited to the Easter services at the central Cairo Cathedral, seem to have made something of a point of showing up at other, local services.  The Muslim Brothers continue to proclaim their adherence to a civic state albeit one that, in the minds of several of their prominent leaders, can easily coexist with being an Islamic state.  The Brotherhood, as parliamentary election slowly draw closer must keep an eye (or two or three) on their primary base, the possibility of losing some of it to the salafis, and the need to convince both the army and the bulk of the urban population especially in Cairo (which is about 20% of the country) that they can be trusted with power. 

The crisis in Qena was brought to an end on April 26 when Prime Minister Sharaf, just before leaving on his first official foreign mission (to the Gulf), issued a decree “freezing” Mikhail’s activity as governor.  For three month’s Mikhail’s assistant governor (his “secretary”) will manage affairs in the province.  Clearly, despite repeated attempts to get him to do so, Sharaf decided not to address the issues in Qena directly nor to visit.  It is clear that it takes a very long time for the present council of ministers to work through their daily agenda but Sharaf did manage to address the inhabitants of South Sinai just before the Sinai Liberation Day. Sharaf could have taken the occasion to enter into a deeper dialogue with the country about what constitutional democracy will mean:  the rights of citizens and the prospect not only for free parliamentary elections but also for the devolution of power.  On the other hand perhaps in the present atmosphere he decided that a frank discussion of these issues would only spoil everybody’s picnic on the popular Shamm al-Nessim which corresponds to the official holiday.  Egyptians were enjoying herring, roe and eggs on whatever green space they could find while official religious figures from the Azhar were calling for the government to outlaw the sale of both fish products on the grounds that unscrupulous merchants sell rotten merchandise.  Not, of course, because it’s been a traditional way to celebrate spring since before either Islam or Christianity were popular religions.  And yet this seems to be one of the ways that democratic regimes resolve problems: they kick them down the road.  In three months time everything may look very different. Perhaps then Mikhail can resume his work as governor.  Or perhaps he can quietly return to Giza.  Either way the government has avoided a serious and possibly violent confrontation as well as a serious debate.  A government committed not to use violence against its people when they are engaged in political protest will have to use the measures of temporization, delay and inaction as well as persuasion and vigorous enforcement of the law.  There is clearly something to be said for letting social forces contend without intervening too quickly if Egyptians are going to gain the experience, so long denied them since 1952, to resolve local problems locally. 

But there is also something to be said for confronting issues as they arise and at least clarifying what choices the Egyptian people confront.  The last ten days in Qena brought several issues to light in a particularly salient way because of how they reinforced each other to create a real, if limited, crisis of governance.  These events are less dramatic than what happened in Tahrir Square in February 2011 and they are certainly less dramatic than what is now going on in Syria and Libya.  Yet for all that they are important not just to Egypt but to the future of self-rule in the region.  First, the government did refrain from the use of violence.  Second, while much attention is correctly focused on whether the new government will be a parliamentary or presidential regime, an equally important question is how power the center is prepared to devolve to the regions and provinces.  An Egypt which lives in a highly centralized parliamentary regime may not be much more able to affect their own destiny than in the past 60 years.  For those with a taste for historical analogy, it may be an Egypt that spends the next 60 years re-living the experience of the French Third Republic.  Third, however, there is little doubt that devolving power from the center to the provincial level runs the severe risk of allowing local prejudice to trump republican principle.  There is no particular reason to believe that the majority of Qena (or any other province) will choose a Christian political leader in the new future.  As I noted above, that such political figures may run does mean they will win.  Fourth even if mass demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir become a thing of the past, Egyptians feel for now that they have reclaimed the right to assemble and to protest.  This is no longer simply something written into the text of the constitution but has become part of the pattern of political life across the political spectrum.  I am not suggesting every political force respects others who deploy this right but for now everybody expects to use it without repression.  Lastly, politics will clearly involve major conflicts from here on out to define the public agenda in ways that 60 years of dictatorship repressed.  Leaving aside what "really" happened in Qena, which some very unsavory aspects that many people would like to put aside as well as providing some important challenges to the structure of the transitional regime, political groups are struggling to capture control of the national debate by explaining them and hoping broad audiences will buy the explanation and the underlying assumption.  Some of the Salafi leaders have gotten very good at this.

