Sunday, December 04, 2011

Elections and the Path to the Second Egyptian Republic

            Massive street demonstrations marked the beginning of the end of the First Republic in Egypt and their continuation a week ago has brought the Second Republic more fully into view.  In the process the revolutionary upheaval that has transformed the politics of the country has continued to devastate the reputations of the individuals, institutions and organizations that crossed its path.   Five days of bitter street battles coupled with peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people mere dozens of meters away were the prelude to the first round of voting for a new parliament.  The first round began November 28, just a year after the Mubarak regime’s fraudulent elections for the assembly eliminated the Muslim Brothers from the body.  They ended November 29 and if the next two rounds have similar results they will provide the Muslim Brothers with at least 40% of the seats in the legislative body to be installed in 2012.  Salafi parties that are set to take 20% of the seats will join them. If they can work together, will form an absolute majority in a legislature whose electoral legitimacy may be uncontested but whose powers are far from clear.

            Observers outside Egypt persistently ask how the young, often liberal, and secular leaders of the early demonstrations have now been maneuvered aside.  That the Muslim Brotherhood’s present leadership has played its political hand well with the consistent goal of moving the country toward elections it believed it would dominate is uncontestable.  But it had a strong hand to begin with.  It is now a truism in the international as well as Egyptian media that the Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized association in the country and that its leaders express ideas that have significant resonance among many Egyptian Muslims.  What is less commonly appreciated is just how large the organization is and how relatively well disciplined, ideologically and organizationally, it has become.  Egyptian press accounts, based on leaks from the Brotherhood’s finance office, in the spring suggested that the Brotherhood had nearly 800,000 dues-paying members.   Whether an exaggeration or an understatement, this number probably represents the correct order of magnitude. It accords with accounts of membership in the organization in the late 1940s.   Since the country’s population was then a quarter of its present size, it may also indicate that the MB is relatively not quite as popular now as six decades ago when it more completely embodied its founder’s wishes to combine elements of a mystical order, a political party, and an activist association.

The widely heralded splits from the Brotherhood, which have yielded such disparate parties as the Wasat (which ran a common list with the Brotherhood’s party) and the Adl (which did not) have left the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice party (FJP) more coherent and so far not weakened at all.  American specialists in the art of voter analysis who believed that the Brotherhood would not gain more than 20% of the seats in an election based on their showing in the 2005 parliamentary election were of course mistaken.  In fact, based on the results of the March referendum it was always more realistic to assume that, for now, less than 50% of the electorate would cast ballots for parties other than Freedom and Justice.

            What is more surprising is both that the Salafi parties did so well and politicians associated with the old regime, the so-called fulul or remnants, did poorly.   It had long been argued that the now-dissolved National Democratic party was made up of locally powerful and ambitious politicians and it was long feared in Egypt that unless they were legally barred from running that they would return to office in large numbers.  We have long known that they were not democratic but it is  apparent that they were also neither national nor even a party and very few of their number appear to have much of a chance of serving in the new parliament.   

            One way to think about the new parliament is that it will contain a dominant Islamist bloc stretching from the extreme Salafi Islamist right through the conservative core of the FJP/MB to the moderate centrist elements of that party.   Another way to think about it is that there will be a very large, possibly majoritarian, central coalition headed by the FJP with an exuberant array to its right and left each of which will command about 20% of the electorate and the seats.  The Salafis and the secular forces are not likely to cooperate very much and certainly with no relish, and for the moment they will not be able to do more than embarrass the FJP. Politics may nevertheless occasionally bring such strange partners as bearded Salafis and stylish silk-stocking liberals into the same political bed.

            Assuming that the remaining elections do not dramatically change events on the ground (and it may be a mistake to assume that the results in Mahalla, Tanta or even Giza will be necessarily better for the FJP than Alexandria, Asyut and the Fayoum), the Muslim Brothers will finally gain the prize so long denied to its current generation of leaders:  a share of governance.   Many of its current leaders moved from the politics of the student movement to the professional associations and now they are on the verge of assuming parliamentary authority.   Heady as this moment must be, it is a distinctly new challenge for political leaders who have not previously had to contend with the need to manage  sprawling government institutions for diverse and increasingly demanding constituencies. 

            One particular example is the ministry of social solidarity, a portfolio that FJP might covet.  Widespread gossip in Cairo suggests that this ministry, which controls the supply of subsidized bread to Egyptians, is locked in a fierce struggle with the bakers and variety of gangsters over the price and supply of flour and loaves.  It has been more than 20 years since Yahya Sadowski wrote of the corruption within the flour trade and the baking and distribution of subsidized bread.  There is no reason to believe that the FJP will be better placed to resist the blandishments and threats with which such corrupt enterprise is maintained than Egyptian ministers past.

