Single-issue reform will fail
Calls for reform that focus exclusively on constitutional amendments, and the office of the presidency, are misguided, writes Hala Mustafa*
It is all too easy to over-simplify issues and in doing so divorce them from any meaningful context. The issues most at risk of such oversimplification are precisely those that generate more enthusiasm than understanding, none more so than the question of reform, where the ground is far more treacherous than it might appear after a superficial glance.
No one with any interest in Egypt's domestic affairs could deny that reform has become a pivotal issue, on both official and unofficial levels. The ruling party, the opposition, intellectuals, politicians, academics -- irrespective of their leanings and differences -- find themselves in unprecedented agreement. Reform is a national priority. But beyond that consensus, what does the agreement over the centrality of reform tell us about its scope, form and nature? To answer these questions we need a broader outlook and a more considered approach than one guided merely by enthusiasm.
"Knowing the goal is a condition for embarking on action. The less clear the goal then the less sure the action. Ill-defined goals lead to differences of opinion, to divisions and fatal rifts. Before resisting the status quo one must envision its substitute; otherwise change will stumble. Like a patient, it will relapse." Abdel Rahman Al-Kawakibi's words, strikingly pertinent to the ongoing debate on reform and the constitution, remain as relevant now ever.
Unless based on a comprehensive vision, a vision that addresses outstanding problems in their entirety and which specifies with precision the changes needed, calls for reform can easily backfire, descending into the familiar media circus, the usual cacophony of hackneyed slogans.
There are signs that this is already happening. Discussion of reform is couched in the vocabulary that opposition party papers have used for years -- were using, indeed, before the independent press sprang into action. And little has changed. Most parties have little clout or influence beyond their media activities, a shortcoming that has marred political party life since the late 19th and early 20th century. People tend to found newspapers and then move on to forming parties, and most parties lack a clear programme, let alone well-defined objectives.
The historical and practical conditions under which parties evolved in this country, under colonialism, made them focus on the cause of independence. Now we have our independence we have yet to rid ourselves of the partisan legacy that came with colonialism. We still use the same vocabulary and generalisations. We still form partisan alliances without specific programmes. But what made sense in the past no longer makes sense today. What was appropriate to a specific period of our history is no longer compatible with today's conditions, when what we most need is to build a healthy pluralistic life. Appeals to populism now look as anachronistic as totalitarianism. This much we have to admit.
The bulk of the party-owned and independent press have been calling for the constitution to be amended. This is a legitimate call, and every individual, party and group is entitled to its opinion. Freedom of opinion, after all, lies at the heart of the reform process. But the proposed constitutional amendments merit careful and detailed examination, particularly so given that they focus almost exclusively on the office of the president and on the manner the holder of that office is selected.
Calls for presidential elections are understandable, and undoubtedly accord with the western way of doing things. But that way of doing things is not automatically applicable to societies that are going through difficult transitional phases, that are still grappling with political, economic, social and cultural modernisation. Elections may or may not promote democracy, it all depends on the nature of the environment in which they are held. Elections are influenced by the level of modernity in any given society, by the vitality of existing parties and by the public's belief in pluralism and civil rights.
The success of elections within the democratising process remains dependent on a political environment that embraces and satisfies the requisites of democracy. There are many countries that hold elections but have failed to further democratisation. Iran holds elections, but they have yet to prevent the powers that be from excluding their political opponents. Elections are held, but what about the civil rights of individuals, minorities, and women? Elections are held, but what about the liberalisation of media and culture?
When held in an undemocratic, or anti- democratic, environment, elections are of little help. They are helpful only following comprehensive reform and modernisation. Elections crown the democratic process rather than inaugurate it. Calls for democracy cannot be reduced to the call for elections.
The primary purpose of the office of president is to embody a sure-footed, stable, and effective legitimacy; it must ensure stability and maintain public order. For reform to happen an independent and legitimate power base must exist to protect the reform process from potential chaos.
Unlike coups and revolutions reform does not target the apex of the system, it targets the base. Reform is an attempt to change the political and cultural environment in such a way as to facilitate desired evolution. There are several examples of countries in the region that have made great democratic strides and introduced major reformist projects without upsetting stable equations and balances. Turkey is one. It is often posited as a democratic example, and yet the Turkish military retains a key position not only in the political process but also as a reference point for legitimacy.
Other countries in the region hold presidential elections but this does not mean that they have become more democratic. Most often they relapse into old ways. Political systems cannot be copied or cloned: I cite examples only in order to illustrate that each country has its own way of doing things.
Calls for constitutional change and amendments are not something that should be taken lightly. Constitutions are a point of reference for societies. More importantly, they define the features of state and society. One cannot treat constitutions as immutable scripture. But then nor should the constitution be used as a ploy to achieve certain goals. Calls for changing one clause in the constitution raise many questions, particularly given that the clause in question does not restrict party activities in any manner.
Political parties have legitimate demands regarding the exercise of their political rights and the application of the parties' law. But it is no secret that Egypt's political parties, in their current condition, lack the necessary qualifications to engage in the rotation of power, if only because they lack any credible popular base.
It would make more sense for reformists to concentrate their demands on issues that will benefit the parties in the long run. To demand changes to a single clause in the constitution would be constructive only as part of a much wider vision aimed at transforming the cultural and political environment across all its spheres. It make sense only as part of an overarching scheme to address domestic and foreign issues in a new way. Outside such an ambitious framework calls for constitutional amendments lack credibility and involve incalculable risks.
* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Dimocratia (Democracy) issued by Al-Ahram.