            If these issues have been thrown into high relief by the last 10 days they appear elsewhere.  Demonstrations have occurred, although not relatively as large or intense or prolonged, in Minya, Daqahliyah and Alexandria provinces.  Protests against the imposition of police officials on local administration have occurred but in the case of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, they have focused on a former university president, a particularly unloved group in today’s Egypt.  University presidents may not have been from the police but they frequently actively cooperated with them and they preside over one of the disaster areas of Egyptian life: the degraded state of higher education (not I hasten to add necessarily of those who provide it) as a system.

            It is always tempting to view revolution through the lens of our comfortable but schematic conceptual frameworks shaped by hindsight and the necessity of scholarly explanation.  Having lived, even if only on the margins, of the events of the last 90 days it seems implausible to me that anyone in Paris in October 1789 or Saint Petersburg in May 1917 or Boston in September 1776 had any inkling of where it would all go.  And where it “went” depends in part on where you place the arbitrary end of the process.  In France was it the Terror of Robespierre or the Empire of Napoleon, the battle over Dreyfus or the installation of the Programme Commun?  In Russia was it the Bolshevik coup or the Stalinist assault on peasant society, the period of perestroika or Putin’s ascendancy? And in  own country was it the now-forgotten Articles of Confederation or the belated (and certainly undemocratically written) compromise known as the Constitution, was it the Civil War or the civil rights movement?  Ninety days into a process that will take years if not decades to correctly name and to unfold we can only watch for clues.  We will need to let future observers explain, as they will, the inevitable and inexorable steps to a conclusion that now eludes us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Those Pesky Workers and Peasants and Egyptian Election Law

One problem with trying to understand how the legal system interacts with politics in Egypt today is that the relevant law is often extraordinarily precise but also seems to be far from well understood at least by outsiders, within whose ranks I certainly place myself. 

There has long been confusion, especially among foreign observers, of one of the prominent features of Egyptian electoral law: the requirement that half the members of the parliament be workers or peasants.  It has long been presented to outsiders as a significant achievement for democracy in Egypt.  What leftist could object to the idea that half the legislature must be composed of workers and peasants?  And yet, even the late William Buckley, who would have preferred government by the first thousand names in the Boston telephone book to rule by the Harvard faculty of the Government Department, might have been drawn to such a sturdy group of the salt of the earth. Although I've always wondered if he just thought there would have been a lot of Ahearns, and Buckleys, and Boyles.

Egyptian analysts and activists have often complained about this provision but they never manage to make clear exactly what the problem is.  Perhaps it’s just too well known to be worth explaining or perhaps the mechanics behind a rule that clearly works out unfairly in practice are just a bit too complex to explain. 

These rules are complex but they’re there for an undemocratic reason.  They weren’t put in place to establish socialism and they aren’t being retained because they’re a fuzzy holdover from back in the day when socialism was all the rage.  They have a clearly undemocratic aspect both in substance and in form.  And if the rule wasn’t written into the constitution it would probably be unconstitutional.  And it also violates some of Egypt’s international treaty obligations.

The constitution mandates that half the seats in parliament (and I’m going to focus on the lower house here) be held by workers and peasants.  What could be easier to understand than workers and peasants.  They must be what my late landlady and society editor of the West Coast Communist party newspaper called “the horny-handed sons of toil.”  Of course she meant daughters as well; she just neglected to mention them.

Egyptian law is a bit more precise than she was.  In 2007 Democracy Reporting International published (what else?) a report on elections in Egypt.  They do about as well as anyone can in explaining the relevant law that fleshes out the constitutional command.   Who, for purposes of running for parliament, is a worker or peasant?  Surprisingly enough, many people who we might ordinarily think of as workers—such as members of industrial or skilled trade unions—don’t qualify. 

Article 2 of Law 38/1972 defines “worker” as ‘A person who depends mainly on his income from his manual or mental work in agriculture, industry, or services.  He shall not be a member of a trade union, or recorded in the commercial register, or a holder of a high academic qualification.’ 

The Egyptian legislators have saved their country from the danger of being governed by a slew of political science professors.  But also from the danger of ordinary industrial workers or people who own the rather wide range of businesses that require commercial registration (for more on this, see Law 34/1976).   So, in fact, many people we might ordinarily think of as workers actually aren’t in terms of the law.  And very few of the people who are, will have the money or name recognition to win a campaign on their won in an electoral district with possibly hundreds of thousands of voters.  So people without advanced degrees who don’t work with their hands but also aren’t professionals can run as workers.

