Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who Should Rule Egypt?

Every summer, Egyptians ritualistically reflect on the July 23 revolution, going through the motions of enumerating its failures and accomplishments. This year is different, as Egypt faces an impending power transition that ironically may bring Egyptian politics back full circle. The ‘Free Officers’ replaced monarchical with military rule, but Mubarak has blocked the military feeder into the presidency and re-instated the hereditary route, albeit without the monarchical claim.

Mubarak’s management of his succession has led to a most unintended effect: a vital public debate about who should rule Egypt. By resolutely refusing to appoint a vice president and then choreographing his son’s political rise, Mubarak unwittingly opened up the question of what (and who) are the most legitimate sources of political authority. Debating such foundational questions is rare for any society; most political discussions focus on politicians’ actions, public policies, sometimes the rules governing the political game. This public discussion that’s been happening in Egypt for years now gets to a much more fundamental question: what kind of political game should we have in the first place? The debate has now crystallized into three camps: advocates of parliamentary rule, hereditary rule, and military rule. But let’s be clear: debates are one thing and who will actually assume power something else entirely. Yet no matter who eventually captures the presidency after Mubarak, Egyptians won’t stop debating the issue until they get to have a say in who rules them.

Parliamentary Rule

Debating who should rule Egypt became a burning issue during Mubarak’s tenure, but it didn’t start then. After 1954 when Nasser and his fellows made it clear that they wouldn’t return to the barracks, alternatives to military rule were imagined, but in the rarefied confines of intellectual salons and obscure legal journals. The issue began to percolate when Sadat pursued his plan of de-Nasserisation, packaged as democratisation. In the summer of 1971, he commissioned a group of experts to draft a “permanent constitution” that would ostensibly codify the rule of law and citizens’ rights. Judge and historian Tareq al-Bishri penned an important critical article flagging the draft constitution’s establishment of an unaccountable presidency. Informed by his deep knowledge of parliamentary politics in the 1930s and 1940s, Bishri alerted readers to the indispensability of a strong parliament to counteract the Egyptian bane of unchecked executive power.

Aided by the constitution, Sadat reinforced the imperial presidency in every particular, even dissolving parliament by fiat when a handful of its members dared to oppose him. In May 1980, a group of 54 intellectuals appalled by Sadat’s domestic policies wrote an open letter denouncing the president’s plebiscitary tactics and calling on him to cease sidelining parliament. Not exactly a resounding call, but its moderate, even deferential tone is a striking contrast to the proposals that would characterize Mubarak’s era.

Mubarak’s measured behaviour in his first term becalmed criticisms of unchecked presidential power, but when he renewed emergency law for the first time in 1988, opposition parties (they weren’t as risible as they are today) took up the call for a parliamentary system. In June 1991, ten opposition parties including the Ikhwan signed a 10-point joint statement calling for a new constitution that would establish a robust parliament with power of the purse. The 1990s saw a cascade of countless parliamentary proposals culminating with an autumn 1999 initiative timed to coincide with the referendum on Mubarak’s fourth term. Journalist-historian Salah Eissa elaborated on this 1999 proposal in his book Dustur fi Sunduq al-Qimama (2001). Like Tareq al-Bishri, Eissa drew on Egypt’s pre-republican political history, specifically the constitution commissioned by the Free Officers in 1953 but then shelved in 1954 when Nasser and his fellows decided to stay in power.

When Kifaya made its debut on the national stage in late 2004 as the embodiment of the anti-tawrith camp, it fused as no movement had before two strands of opposition to Mubarak: elite proposals for constitutional reform and parliamentary rule, and the strident rhetoric and systematic anti-presidentialism of the new adversarial press. Kifaya revised existing opposition proposals for a parliamentary republic, modernising them to incorporate new developments such as the judicial independence movement; one idea proposed that judges should lead a caretaker government that would organise fair elections to a new parliament.

As should be clear, advocates of a strong parliament aren’t just liberals, or Nasserists, or Islamists, or socialists. Debating who should rule Egypt cuts across this conventional and no longer salient ideological ordering. All those who advocate parliamentary rule do so out of the bitter experience of being governed by a president with unlimited powers. Naturally they differ about what type of parliamentary system they have in mind, but they agree that political power in Egypt should no longer be a matter of a few powerholders selecting the one man who will wield unlimited power. Instead, the citizenry should be able to select the few who will rule them (i.e. the few who sit in parliament), and those few should be periodically replaceable.

Hereditary Rule

The first thing to note about hereditary rule is that it began to be implemented and only later did its justifying ideas spread. Second, there is no principled argument for hereditary rule. All justifications emerged in direct service to the Gamal Mubarak project. Should Gamal Mubarak mysteriously evaporate from the scene, those touting his rule would disown their proposals faster than you can drop a scalding potato. I suppose there are those who pine for the pre-1952 monarchy, but they have no presence in public debate.

