Towards a new republic
Mubarak embarks on a fifth term as president, but radical changes are on the cards, writes AmrEl-Choubaki*
Egypt's first ever multi-candidate elections have ushered in the beginning of a new era, one in which the legitimacy of the president is based on direct and free voting. Despite all the irregularities that marked the electoral campaign, and all the restrictions that hobbled the amendment of Article 76, we've had competitive elections at last.
It is easy to argue that nothing has changed and the outcome of the elections was known beforehand. But something has changed. For the first time ever, we've seen the president's programme criticised in the official media. We've seen the president's views and regime taking flak for a period of three weeks. If anything, this undermines the demigod status of the presidential office, and about time too.
The political process has been revitalised. Critics have had their say. And the wheels of change are in motion. No political party or movement in this country got what it wanted, but something has happened. A step towards democracy has been taken.
Thanks to the participation of the energetic Ghad Party and the less energetic Wafd in the elections, a momentum has been created. The left-wing Tagammu and the Nasserist Party boycotted the race and may pay dearly as a result in the coming parliamentary elections.
There is much to learn from this experience. For starters, the 23 per cent turnout speaks volumes of the crisis of political participation in the country. The figure also casts a shadow on the credibility of earlier presidential referendums, where turnout was claimed to be 80 per cent or more. The mere fact that we have an accurate estimate of the turnout is testament to the credibility of the judiciary's supervision of the electoral process, despite irregularities that took place. The public is clearly disenchanted with the political process. This country has 37 million registered voters, who represent but 60 per cent of all eligible voters. Of these, only one in four turned up at the polling stations.
The fact that a majority of voters opted for the National Democratic Party (NDP) should not go unnoticed. Some voters did so because it is "the devil we know", others because they work in government service and had been encouraged, to say the least, to vote so. It is time we admit that a symbiotic relationship exists between the NDP and the government, and it undermines any possibility for true political reform. The ability of NDP "reformists" to make any difference hinges upon their willingness to disassociate their party from the all-powerful government apparatus.
Efforts were made within the NDP to produce a cohesive political programme and project Hosni Mubarak as a sensible statesman. But these efforts are useless so long as a political culture that would support any president in power is still dominant.
The third thing is the protest vote, evident in the case of Ayman Nour. What it tells us is that the "opposition from within" idea, espoused by the Wafd Party, didn't go down well with the public. Nour was the wild card in these elections and acted the part. His fierce criticism of the status quo, coupled with the victim image he aptly cultivated, gave him an edge over the tiresome performance of Noaman Gomaa, who opted to play by the regime's rules.
This should be worrying. The protest groups that reject the fundamentals of the status quo -- Kifaya for example -- had been quite vocal before the elections. Then Nour came second in elections. If anything, this points to a crisis in the structure of the Egyptian political system. The most successful people on the political scene are the ones who want the regime gone, not reformed. The miserable performance of the Wafd is a case in point.
In democracies that work, challengers to the system are periodically integrated into the political process, once the necessary compromises are made. For this to happen, the regime must have the political savvy to overcome its narrow-minded security calculations and perceive the extent of damage it does each time it plays dirty instead of fair. Character assassination has gone on for too long and it's time for fair play.
The fourth thing to be noted is the political vitality the country has undergone for the duration of the campaign. This is something that everyone should capitalise on, especially the NDP. The ruling party must admit that it has been responsible for public disenchantment with elections. It needs to revise its ties with the state apparatus and be more selective about its own members. The NDP stands a chance of becoming a normal party, one that wins elections with a reasonable margin -- 60 per cent, for example, not 90 per cent. The NDP needs leaders who are willing to fight for a much- needed political reform.
As for the opposition parties that took part in the elections, they need to take another look at their political discourse and organisational performance. The Wafd has a lot of soul searching to do. Its leader, Gomaa, should have the courage to admit responsibility for the party's dismal situation. The absence of internal democracy and the fanfare of fantastical slogans have done the Wafd a disservice.
As for the Ghad, it cannot rely forever on garnering the protest vote. It should turn itself from a voice of anger to an option of change and a vehicle for the future. Its leader, Nour, has to change his image from that of a wily politician to that of a legitimate statesman. To do so, he needs to court those influential segments of the Egyptian elite who are still sceptical about his methods.
* The writer is an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.