14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Globalising the political debateBy Amr El-Shobki *
A new political map is emerging in Egypt on the eve of the third millennium. As compared to the '70s and '80s, the Egyptian political environment has witnessed deep transformations since the first years of this decade. While these transformations can hardly be ignored, it is equally hard to assume that they represent the end of history, or that the process of change has come to a close and a new Egypt has acquired definite shape.
Egypt, along with many Southern states, has in fact taken the very first steps in a new multidimensional era, the major landmark of which is the impact of the "external agenda" on internal interactions. This transformation has left its mark on the political map, the pattern of social interactions with-n the country, as well as the movement and discourse of different social actors.
In the past few years, for instance, Israel has become only one of several external challenges to Egyptian political parties. The national consensus on confronting external challenges has not been confined to Israel and the US, as was the case in earlier years. Such challenges have extended instead to cover a whole "agenda" coming from the outside world, and going far beyond the domain of foreign policy to reach a variety of social and cultural fields.
The new interactions are different in nature from anything we witnessed in the '70s and '80s. From the Sadat era up to the beginning of this decade, sharp ideological polarisation between the government and the opposition over a "local agenda" has been the norm.
The "infamous" 1979 elections, for example, were notorious for direct government intervention aimed at excluding the leftist and liberal opposition that had rejected the Camp David Accords inside the previous parliament. The main issue in these elections -- besides political and social mobilisation -- was the stand taken on the government's programme and, sometimes, the degree of opposition to President Sadat personally. Government interference in the elections was blatant, and led to the exclusion of all opposition candidates from parliament -- except for the late Momtaz Nassar, whose Upper Egyptian supporters managed to protect the local ballot boxes by force of arms. President Sadat nonetheless felt compelled to use his discretion, in light of the interactions of the "local agenda", in coopting an "honest opposition" embodied in the Labour Party as an alternative to the "trouble-making opposition" that rejected his political orientations throughout that period.
Elections in 1984 and 1987 underscored the effectiveness of "local" partisan and ideological polarisation between government and opposition. The fact that many during the 1984 elections placed their bets on the Wafd's return to the political scene and its success in mobilising a significant sector of public opinion behind its policies and slogans was an affirmation of the political and electoral weight accorded by Egyptian public opinion to partisan opposition.
As for the 1987 elections, they represented the peak of ideological and political mobilisation behind -- or against -- the "Islam is the solution" slogan raised by the Islamist alliance, which incorporated the Labour and Liberal Parties as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is only during the last decade of this century that Egypt transcended the government/opposition duality, following the collapse of the ideological regimes in Eastern Europe and the decreased capacity of ideology to mobilise people politically. This development has been accompanied by the emergence of a new "global agenda" that has found its way into the "local reality" of most countries -- including, of course, Egypt.
The appearance of this agenda in Egypt has shifted the focus of much political debate in the country away from the government's orientations and political options, to the benefit of international reports on the political, social, and cultural situation here. One can cite, for instance, numerous reports issued by international human rights organisations criticising human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt.
The Egyptian opposition has been concerned with this new agenda, according it a good deal of attention in the form of comments and debates in the party press. The Wafd, for instance, has referred to international reports criticising the human rights situation in Egypt. On 17 November 1998, the main headline of Al-Wafd newspaper concerned an "international report" presented by the special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression to the International Human Rights Commission. The report included severe criticism of the deteriorating situation in Egypt, with specific reference to the diminishing margin of freedom of expression. It also referred to the government's use of anti-terrorism legislation to detain journalists, opposition activists, and partisan and political figures not resorting to violence.
The Tagammu stand on the "international agenda" in the field of democracy and human rights has been close to that of the Wafd; the Nasserist and Labour parties expressed a marked sympathy for that same "international message", though with less enthusiasm than that evinced by the Wafd and the Tagammu.
As for the ruling National Democratic Party, it has refused to acknowledge human rights violations in Egypt, rejected the interference in Egypt's domestic affairs through the reports of "suspect organisations" aiming to destabilise the country, and severely criticised Egyptian human rights organisations and associations as the hired instruments of foreign actors planning to harm the Egyptian state and people.
In contrast to their different stands on issues of human rights and general freedoms in Egypt, Egyptian political parties have adopted a unified position on "minority rights" and the debate around the religious persecution of Copts. All the Egyptian political parties have announced their categorical rejection of the claims made by international and local reports in this respect.
The US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee broached the issue of Egyptian Copts in the aftermath of the introduction (on 25 March 1998) of a bill stipulating the creation of bureaus to monitor cases of religious persecution, and the imposition of sanctions against governments exercising such persecution -- namely, Egypt, Sudan, China, and a Gulf state.
This issue has been, and remains, a focus of political, cultural, and religious debate in Egypt for over three years. Pope Shenouda has refused all claims regarding the existence of religious persecution in Egypt. He has also condemned American and Western interference in Egypt's internal affairs. All the Egyptian political parties also rejected the aforementioned bill, denounced the "suspect role" of Coptic communities abroad, and blamed Israel and Zionist organisations for the entire campaign.
It is the first time that the Egyptian political scene has been so clearly divided, between political parties of different ideological shades adopting a unified stand on this issue, and human rights organisations of different persuasions and foreign ties adopting a completely different, but equally unified, stand. These organisations were accused explicitly by political parties -- especially the National Democratic, Labour, and Nasserist parties -- of collusion with foreign parties to the detriment of the country's interests. The Wafd and Tagammu parties have severely criticised those foreign parties, without going so far as to launch a "local" battle against Egyptian human rights organisations. Despite the relative consensus among "local" parties on this issue, it has occupied a preponderant part of the political debate in Egypt in recent years.
Once again, Egyptian political parties interacted positively with the initiative taken by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) on political and constitutional reform. For the first time ever, on 12 September 1999 opposition parties held a press conference at the headquarters of a non-governmental organisation -- the EOHR -- calling for the introduction of political reforms.
This is the first time national opposition parties have appeared to need "foreign" support as represented by a non-governmental organisation such as the EOHR, considered to be part of an "international" intellectual and political value system.
A paradox appears here, related to the contradictory stands of the government and the opposition regarding the new "global discourse". In many instances, national opposition parties take a common stand with the government with respect to some items of globalisation discourse, especially on the issue of Egyptian Christians. At other times, the opposition parties try to confront the ruling party's hegemony by emphasising reports issued by international organisations on human rights violations by the Egyptian government.
Putting aside any ideological evaluation of the new discourse, the interactions referred to here indicate the regression -- rather than disappearance -- of the traditional and historical division in Egypt between a government ruling permanently and an opposition opposing for ever. New divisions are being put in place; they originate in the outside world, in a new international value system. Regardless of one's opinion of that value system, it has succeeded in imposing itself on the "local" partisan and political map in Egypt and elsewhere.
*The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.