Designers of the Gamal Hosni Mubarak project knew that it was audacious and highly unpalatable, so first they had to have institutional cover. Thus the National Democratic Party was dusted off and repackaged as a real party, with nifty little organisational structures, specialised secretariats, internal elections, policy papers, oh my. If you have such a gleaming new party, the logical next step is elections so that the party can strut its stuff. So in 2005, Hosni Mubarak announced direct presidential elections and appeared in his shirtsleeves as the candidate of the spanking new NDP, and what do you know, he won.

But the institutional cover of parties and elections wasn’t all. The Gamal Mubarak project also fashioned for public consumption a few ideas for why Gamal Mubarak is a contender for ruling Egypt. A handful of sound bites were methodically repeated: “economic reformer”; “committed to the participation of young people in political life”. The New York Times chipped in with “intelligent handsome policy wonk.”

Among the welter of arguments for hereditary rule are the following, in no particular order: The expertise argument, that Gamal is qualified to be president because of his economic know-how and policy skills. The “devil you know,” notion, that Gamal is better than an unknown entity, frequently paired with a curious claim I heard several times, arguing in all seriousness that Gamal was “raised in a presidential household.” A related claim, packaged as a piece of popular wisdom, is that “Gamal is already sated so he won’t steal too much.” Then too there are the ideas produced by the shifty Gehad Awda, who in a 2004 book cast Gamal Mubarak as “Renewing National Liberalism” and in a 2007 book recast him as a “New Reformer.”

The cornerstone claim for the inheritance model is that Gamal Mubarak is the ticket to civilian rule. Peddlers of this argument frame it as a quid pro quo: accept Gamal as president, and he’ll deliver you from military rule. While advocates of parliamentary rule don’t accept this false choice, others rejoinder with the mirror image of the argument.

Military Rule

The idea that the Egyptian military is the one and only rightful claimant to rule appeared as a reaction to Gamal Mubarak’s steady encroachment on the presidency. In a series of widely-read, much-discussed opinion articles in 2008, analyst-turned-advocate Dia’ Rashwan called on Egyptians to support a military personage for president as the only way out of the inheritance scenario. In a portentous tone and deliberately mystifying language, Rashwan put forward a series of claims: first he set the scene by claiming “something mysterious imminent in Egypt”; then he coined the moniker “solid heart of the state” to refer to the military and to argue for its superior claim to rule; then he staked a position as a clear-eyed “pragmatist” and branded those who disagreed with him to be “noble idealists”; and his final flourish was a plea to the opposition to strike a “historic bargain” with a presidential candidate hailing from the military.

Rashwan ruffled many feathers with his explicit advocacy of military rule, generating insightful criticisms from such edifying people as ‘Imad Attiya, Mohamed El-Sayed Said, Nader Fergany, Farid Zahran, and others on the pages of the sadly defunct al-Badeel. What transpired was a remarkably detailed, frank discussion of what is and what should be the military’s role in politics. Rashwan’s critics didn’t just concentrate on his normative claim that the military should rule, they methodically examined his premises (that the military does indeed rule now but from “behind the scenes”), his rhetorical tactics (why the mystifying terms like “solid heart”?), and his framing of the issue (reducing the question of who should rule Egypt to The Son or The General instead of questioning the same exclusive conception of political power underlying both proposals).

Unlike the parliamentary and hereditary models, whose advocates are still energetically promoting their respective ideas, no one seems to have picked up on Rashwan’s explicit defence of a politicised military. This is puzzling because cryptic assertions that the military is the final arbiter in Egypt are regularly made, despite clear evidence of Mubarak’s methodical demotion of the military as a corporate political actor. Does the fact that Rashwan found no takers betoken public revulsion at his proposal? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea is resuscitated once zero hour arrives, or that a constituency develops around some military maverick, with a nod and a wink from influential third parties like the American administration. American governments have a longstanding fancy for pliable military strongmen running strategically important places.

The Irony

Breathless speculation over who will succeed Mubarak is the order of the day, but what’s the point of all this stale chatter? How on earth can anyone really know who will succeed Hosni Mubarak? The razor-sharp Ibrahim Eissa put it best: the question as posed may matter to the American and Israeli governments. But the question for Egyptians isn’t who’s next in line to be their overlord, it’s how to devise a system where citizens can install and remove their leaders.

Openly debating who should rule the country and how they obtain this power is now a defining feature of the political landscape, here to stay until a publically acceptable system of power transition is worked out. By upending the working system put in place by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mubarak has basically invited the public to contest not just hereditary succession, but military succession and any other procedure involving a very narrow clique of deciders.

This doesn’t mean that Egypt’s citizens are on the cusp of choosing who rules them. Not soon and not for some time to come, alas. We don’t even come close to Iran, where voters periodically choose the group of elites who will rule them. It does mean that no system of rule is natural nor inevitable anymore, least of all Nasser’s model of officers running the show. Now everything is up for debate, every model of rule is subject to scrutiny, none get a free pass as the “most appropriate for Egypt,” “the most likely,” or whatever. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s the change-hating Mubarak who has ended up shattering the settled conventions for how Egypt is ruled, opening the door to the imagination of alternatives.