Sunday, March 27, 2005

Presidential Preoccupations

In Egypt today, it appears as if one can't turn a corner without coming up against a pervasive public issue: the role of the president. It extends far beyond the person of Hosni Mubarak to the very nature of the Egyptian presidency and the hyperpresidentialism of our state structure. What role should the presidency assume? Does it have too much power? Is a constitution enough to limit these powers? Our ill-fated former president certainly did not think so. In fact, he had his own very original ideas about constitutions and presidents. As Ahmed Bahaeddin reports, Anwar Sadat told him, "Oh Ahmad, Abdel Nasser and I, we're the last pharaohs. We don't need constitutions to rule. I made the constitution for Ahmad, Umar, and ordinary presidents, they'll need it to get by." This came to mind when I realized that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed 26 years ago this month, perhaps the most fateful act of the erstwhile pharaoh-president.

I doubt that the current president can be so blithely confident. In an interview with the French Le Figaro, Hosni Mubarak made some noteworthy remarks about domestic affairs, including the Kifaya movement, Article 76, presidential powers, the Islamists, and the issue of selecting a vice president, remarks that as usual Egyptians have to learn from foreign newspapers rather than the Egyptian press.

  • On Article 76: "It's been under study for two years and I planned on announcing it in February 2004 but we delayed it because we needed to finalize certain economic reforms"
  • On Kifaya: "Certain movements are directed from abroad, we know this very well. But it's the people who'll decide in electing the president."
  • On running in the September elections: "It's a difficult mission. I haven't decided yet."
  • On the VP: "For some years I wanted to name a vice-president but numerous persons dissuaded me saying this will be interpreted as designating a successor."
  • On the Ikhwan: "The law doesn't authorise political parties based on religion. I don't prevent the Muslim Brothers from belonging to different political parties, they're free."
  • On Emergency law: "In Egypt, only the Islamists demand the abrogation of this law but I will never let chaos reign."
  • On presidential powers and term limits: "To the extent that the president is elected by universal suffrage, limiting the number of terms would be a contradiction of the people's will. As for the reduction of presidential powers, that would relegate the president to a figurehead role and the prime minister who would have power will be subjected to pressures he cannot face. The president of the republic is the guarantor of stability."
  • On Hamas sweeping upcoming municipal elections: "This is a phenomenon that does not disturb us, Hamas must participate in the electoral process."

al-Araby editor and Kifaya member Abdel Halim Qandil shot back in a stinging column without a whiff of deference that Kifaya has carved out the political right of criticizing the president, against constitutional and legal prescriptions. And he concluded with this flourish: "We hope that it's true that president Mubarak has not yet decided to run in the September elections, and perhaps we and others will invite him to take the decision not to nominate himself. Most vital currents of the Egyptian people aren't simply demanding an end to emergency law, they're calling for the wholesale end of Mubarak's rule. If Mubarak does it, the Egyptian people will rest." Note Qandil's sly reference to Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev's fleeing the country in the face of popular protests. And while we're at it, here's a nice report on Zimbabweans fed up with president Robert Mugabe (25 years in power and still going). And let's not forget the Togolese people's demonstrations against father-son presidential succession last month.

Yet, Qandil's irreverence toward the president hasn't taken root in all quarters of the Egyptian punditocracy. In his much-hyped al-Jazeera appearance on events in the Arab world (transcribed by al-Usbu), full of his usual name-dropping and "I hobnobbed with famous men" anecdotes, Muhammad Hasanein Haykal declared that the upcoming September elections would be a "one man show" but then made the following bizarre remarks: "In Egypt there's an attempt [at reform] but it must be discussed with decorum, because the position of the presidency in Egypt is a symbol of a certain thing...but this position has a political trait." Haykal's plugged this "president mystique" line before. What does it mean? And more importantly, why should we take seriously what this man has to say about the presidency given all that he's done in the past to augment and mystify the powers of this office? Haykal of course is the co-architect of the modern Egyptian imperial presidency under Nasser, and for this reason I have no interest in his babblings about the sanctity and "symbolism" of this position. The president is not a symbol, the president is a job description, with qualifications and performance criteria. Enough of this obfuscating, false, and dangerous sanctification of what is an executive, not regal position. And enough of ex-presidential advisers lecturing us about conducting "decorous" reform. Haven't we suffered enough from the Nasserist legacy of hyperpresidentialism? Kifaya!

The president received more support recently, but from unusual quarters. I'm referring to Muhammad Eid Dabous' conviction for allegedly conspiring to assassinate the president. Dabous got 25 years for the plot and an additional 10 years for espionage, and an Iranian national was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. The conviction by the Emergency State Security Court cannot be appealed at any level; Iran's foreign ministry spokesman ridiculed the verdict and said Egypt "set up a kangaroo court just to please Israel." The stunning thing about the verdict is its hyperbolic, non-legal language and clear political bent. The court stated that the two defendants allied "in a sinful attempt to harm the leader of this nation...without regard for the love of the Egyptian people for their leader, who achieved stability and was chosen as their president out of conviction and love." The language is less surprising when it's known that Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa is the judge who handed down the verdict. Gomaa was the judge who convicted sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim for a second time in July 2002, and the same judge who sentenced that hapless tour guide to 15 years for holding four German tourists hostage for a couple of days to publicize his custody battle.

Finally, the president figured in the most unlikely and inappropriate of places. I'm referring to al-Ahram's front-page obituary for Egypt's greatest character actor, Ahmad Zaki. Egypt's newspaper of record made sure to inform readers that the president dispatched his chief of staff to attend the funeral on his behalf, and quotes film producer (and self-identified liberal) Emadeddin Adib as saying, "Up until the last moments of his life, before he was stricken with the coma, [Zaki] felt gratitude for president Mubarak, who provided him with all the means of treatment within and outside Egypt." The insertion of this slavish, unbecoming, and offensive item is testament to how debased al-Ahram has become; see al-Wafd for a proper notice. Is it any wonder that an article in the same issue by Abdel Moneim Said pooh-poohed specific calls for trimming presidential powers and called for shifting the debate to "broader" (read more vague and wishy washy) issues? For a while now, the once-venerable al-Ahram has been writing its own obituary.

What does it all mean? It's clear that open debate about the president's office, powers, and prerogatives is here to stay, with the incumbent himself repeatedly compelled to justify what he has heretofore considered something akin to an ironclad birthright. The once-rarefied topic of presidential powers, confined to constitutionalist salons, is now a very public, contentious tug of war between democrats and constitutionalists on the one hand and powerholders and their intellectuals on the other. Public debates alone will not trim the powers of the presidency, that's for sure, but they've punctured the pernicious penumbra surrounding the Egyptian president (Haykal's prattle notwithstanding). The current denizen has unwittingly abetted this process marvelously. Like re-braiding a punctured cobweb, it's going to be very hard to recuperate the mythical status of the Egyptian presidency.