            And yet the FJP may not only be forced to try its hand in that game; it may strongly desire to do so.  Egyptians have long characterized their government as comprising two distinct types of ministerial organizations: the social and the sovereign.  The sovereign ministries are those that concentrate coercive power:  interior (the police), defense (the armed forces), justice (the courts and prosecuting attorneys), foreign affairs, and of course the one ring that binds them all: the presidency of the republic.  The social ministries show a more benign face of governance and dispense goods, albeit frequently of low quality, to the population:  education, social welfare, labor, health and a plethora of development-oriented agencies within many industries whose names suggest they are engaged in investment.  They certainly employ workers and spend money.

            It is too early to be certain but there are reasons to believe that a party like the FJP many of whose members are doctors, lawyers, professors and teachers would be more desirous of controlling the social ministries which could directly shape popular conceptions through schools, that provide the public with goods, and that hire a significant number of skilled and semi-skilled employes.  These ministries are important and legitimate sources of patronage. 

        The sovereign ministries may be less attractive.  Controlling them would involve the FJP rapidly in a long and complex struggle to re-shape the national police and take responsibility for what are likely to be their outrages for a decade to come.  While the MB leadership has said that it agrees the Camp David treaty with Israel must be maintained, they may not relish the idea of a member who serves as Foreign Minister shaking hands or giving a friendly hug to his Israeli opposite number before the eager cameras of world’s assembled photographic corps.  Lastly the Army has made it clear that it does not want much civilian oversight of its budget and the FJP might prefer to leave that contentious issue also on the side.  No less than Ulysses, the FJP might prefer binding itself to the mast of the ship of state in inferior positions to remain deaf to the siren sound of sovereign power that could tempt it to self-destruction.           

            Between now and the formation of any government, there are three daunting challenges facing FJP and the parliamentary parties.  These will in the short term determine the outlines of the Second Republic.  First, the constitutional referendum of March asserted that the new parliament will choose the 100 members of the constituent assembly.  This is one of the six clauses of the Constitutional Declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that has the legitimacy of a popular majority vote behind it.  The constant assertion and re-assertion of the legitimacy provided by that vote provided both the MB and SCAF with the basis for rejecting the claims of the liberal left to establish a civilian government of national salvation or indeed to write a constitution before holding elections.  In November SCAF issued another proclamation (which it has recently said might have been only a military suggestion) allowing the elected parliament the choice of only 20 members of the constituent assembly.  The parliament and the FJP will have to decide whether to fight or fold on this issue.  No matter what the outcome of these negotiations, deputies will have to create some mechanism of their own to decide who it will choose to sit in the new body.  Whether it will involve behind-the-scenes maneuvering, public hearings, or the constitution of a parliamentary committee, the Salafis, Brothers, and secularists will have to adopt some common procedure.  How successfully and rapidly they manage that task will affect their power as well as their reputation and that of the parliament they hope to empower.

            Second, the constitutional declaration also gave the new parliament the right to engage in legislative activity (of a vague and ill-defined nature) as soon as it is seated.  The two houses will have to determine if they wish to challenge SCAF on this issue as well, including their presumptive right to examine the state budget.  Few deputies may wish to challenge SCAF on these grounds, but as the uproar over the November “suggestion” shows, the activist public may not be very pleased if the parliament immediately backs down.  What the broader public might think we, of course, do not know but deputies from the Egyptian countryside and impoverished neighborhoods may have a clearer idea of how concerned their constituents are and whether that accords with the wishes of their party’s leadership.

            Third, no matter how and how many delegates the parliament chooses, the deputies will have to choose between those likely to write a constitution endorsing a strong executive of the kind Egypt has had since 1923 (the transition from monarchy to republic in 1952 by no means weakened the executive authority) or significantly strengthen the hand of parliament.  One crucial test already looming on the horizon is whether, for the first time in Egyptian history, it will be an assumption of ordinary politics and a constitutional requirement that the prime minister be a member of the largest party in parliament.  Especially if that party has a majority of seats.  This was a goal that persistently eluded the nationalist Wafd party between 1923 and 1952.

      And, of course, beyond that is the division of power between the president and parliament.  Presidential candidates such as Amr Moussa, who served as Foreign Minister under Hosny Mubarak, have made it clear they favor a very strong presidency and SCAF is likely to as well. While the time to make this decision stretches out over a year, the choice of who to seat in the constituent assembly will be an early bellwether of how this conflict will play out.

            The resolution of these issues will say much about whether parliament is to be a locus of decision-making in the country or the kind of rhetorical playground for the distribution of patronage that characterized the student governments in which the current leadership of the FJP served in the 1980s.