What about peasants?  A peasant is ‘a person who sole work and main source of living is cultivation, and is residing in the countryside, providing that he, his wife, and minor children shall not own or lease more than ten feddans.’

This definition seems more like what we usually mean by peasant although again such people are likely to be too poor to mount a campaign on their own.  Although I believe that there is no legal barrier to illiterates serving in the legislature, many of the people who might fall into this category may not read or write.  (Just as an aside I have no issue with illiterate or semi-literate people serving in legislatures on the Buckley analogy I mention above.  I realize that they're not lawyers, like most of the people who serve in US legislatures.)  However, it's worth noting that people who live on small (roughly 10-acre) farms in the countryside and who don’t make a living from doing anything else could be considered peasants, even if they are well-connected and relatively well-educated.

If the only issue were that there are some peculiarities in the nomination of workers and peasants then perhaps this provision would not be such a big deal.  But the constitutional mandate is quite clear: half the seats must be held by workers and peasants (as legally defined).  The particular way the law works to ensure this outcome was (and remains) obscure but its impact was (and unless changed will remain) quite clear.  It works by limiting the right of other candidates to compete for office.

Egypt is divided into 222 electoral districts which each elect two representatives.  One of the two must be a worker or peasant.  Skipping over some of the relevant arcana, the Egyptian electoral law requires successive run-offs to accomplish its electoral goals of seating candidates with a majority (engaging, along the way in previous elections, ever diminishing levels of participation from a rather low starting point). 

Basically there are three kinds of candidates: workers, peasants, and “others.”  If a worker or peasant wins (comes in first) in the first round then we’re ok.  What if neither of the top two vote-getters is a worker or peasant?  In other words what if the two top vote-getters are both “others”?  Then, even if they both won enough votes to take their respective seat, the “other” who came in second is thrown out and there is a run-off between the two top worker and/or peasant candidates.  Thus, it is by no means impossible (or even difficult) for someone to win a majority of votes for a seat in parliament and still be disqualified and for the seat to be given to someone who, at least initially, was a fairly unpopular candidate.
If someone is elected to parliament as a worker or peasant and ceases, legally, to be a worker or peasant then they forfeit their seat.  Joining a union, getting some education, or opening a business could all strip you of a seat.  Which is a little surprising for a system which claimed that representatives were being chosen by individual mandate rather than by party list.

Besides the disregard of the wishes of the voters this also appears to violate a basic (and I believe constitutional) principle that all votes count equally since in this case votes that should have been sufficient to elect a candidate are discounted.  But since it's a constitutional provision it can't be unconstitutional.  And Egypt is also a party to several international treaties that, in addition to the Egyptian  constitution, require equal treatment of voters.   And it’s not much of a mystery why, as Muhammad al-Baradei pointed out a couple of days ago, no other country has this kind of principle.

Retaining this provision of the constitution hardly seems like retaining a bit of the socialist past or one of the basic achievements of the 1952 revolution as General Mamdouh Shahin suggested recently.  It major function is to make make establishing a democratic and representative government that can engage in critical oversight just that much more difficult. Whether the generals fully realize how it works is a different question but it is not too difficult to understand why many people would like to get rid of this provision.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Closer Look at the Referendum Results: District by District

            The hotly contested referendum of March 19 has passed into history and left hardly a trace.  Given the intense emotions evoked by the partisans of voting “yes” and “no” as well as the patience and energy with which millions of Egyptians lined up to vote this is a bit surprising but things in Egypt continue to move at a remarkably rapid pace. One common assertion in the form of a joke is that the life of a political figure here is now one week.  That's how long it takes for a previously little known figure to reach public prominence and then disappear again.

    The decision by the army to transform, without any public discussion whatsoever, the referendum on amending the constitution into a decision to replace the 1971 constitution with a new “constitutional declaration” effectively turned the referendum into what now appears like a trial of democratic procedures rather than like an undertaking of democratic power.  That said, it is also important not to underestimate the impact of the trial.  Many people spent quite a bit of time and energy thinking deeply about the implications of the proposed amendments and drawing conclusions not only about a text but about their own aspirations and concerns for Egypt’s future.  To the degree that democracy is about deliberation, many people I know deliberated privately long and hard.  What many people also felt was that the process, unfortunately, occurred in such a way as to limit public deliberation.  Thus some Egyptians feel they lost a chance not only to clarify the issues at stake but also to engage in a new kind of dialogue about the country’s future which would replace the older structures of debate as a one-sided delivery of opinion rather than a deliberative weighing.  

