Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2005
Issue No. 732
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Osama El-Ghazali Harb

No less than Egypt's due

A major overhaul of the political system is needed, writes Osama El-Ghazali Harb*, and no one is better qualified to oversee it than President Mubarak

How can we interpret the recent political reforms announced by President Mubarak in the context of Egypt's political development? Could we today be standing on the threshold of a fundamental and historical transformation of the Egyptian political system? Modern Egypt's first political system took the form of a constitutional monarchy established in 1922. This was then overturned by the 1952 Revolution, which established Egypt's first republican system "The July Republic". I would venture that President Mubarak's recent reforms could be the foundation for the establishment of a new democratic system; a system which would respond to the demands of the Egyptian people and rise to the challenges of a new international environment; in other words, Egypt's second republic.


Egypt is no stranger to political liberalism. In 1922 Britain declared an end to its protectorate and recognised Egypt as an independent sovereign state. Sultan Ahmed Fouad was then proclaimed king, and he instructed the government that had just been formed under Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat to draw up a draft constitution. The 1923 Constitution, as it later came to be known, sprang from the 1919 Revolution which was itself the culmination of more than half a century's struggle. It established the principle of popular sovereignty as the ultimate restraint on the absolute power of the king. It also enshrined liberal political principles and civil liberties within the framework of a form of government based on the dynastic succession of the house of Mohamed Ali and a system of checks and balances between the executive and a bicameral legislature.

The declaration of Egyptian independence and the ensuing rise of a new constitutional order in the 1920s cannot be viewed in isolation from major international developments. The uprising for national independence in 1919 coincided with the emergence of a new world order following WWI, and there is no doubt that it derived inspiration from President Wilson's Fourteen Points, the most salient of which is the right of peoples to self- determination. Similarly, the 1923 Constitution and system of government it generated conformed with the democratic systems then prevalent in Europe and the US, and with the contemporary philosophy of liberalism and individualism.

Egypt's constitutional monarchy lasted for precisely 30 years (1922-1952) during which time Egypt achieved much in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres. It was a time when the concepts of "Egyptianhood", "citizenship" and "national unity" were expounded upon and refined, when Egyptians more than ever before learned the meaning of political freedom and civil liberty, when political parties of diverse origins and ideological orientations flourished, when civil society was robust and when women obtained most of their rights.

Also during this period, Egyptian capitalism, whose prime exponent at the time was Talaat Harb, thrived and the Egyptian economy experienced a boom that was all the more remarkable given the circumstances of WWII. The arts -- theatre, cinema and plastic arts -- and cultural and intellectual life in general underwent an unprecedented revival, the best testimony to which is the host of luminaries that left indelible marks on our society: Mustafa Musharrafa, Taha Hussein, Abbas El- Aqqad, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Mahmoud Mukhtar, Youssef Wahbi, Naguib El-Rihani, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Umm Kalthoum and many more.

Unfortunately, the system itself carried the seeds of its own destruction. In his outstanding Politics and Government in Egypt Alieddin Hilal admirably summed these up as the failure to respect the rules of parliamentary practice and the repeated attempts to disrupt parliamentary life whether on the part of the British, the king or the minority parties, a phenomenon compounded by the incompetence of the majority Wafd Party in spite of its overwhelming popularity.

At a deeper level, he writes, many of the concepts and values associated with parliamentary democracy conflicted with many long ingrained concepts and values that continued to thwart liberal political development due to the inability of political forces, and Islamist forces in particular, to modernise their ideas. These factors, combined with sharp class and economic disparities, led to the collapse of the entire political system, paving the way for the next phase.

Just as the constitutional monarchy was the product of the 1919 Revolution so the first republic was the product the 1952 Revolution. However, the Constitution (or, more accurately, constitutions or constitutional declarations) under the new order was not so much a blueprint for governing institutions as a gilded mirror for the regime and a manifesto for its endless continuation. The republican system was founded upon the overwhelming domination of the executive over the legislature, the centrality of the presidency, the abolition of political parties and the suppression of civil society, the cumulative effect of which was to prioritise security over politics. Soon, with the turn towards "socialism" at the beginning of the 1960s the state tightened its grip on the media. At the same time socialist principles were enshrined in a parliament consisting of 50 per cent workers and peasants, free education, subsidies for basic commodities, housing and healthcare.