 Although I’ve never much admired Mao Tse-tung, I have always believed that he had a way with words.  “A revolution” he wrote in 1927, “is not a dinner party or writing an essay or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so courteous and so gentle….”  Mao wrote those words as the communist organization in urban China was being destroyed in the aftermath of a military coup and a battle with the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  Mao, an adept of guerrilla war and leader of a faction of the party based in the countryside, was not sad to see his erstwhile competitors for revolutionary leadership crushed.  In Egypt the urban revolution, often seen as leaderless, has not been crushed and may not be conventionally crushable.  The unlikely street coalition of Ultras (soccer fans),  disaffected youth, the liberal left, swelled on occasion by the ranks of unemployed and semi-employed Muslim majority, has clearly not been engaged in embroidery or a dinner party.  There have been moments, in March for example, when Tahrir (which by synecdoche stands for the crowds that have gathered in most of the urban centers of Egypt) may have resembled a vast mawlid (religious festival) or almost literally Lenin’s “carnival of the oppressed.”  But in its own discourteous and unrefined way it has pushed the work of revolution constantly, if fitfully, forward. 

Not only are Mubarak and most of his cronies gone.  Reputations have been savaged and many prominent political figures cast aside as they seemed to stand athwart the revolution crying stop.  Ahmad Shafiq was forced out of the prime ministership when he appeared likely to become a lightning rod for protest in the early days of the revolution.  A former general, he is now widely if possibly unfairly identified by his fondness for pullover sweaters than for any achievements.  More recently Essam Sharaf, by all accounts a decent man, has achieved the dubious distinction of being the only Egyptian Prime Minister to have resigned from office in response to public protests over government policies.  He also thereby becomes the only Egyptian minister to have twice resigned (the first time was after a terrible train disaster in the Mubarak period when it become apparent that he could not fix a broken Transport ministry).  Supreme Court Justice Tahany el-Gabali saw her political reputation vaporize after some unfortunate (and probably unnecessary) comments on illiterate voting and the role of SCAF in politics.  And the reputation of SCAF itself in the wake of the gruesome deaths of protesters at Maspero nearby Tahrir Square in October and the recent round of fighting in November has also suffered.  SCAF’s success at managing the electoral process may improve its reputation briefly but the Egyptian military has always done very well at logistics of the kind needed to get ballots to the polling stations (or ammunition to the troops) and very poorly at tactical improvisation. 

There is a tendency, especially outside Egypt, to dismiss the demonstrators as erratic, leaderless and playing a negative role.  This is much truth to this, but as the demonstrators continue to assert it has another side as well.  What has weakened the transition to a stable institutional structure of democracy has also prevented SCAF from fully asserting its control with organizations and institutions that might have very willingly collaborated in the re-creation of the old order as long as they sat in the new places of honor.

As Mao both appreciated and resented, stable institutions including parliaments and well-organized electoral parties do have a tendency to resemble dinner parties more than street fighting or guerilla warfare. And there is no doubt that many Egyptian politicians as well as most American political scientists and policy makers are more than ready to return to the banquet table (without alcoholic toasts) and the writing of eight-legged essays about how the Arab Spring has turned to Arab winter.  And yet it is difficult to imagine how the work of creating a new institutional structure and a new political culture could move forward until the debris of the old republic had been more fully cleared out of the way than was the case until mid-November. 

            The Egyptian revolution has, to my mind at any rate, not yet run its course.  I will leave arguments about how to characterize the past year in Egypt to another day, but I do think Egypt experienced a revolutionary crisis that is not yet over.  Just what the Muslim Brothers think I don’t know but their caution at almost every major turning point in the street politics of the past year suggest that they fear the continued power of their old nemesis, the armed forces and the police. 

Tens of millions of Egyptians may be tired of revolutionary disorder and yearn for stability and a return of economic activity but tens of millions of Egyptians (not infrequently the same people) have demands and aspirations that they still expect the revolution to realize.  The MB and their parliamentary party, the FJP, represent a powerful force for stability and order.  But, if indeed the unruly force of the Egyptian revolution continues to manifest itself they may find their own reputation tarnished and their organizations marginalized.   The Salafis are eager to replace the Muslim Brothers as the true leaders of an Islamic and Islamizing revolution and we have a common, if inaccurate picture, of a revolutionary cycle moving from a more moderate to a more radical phase under the impulse of increasing demands from a disaffected underclass.  This is another historically inaccurate picture of the process of revolutionary change that I hope to address in a later blog or else in the book that will result from all of my electronic activity. 

As the revolution has tarnished and then cast aside successive leaders and continues to do so, another possibility also emerges.  If everyone has been taken off the pedestal and reduced to human dimensions and constructed out of the base ingredients of which people are made perhaps a very different political environment will develop: one where admittedly imperfect people with incomplete knowledge and conflicting interests make policies.   It will not be nirvana or the revolution or the Islamic state and it will leave many Egyptians still in search of justice and bread, but it may at least create a political space in which human dignity attains some respect.  This, I continue to recall, was one of the three primary demands of the early days of a revolution whose appearance was a surprise and that has shown more than once its capacity to overturn our expectations and hollow verities.


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