As I have pointed out in a previous entry it is not so clear that the armed forces could have attracted such a large “yes” vote for the new constitution they wrote rather than for what were presented as a limited number of amendments.  And they have now, certainly, written themselves into the constitution as well as, potentially, out of it.

            Remarkably little has been written about the election results other than the aggregate total of 77.3 % yes votes and 22.7% no votes.  The few quick analysis I’ve seen using available statistics at the governorate (muhafazah) level suggest that voting “no” was generally associated with higher education and higher incomes (and, of course, these are usually correlated with each other).  Many observers also believe, probably with good reason, that Christians were provided a fairly solid “no” bloc and that those Muslims who believed that a no vote jeopardized article 2 of the constitution (which makes Islam the religion of state) probably constituted a fairly solid “yes” bloc.  On balance keen observers of Egyptian politics I’ve talked to also believe that the “no” vote represented a more coherent political choice in favor of a secular as well as democratic state.  These voters, who will form the basis of a broadly-defined liberal-left in future Egyptian electoral politics, were concerned both about the return of the 1971 constitution and that the process of choosing a constituent assembly would enable a state more concerned with religion than the one that has now passed into history.  For better or worse many of these voters do not wish to allow (for a variety of reasons) a parliament with a Muslim Brother majority to choose the body that will write Egypt’s next constitution.

            Leaving aside, for now, how accurate these fears are and what the parliamentary elections now scheduled for September will bring it is worth considering what else we might learn from the election results.  For the moment we can only make some guesses largely because the information needed to understand the results better is unavailable for the moment (and some of it is not available at all).  Since I will be making a few assertions, albeit very tentative ones, it’s necessary at the outset to point out that I’m on somewhat shaky ground.   The Egyptian government has released data about the referendum at the level of the electoral district within the governorates.  Unfortunately I have yet to discover any maps of the electoral districts so the rough boundaries (let alone the exact ones) are unknown.  This is especially problematic in cases where an electoral district has the same name as a well-known community but may or may not contain it.  Thus in the Giza governorate there is an Imbaba electoral district.  Imbaba is also the name of an impoverished community which in the 1980s was a stronghold of Islamist  groups against which the state used armed force in 1992 and which, according to Tony Shadid writing in the New York Times on February 15, 2011, is now a very different place: equally religious in its own way perhaps but far from Islamist.  As far as I can tell the Imbaba district and the Imbaba neighborhood are by no means identical (at least according to the Arabic Wikipedia).  Even if they were identical boundaries in 2010 of election districts are re-drawn before every election so they may have mappe.d quite different areas in the past and may again in the future.  And although census data exists I have no access to it and it doesn’t include several important variables such as religious affiliation.

            Looking below the governorate level, even if only superficially, is nevertheless worth doing and should it be possible to get more demographic data we would be able to learn some important things.  One of the most important things, and of some practical importance, is how strongly the core vote for the liberal left (which I am broadly defining as the “no” vote in the referendum) is geographically concentrated.  And this we already can get some idea from simply by looking at the district level results.

            Let me give some examples of looking at the referendum results on the district level rather than the provincial level.  One analysis suggests that Gharbiyah province had more “no” votes (about 22%) than would be a expected for a rural province because the important textile center of Mahallah al-Kubra is there.  This is certainly intuitively plausible especially given the very intense and now nearly legendary conflicts that occurred there in 2006 between workers on the one side and the company management and the state on the other.   Mahallah has long been a symbol of Egyptian industrialization and of class conflict and thus the idea that contributed to a significantly large “no” vote is quite plausible.  A look at the election district results does show a strong “no” vote in Mahallah—32% and 35% for the two presumably most urban districts in Mahallah.  Nevertheless Mahallah did not contribute either the largest number or the largest proportion of “no” votes in the province.  The city of Tanta did.  Like Mahallah, Tanta also has a textile industry but it also has a university, is the Metropolitan seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and is the site of a famous shrine-mosque at which an annual festival is held (the Mulid of Ahmad al-Badawi).  More people voted in the two urban districts of Tanta than in Mahallah and the respective “no” margins were larger: 36% and 40%. 