Like the political system that preceded it the July Republic and its evolution were connected to global developments. It is impossible to comprehend the success of the 1952 Revolution independent of the climate that prevailed in the Third World at the time and without the Western camp's desire to have strong allies in the region capable of containing the communist threat. Nor can we attribute the July Republic's aversion to liberal democracy solely to the ills that brought about the downfall of the previous order. There was the pull of the alternative model -- the socialist and communist state -- which the July revolutionaries had seen rise and thrive and which had revived hopes throughout the Third World of political and economic development.

Unlike its predecessor, however, the republican system underwent several attempts to reform itself and repair its flaws. The first of these occurred in the wake of the defeat of June 1967 when Abdel- Nasser moved to eliminate the power centres that were held responsible for the defeat. He later moved more forcefully in response to the mass demonstrations that erupted in early 1968 in protest against what were regarded as overly lenient sentences against those found guilty of causing the defeat. The demonstrators at the time surrounded the parliament building and handed People's Assembly speaker -- Anwar El-Sadat -- the people's and students' demands. In response, Abdel- Nasser famously said, "This is what the people want, and I am with them!" There followed the March 1970 statement which, for the first time, spoke of "the open society".

The second attempt took place under Sadat who raised the banner of "institutionalised government and sovereignty of law". More important were the reforms that followed the October 1973 war which ushered in political party plurality and the beginning of economic deregulation.

Following the assassination of Sadat in 1971 and in the face of the tensions and animosities that prevailed at the time, President Mubarak's priority was to restore calm and equilibrium in Egypt's political life. Towards this end he put his weight behind various pushes towards liberalisation, including the revival of press freedoms, supporting NGOs, especially those operating in the field of civil rights, amending the nationality laws in favour of children of Egyptian women with foreign husbands and advancing concepts of national unity and citizenship.

There can be no doubt that Egypt's first republic had its achievements. Nasser elevated the values of social justice and the rights of the working classes to a lasting exalted status. He built the most important of Egypt's construction projects: the High Dam. And he brought Egypt to the forefront of the Arab and the Third World. Sadat led the country to victory in the October War and with equal courage initiated the peace process with Israel. With Mubarak at the helm, the first republic saw Egypt safely through regional and international storms, safeguarding Egypt's territorial integrity and the lives of its citizens. He also initiated an unprecedentedly energetic drive to develop our nation's urban and economic infrastructures.

Despite these achievements, the July Republic and the political system which embodies it are now in need of a major overhaul. Its successive attempts at creating a constitution, starting with the constitutional declaration of February 1953 and ending with the constitution of 1971, were unable to incorporate the fundamental features of a democratic system. The political structure of the July Republic was designed for Nasser's dictatorial style of leadership.

Although Sadat introduced a degree of plurality, seeing himself as "the last of the Pharaohs" he put an authoritarian stamp on both the political system and the 1971 Constitution. This said, the July Republic, as embodied in the political system it created, now needs a major overhaul. In spite of the many reforms that have been introduced, their fundamental features as embodied in successive constitutions from 1953 to 1971, still lack the characteristics of a real democracy. In other words, the primary features of the July Republic were tailored for the unique individual leadership of Abdel-Nasser. And though Sadat introduced an element of plurality, these features remained essentially unchanged.

The July Republic has exhausted its purpose. We are now in need of radical changes that will create a genuinely democratic second republic. President Mubarak is an excellent position to lead this transformation, as he basically inherited the system and was not party to its inception. While he has introduced various reforms during his years in power, the changes he now proposes open the way to a comprehensive reform of the Constitution, and give Egyptians for the first time in half a century the chance to work together towards establishing a true democracy.

Laying the foundations of Egypt's second republic could be the greatest historical achievement in Egypt's modern history. Egyptians deserve nothing less.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya, issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 732 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Reader's corner | Press review | Culture | Feature | Heritage | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Profile | People | Listings | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map