Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2003
Issue No. 659
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Virtually political

Modern forms of communication are changing the political landscape in unforeseen ways, argues Nabil Abdel-Fattah*

Globalisation and the continually changing scene of modern communication are shaking the established patterns of politics in the world, Egypt being no exception. How did this happen? Consider the following:

Diverse social and political groups are finding their voice outside conventional politics. Political parties no longer monopolise the processes of mobilising and expressing public opinion in post-industrial societies.

Civil society and voluntary organisations are infusing fresh ideas into the political scene, mobilising social interests, altering human values, and generating new ideas at a scale never seen before. Having failed to find a toe-hold in conventional politics, a new genre of voluntary groups and civil society organisations are speaking directly to the public.

The Internet and mobile telephones have spawned new modalities for mobilising social, political, religious, ethnic, factional, and national groups in a manner that is radically different from partisan politics. This is bound to have an effect on the structure of the nation-state, already changing under the pressure of globalisation. Supra-national parties with a totalitarian twist are becoming a thing of the past. The communists are losing their credibility as speakers for the working class, just as the Ba'athists quaint version of nationalism is coming into question.

Cyber-based networks, national and international, are making inroads into the domain traditionally reserved for party politics. By giving voice to a broader public, these means of communication and organisation are affecting the course of international politics. Countries across the globe have to cope with this phenomenon.

New networks of power are rallying diverse interests on a non-partisan, non-nationalist basis, and winning global support.

These new networks of power rely on cyberspace. Therefore, they do not need to take action on the ground. Their formation and methods of mobilisation and expression do not follow conventional lines. They largely inhabit a virtual world and rely on the creative initiatives of various Web-based participants.

While expressing and mobilising interests, the virtual world interacts with and reformulates the real world. Real world players depend increasingly on the virtual realm, its cyber-based activists and methods. Real world politics need the virtual world in various aspects of mobilising opinion and gaining support. A time will come when the real and virtual worlds converge to create something yet unimaginable for politics, culture and values. These changes can even have repercussions for the human body, for example through cloning humanbeings, which has gone ahead despite religious and political objections.

Political parties still have a role to play, but now they have to rely heavily on the televised world to survive. As the political and media élites work closely together, political opinion tends to be formed by first impressions. Party leaders are getting adept at using the media to solicit public support and win over the electorate.

Moreover, patriarchy is waning in both state and party structures.

What is the significance of all of this for Egypt? What role can Egyptian political parties play at this stage of the country's political development? As it is, the current political parties are the product of restricted plurality, of various choices made by the political élite. They have never developed the skills necessary to cope with a swiftly changing world. Most of our parties are sheltered from the changes in political reality as well as from the public mood. Their fate is further complicated by the political apathy felt by most of the Egyptian public. Right now, any semblance of action in our political system usually comes from the peripheries of the current political map, from people who do not play by the traditional rules of partisanship.

The negative public perception of political parties does not help the latter to improve their image or recruit new blood. This explains the limited effect of some of the ideas tabled by some opposition politicians, such as the call for a new social and political contract in Egypt and the formation of a new national front with or without the participation of the National Democratic Party, or the formation of an opposition alliance, with or without the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Is there a way for emerging from the crisis of modern political parties, short of a comprehensive scheme of reform involving the state, politics, culture, the ruling élite, and the opposition? Is Egyptian political life, stunted as it is, to remain outside the process of transformation that has swept the world from the United States to India and Japan? One obvious hindrance is the stagnation of political discourse in Egypt. As far as political and cultural analysis goes, much of what we have is a regurgitation of old images and scenes. Our current political discourse is frozen in time, legitimising older concepts while refusing to acknowledge anything new.

Things are complicated by the fact that scholars, writers, and the media generally subscribe to the views of an aging intellectual élite. Inhabiting a dying world of outdated ideologies and dashed dreams, this élite is particularly afraid of new ways of thinking. Its members are ferociously defending conventional policies and ideas, pro-government or not. They are afraid of reform, of radical change, of altered modes of authority, and of any change of faces in the ruling and opposition élite. This type of fear mirrors the lingering tradition of brute force that produces chaos and erodes the foundations of state and society alike.

This apparent comfort with the status quo, with its concentration of power, distorts the dominant discourse and hinders the political insight the country needs to have in order to initiate political and social change. Political discourse should not be a monopoly for the government or conventional opposition. Occasionally, timid voices call for reform within the establishment, but so far these have been the exception.

The above hindrances led to stagnation within the regime and complications within the fledgling civil society in this country. It also limited the impact of modernity and globalisation on political life and the manner in which interests are mobilised and expressed.