            Cairenes were far more likely to vote “no” than any other large province: overall 39.5% of the voters voted against the amendments .  It is not particularly surprising that what might be thought of as the “silk-stocking” district of Qasr al-Nil which includes downtown and the relatively elite island of Zamalek returned something like 68% no.   It appears to be a small district and only about 20,000 votes were cast.  In Sayyida Zeinab district, however, which has a far more economically modest population and which has been described as a stronghold of former National Democratic party leader (and speaker of the parliament), Fathi Surour, 36.7% of the nearly 60,000 voters said “no.” Again, this matters, since the district is widely held to have been the source of the thugs who attacked demonstrators (especially Christians) in early March. In Nuzha, a rather disparate district in both religious and economic terms, almost 64% of slightly more than 113,500 votes said “no.”  The populous university district of Ain Shams and the more working-class district of Basatin also showed significant no votes (with 41% and 35% no in totals nearing 160,000 and 120,000 respectively).  

            Giza, on the western bank across the Nile from Cairo and widely thought of as simply a part of the greater conurbation of Cairo, did not vote no to quite the same degree.  Nearly 32% of Gizans voted no, but here again the distribution of votes differed rather widely geographically.  Again, as one might expect the more upper-class areas of Agouza and Dokki voted strongly no.  Imbaba and Bulaq Dakrur which have been thought of as strongholds of religious sentiment (and where over 165,000 voted in each district) returned 35% and 28% no votes respectively.  Given my earlier caveats I would not make too much of any of this.  The Imbaba election district may or may not be coextensive with the Imbaba neighborhood that Tony Shadid visited, but if it is then the change is quite remarkable from 25 years ago.  Bulaq Dakrur is often referred to as a district in which the Muslim Brothers draw significant strength.  This may well be the case just as it may be the case that there is a larger Christian population in the area than most people realize or perhaps more educated or wealthier people.  Or perhaps the effect of living in Cairo is, generally, to shift opinions in the direction of being more cosmopolitan which is also quite plausible.  For the moment we don't know but it is clear that greater Cairo is itself heterogeneous and surprising and that there is much more to be learned even about something as seemingly straightforward as the referendum results.

            Looking beneath the governorate level totals to the votes at the level of the electoral districts suggests significant variation within governorates.  Without the relevant demographic data and perhaps some associated survey research we simply won’t know.  It would be useful not only to know the relative numbers of Christians in many locales but it would also be useful to have some sense of the range of attitudes both Christians and Muslims have toward their own faiths and to each other.  These coupled with socio-economic data would allow the elections to become not only a tool for self-rule but also for collective self-understanding.  Not perhaps a primary tool and certainly not one to replace more reflective forms but a useful one nevertheless.

            Lastly as Egyptians consider the electoral system to come they may wish to reflect on the variations within as well as between provinces.  Generally speaking the secular and left-liberal forces seem inclined to favor proportional representation and party lists.  It is not yet clear to me what either the Muslim Brothers or what remains of the NDP prefers.  Many both inside and outside Egypt seem to think that support for the Muslim Brothers is both wide and deep.  That is, it is more or less evenly spread across the country and may well amount to a majority.  Thus the MB can attempt to be reassuring by arguing that they will not contest more than a third of the seats in the next parliamentary elections.  Although they are evidently now either somewhat less concerned with reassuring those who don't agree with them or have a sense that their chances of winning are better than they previously thought.  They are now considering contesting 49% of the parliamentary seats.   If you think that the “yes” vote represents the potential strength of the Muslim Brothers then this is a plausible scenario.

            The problem with the “yes” vote however is that it seems to have been made up of even more heterogeneous political outlooks than the no vote.  Despite the claim by some extreme Islamist leaders that they had won the “battle of the ballot boxes” and that those who didn’t like it could leave for Canada, it would be a mistake to take this claim at face value. There is no doubt that many of those who voted “yes” feared a new constitution would abolish the role of Islam as the religion of state which was enshrined in Article 2.  There is also no doubt that many Muslims voted “yes” simply because this was the choice posed by the Muslim Brothers.  However, many people voted yes because they hoped it would lead to a return to stability and especially renewal of the economy as soon as possible.  Others voted yes because they would like to get the army out of power as rapidly as possible.  Still others may have voted yes because that was what the Armed Forces clearly wanted and they feel grateful to the Army.  The point is not to deny that a significant portion of the yes vote was based in religion (as, after all, was a portion of the “no” vote).  The point is what kinds of electoral coalitions are possible going forward.  It seems more plausible to most observers to believe that the “no” political forces can detach some of the “yes” voters than the reverse.  And indeed some observers note that the Brotherhood has not done anywhere near as well in recent free elections for student governments as had been predicted.  Perhaps their most stunning defeat came at the University of Minya in Upper Egypt where they won no seats at all in the recent elections. And of course nearly 60% of Egyptians didn't vote and they clearly were not mobilized by either the Muslim Brothers or any other political force.  Whether they will vote under other circumstances is, again, something of which we are ignorant.

            Beyond the issue of political forces also lies a question of choosing forms of representation which will be indirectly on the next ballot since the next parliament is supposed to choose a constituent assembly to write a constitution.  Proportional representation is, in the abstract, more democratic in that it reflects the range of political preferences more accurately than representative district elections (whether single or multi-member).  PR, it seems to me, also implies that one thinks of voters as primarily ideological and individual agents whose preferences are relatively well captured in a party program.  It seems to me that it largely ignores other dimensions of human relationships.  District elections, on the other hand, clearly downplay the role of political affiliation and ensures that a range of political affiliations and positions are submerged.  This is, as far as American political science goes, its great merit.  But it also seems to view voters as primarily members of a single community bound together by propinquity in some sense.   Choosing between these two systems is therefore in part a pragmatic question but it also, in part, requires people to choose between some rather different ideas about the nature of political participation, community and human identity.

     Parties whose support is diffuse are said to benefit from PR; parties whose support is geographically well-defined from districts.  As Egyptians and especially Egyptian political activists and would-be party leaders ponder not only the substantive policy possibilities for the future but the means of carrying them out as new elections are held and a new constitution is written they have a crucial choice to make.  Thinking about the referendum results on the ground might be useful part of the discussion especially for people who know far more about the geography of everyday Egyptian politics and geography than I do.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Comparing constitutions

In the wake of the March 19 referendum on amendments to the 1971 constitution, Egyptians have found themselves increasingly confused.  Not least is their confusion about what exactly was the reasoning behind amending a constitution that the army has now declared no longer exists and have replaced with a temporary “constitutional declaration”.    One of the most puzzling aspects of the referendum is that the people were asked to vote on amending a constitution that it is fairly clear the armed forces had already decided to scrap.  Some people think the army simply has no clear idea of where it’s going and is improvising from day to day or week to week.  Others believe the election functioned to provide the army itself with legitimacy to pursue the course it had already decided upon.  Still others wonder if the army does indeed have a plan and events such as the referendum are mainly a distraction as it pursues its own agenda. Given what has been taken from the old document and what has been left out any of these are possible and it seems plausible that a vote on accepting the new document in place of the old might have been much more difficult than getting the amendments accepted.   

I am going to try to address some issues of the vote in the next blog, but for now I want to talk—as an interested but non-expert—reader about some differences between the old constitution and the new one.  I am not a constitutional scholar nor do I claim to be one but some of the similarities and differences between the two documents are sufficiently striking to be apparent to a casual reader.

To the untrained eye there are two striking differences between the two constitutions.  The first is that almost all the sections of the old document dealing with the social and economic obligations of the state and the citizens are now missing.  The second is that what has been added accomplish the general goal of strengthening the rule of law at least in a technical sense.  It accomplishes by  increasing some of the guarantees to citizens relative to the state, enhancing in some ways the status of the judiciary, but it also provides constitutional underpinning to the presence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, its actions, and to its eventual dissolution.

In some ways the constitutional declaration is a much more classically liberal document than the old one insofar as it centers on the rights of individuals rather than on obligations whether of the state or of citizens as members of society.  Some Egyptian commentators have argued that the constitutional declaration itself is more or less a re-statement of globally accepted constitutional principles and thus is widely acceptable even if many Egyptians might want other articles included. Two examples, which actually take up a significant portion of the old document and have been dropped, will suffice.