The fundamentalist vision is not limited to the Islamist trend but extends its tentacles to other strands of political thinking in Egypt. Conventional politicians tend to look down on the small and younger community of Internet users, rule out any change in the situation of ethnic and sectarian groups, and see no need to enhance the status of women or give credit to rights activists. The winds of change -- felt worldwide -- are leaving little impact on our political life for several reasons. This is in part due to the traditions of totalitarian analysis in which the country's intelligentsia is steeped. This kind of analysis focusses on big issues and phenomena, sees only massive blocs of the public, and is not particularly susceptible to change. Our analysts largely use general precepts that are pre-packaged and easy to apply to social and political phenomena to the exclusion of other. They use ready-made charts to explain everything, whether the results are satisfactory or not. Many analysts apply sweeping precepts to smaller groups, using a reassuring -- though inept -- discourse inflated with big words. As a result, the discourse of smaller groups is suppressed or belittled, and the national and religious loyalties of the intellectual minorities are brought into question.

The urge to reach consensus -- derived from religious heritage -- is pervasive. When followed to excess, this urge can undermine diversity, plurality, and democracy. It can also undermine the ability of the minorities to speak their minds within the context of the nation's social and political life. The need for consensus, when mixed with such archaic ideas as the "benign despot", could favour political oppression, encourage the imposition of one opinion, and condone the exclusion of minor political forces. The dearth of research concerning minorities and socio- political, socio-religious, and socio-cultural anthropology is indicative of a serious failure.

There are, however, signs of change in the way interests are defined and expressed in this country. The steady growth of the IT sector has led groups of users to develop networks for political communication and mobilisation. The IT tools have helped local users to familiarise themselves with the domestic and foreign scenes, and to develop new perceptions of other cultures and peoples. This phenomenon is as strong here as it is anywhere in the world.

The new communication technology has offered new mechanisms for expression, representation, and mobilising of interests and political opinion. For example, mobile telephones are playing a role in Egyptian politics in an unprecedented way. This matter was evident during the recent professional syndicate elections. The trend started with the Journalists' Syndicate's elections in which Makram Mohamed Ahmed was elected doyen, and continued to this day. The banned Muslim Brotherhood is particularly adept at using this new form of communication.

The Internet has created a virtual link between Egypt and the world. This interaction affects the evolution of values and ideas, as well as the mobilisation of interests and action. There are chat rooms for political and religious debate, a circulation of political and religious ideas, and a medium for the exchange of political gossip and corruption stories. The younger generations are developing their sites and rallying supporters. Banned political groups, such as the Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups have established Web sites to publish their literature, weakening the conventional forms of political, security, and moral censorship.

This situation led to a gradual loss of the importance of the official Egyptian public/political field, in favour of a parallel growth of the virtual space and its importance and growing effectiveness. The virtual world is opening new forums of discussion in this region and beyond. Cyberspace activists have been able to build bridges for dialogue and partnership, get finance and support, and mobilise interests and express them in association with like- minded people worldwide.

The power of like-minded people to finance and create solidarity networks, Internet-based alliances, and organise real-world events is creating a surplus of power. This power is available to weaker groups in the South, to people who live under dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, and to individuals and groups suffering from ethnic, linguistic, and religious bias. Small groups experiencing persecution in their own countries are no longer alone. All of the above is changing the concept and course of politics and creating new methods of rallying and expressing interests. A few remarks are due here.

TV talk shows, including those aired by the BBC during the war on Iraq and following the occupation, show how useful the media can be in recording new ideas and encouraging dialogue on major political issues.

In spite of the restrictions on speech, the new technology has helped create new political outlets for marginal groups. Some of these groups are creating their own collective memory, free from what is endorsed by the establishment. Some of these groups pose a challenge to the status quo, particularly in so far as the rhetoric defining Muslim- Coptic national unity is concerned.

Political, religious, and moral censorship on literature, both fiction and non-fiction, by authorities such as Al- Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church stunts the efforts of our political and cultural élite to an extent unseen elsewhere in the world or the region. The banned texts invariably find their way into publication through alternative media that are free from censorship.

Is there a way out of this historic impasse? Are we about to grasp the significance of the current changes and act accordingly? Is our intelligentsia -- in the government, the opposition, and the media -- ready for change? Are our political parties and party leaders prepared to overcome their apparent discomfort with the ways of democracy and introduce real reforms? Can matters improve despite the persistence of authoritarianism? Do we need to reconsider the course of civil society activities and get rid of its various limitations? Can political reform proceed without a parallel reform in the world of business, and without a critical examination of the intimate relationship between business and politics?

In the answer to the above questions lies the key to a better future.

* The writer is assistant to the director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and editor of the State of Religion in Egypt annual report issued by the centre.

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