One area of change has to do with women.  For the moment the society is no longer (constitutionally at least) based on social solidarity nor is the family (again, constitutionally) the basis of society.  The state is therefore now out, at least formally, out of the business of reinforcing family values and the state no longer guarantees to accommodate the obligations of women to their families with the role at work.  Given the immense controversy over Article 2 which makes Islam the religion of state and the principles of Islamic sharia the basis of law, it is striking that with the elimination of the old Article 11 women’s equality with men is, again at least constitutionally, no longer limited by the need not to offend against the rulings of Islamic sharia.  The state is now no longer in the business of protecting and defending Egyptian values and customs (the now vanished Article 12). 

Another area has to do with the obligations of the state in regard to the economy.  Injured veterans and the children of those who perished in war are no longer guaranteed constitutional preference in public employment.  The constitution no longer claims it will end illiteracy.  Work may still be a necessity for most Egyptians but it is no longer a constitutional obligation nor do workers have the right any more to sit on the boards of directors of companies. 

One way to read this is that what remains of Nasser’s socialist experiment is gone.  Another reading, however, is that what has also gone is much of the old language (more clearly expressed I think in terms of women) about joint social responsibility (takaful igtima’i) that was drawn from the Muslim Brothers.

It should be clear that nothing in the document forbids the state from (for example) eliminating illiteracy, or owning factories or giving orphans preference in public hiring, or even providing health services.  The state can still accomplish any of those goals but it is no longer constitutionally bound to do so.  For some people this will be a clear loss.  Given how poorly the state has accomplished many of these goals (if at all) it could well be said the Egyptians are better off without unkept promises.

Much of the language that remains is drawn, nearly word for word, from the 1971 constitution.  It is easy to forget or overlook how much of the language of the old document was at least formally both liberal and democratic.  To the extent that Tariq al-Bishri participated in drawing up this declaration it reflects his belief that before amending the old constitution it was necessary simply to enforce it.  Thus, the new constitution some important language about the defense of the rights of citizens and makes it a crime to interfere with their enjoyment of these rights.  This language is drawn word for word from the old document; these guarantees existed but were simply never enforced.  

What has been added are some stronger guarantees about the rights of citizens including the inadmissibility of torture and the need for warrants.  One other addition concerns SCAF itself.  The armed forces have resolved the problem raised by many constitutional scholars that it had no constitutional standing and that any legal changes (constitutional or statutory) instituted under its authority would be open to later challenge.  The present document both clothes the SCAF in constitutional authority (albeit by the decision of the SCAF itself) and establishes an exit plan.  As soon as a parliament takes office and president is elected the authority of SCAF in regard to the legislative and administrative powers respectively will cease.

The new document does not itself resolve the problem of whether the future Egyptian democracy (to which this constitution like that of 1971 commits itself) will be presidential or parliamentary.   Some of the old presidential powers have been trimmed.  Declaring a state of emergency was limited in the referendum.  The new constitution has eliminated a provision making the president himself the head of the police.  The president, of course, will still appoint the Interior Minister who directs the police but will no longer himself (or herself should a woman be elected)  control them directly.  For the moment, however, the SCAF is more firmly the executive and legislative power in Egypt.  For the moment the ministers (including the prime minister) represent the executive rather than the legislative branch.  For the moment half an elected parliament must still be composed of workers and peasants, categories which are very broadly defined by law so that one need not actually be a worker or peasant to be included even if (for example) most student and professionals wouldn't qualify.
At least until a new constitution is drafted and takes effect (which is at least a year away), the council of ministers is appointed by the executive (now SCAF and later the president).  Both SCAF and the next president are now constitutionally enabled to issue decrees with the force of law. Lastly the terms of the president (four years), the lower house with real legislative power (five years), and the largely advisory upper house (six years) no longer overlap.

A new constitution can dramatically change this constitutional structure and indeed it is expected to.  For the moment, however, the new constitution has a more streamlined form than the old one and it no longer contains an entire language of social obligation that many (especially in the Facebook generation) may have found onerous especially in regard to the role of women, social structure, and the responsibility of the state.  For now, however, a certain amount of what the Saudi legal scholar Abdel Aziz al-Fahad has called the ornamental constitutionalism of the Arab world has been stripped away.   What remains to be seen is whether the state will live up to its obligations under the new constitution better than the old regime did and how the battle for the creation of a new government and a permanent constitution is waged.