Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

National consensus candidate needed

Historical experience shows that massive social transformations can be hard to navigate successfully. To help that process along, Egypt needs an interim president, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The thrill of victory over a regime that had failed to persuade broad segments of the people, especially among the youth, that it was fit to rule has passed. The time has come for the victors to decide what should come next.

After achieving its primary goal, the 25 January Revolution moved in two directions. One was to lay the foundations for a democratic system free of the ills of the old system (all of which had been the subject of criticism among reformists both inside and outside of the National Democratic Party) and similar to those in other free and democratic countries.

In fact, the revolutionaries not only succeeded in achieving in the space of 18 days what democratic reformists and liberals failed to achieve in 30 years, they also gave Egypt a fresh starting point both for itself and for its regional role. The youth at the revolutionary vanguard championed the reformists' aspiration to catch up with an age that has almost passed us by, and to close the gap between us and countries that seemed too far ahead to reach. One reason why this dream seemed impossible was that the former regime was gripped by the unshakeable belief that the Egyptian people did not want to see reform move faster than it was already moving. But the Facebook youth gave Egypt a new face, which took the world by surprise. Egyptians were much more advanced, more enterprising, more self-sacrificing and better capable of organising themselves than the world had ever imagined. They sent tremors throughout the region, causing theocratic regimes here and dictatorships there to quake. Even in Israel people were muttering that the Egyptian revolution would set into motion new modes of resistance that would ultimately succeed in achieving the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, whether Netanyahu likes it or not.

But as brightly as the revolution glimmered in the days that followed its victory, the light was not unmarred by shadows. While it was comforting to see some progress in the roadmap for the transfer of authority to civilian leadership, I was disturbed by the choice of the person to head the committee to draft called-for constitutional amendments. The dignity, honour and integrity of this individual, whom I had the pleasure to study under one day, is beyond question; however, he has become extremely conservative over recent years. But perhaps this is not so great a problem since there was already a considerable degree of consensus over the substance of the amendments even before the revolution, even if they did not meet the approval of key figures of the regime. Also, the constitutional committee created by the vice president during the revolution was working pretty much in the same direction.

However, what I find really worrisome is developments on the ground. Public institutions are reeling under an unprecedented surge of internal bickering, manoeuvring and settling of scores. Staff members are under the impression that now is the time to get what they want, such as to have their children hired whether there are job vacancies or not. The revolution succeeded in putting paid to "hereditary succession" (if such a scenario did, indeed, exist) at the pinnacle of power. It has yet to succeed in ending this phenomenon at the base, a phenomenon that entails not the replacement of one person by another in a hierarchy, but rather the addition of a person or even several persons to organisations that are already overstaffed. Worse yet, the people that are waging the assault appear to be operating on the assumption that now that the regime has fallen, so too have all the laws and regulations of the state, and all rules and procedures at the workplace. Simultaneously, they are crying out for the redistribution of wealth that, in practical terms, means halting all development and reform processes that were in progress and losing the experts and most skilled and talented staff members. But public institutions are not the only ones to face assault. Private organisations, too, are beleaguered by a whole barrage of allegations and charges of corruption, as though cities had not been built, jobs were not created, domestic goods and products were never exported, and skills and potential had not been forged out of the toil, sweat and money of the Egyptian people.

You can tell that the situation has reached the level of the absurd when newspapers fall into one of two categories: the ones with huge banner headlines blazing huge waves of corruption and their perpetrators; the others featuring denials, generally in the form of advertisements, not only refuting published reports but claiming some mix-up on the names and denying all connection with certain individuals or certain companies or institutions. As all these accusations and defences are hurling across the pages of the press, people are overlooking the one competent agency that such complaints should be taken to. I refer, of course, to the public prosecutor's office, the sole agency that has the authority to accuse, condemn and acquit.

One can not help but to feel rather surprised that Egypt's Facebook generation, who gave a fresh and powerful boost to the democratic ideal and whose energy and faith brought Egypt to the threshold of democratic nations, remained totally silent on this darker side of developments over the past few days. The country needs to right its keel in order to protect itself from economic bankruptcy and social chaos of the sort that drove the hordes to seize the homes of persons who fell behind on their payments. Egypt has a splendid, historic opportunity to embrace the idea of a civil democratic state, which will unleash its latent energies to the fullest possible extent, just as it has already rallied international energies prepared to help Egypt make a safe crossing to the shores of developed nations. Naturally, no one wants -- and indeed it is important to stand firmly against --any attempt to violate human rights or to pursue violent measures such as those implemented by the leaders of the 23 July 1952 Revolution within days of its victory when chaos broke out in a factory in Kafr Al-Dawar. However, people should understand how important it is to respect existing laws, regulations and rules until we vote in a new parliament and a new president whose joint task it will be, as elected representatives of the public will, to rectify, readjust and amend what needs to be changed in accordance with what they deem to be the opinion of the majority of the people.

We now have a roadmap, drawn up by Egypt's Higher Council of the Armed Forces, intended to lead us from the Egyptian democratic revolution to the Egyptian democratic civil state. The roadmap has set a timeframe: a maximum of six months until we hold parliamentary elections and seven months until we elect a new president. In other words, a transparent electoral process, guaranteed by judicial supervision and international monitoring agencies, as I and many others have always called for, will usher in a parliamentary majority and minority that will continue to debate and consult with each other as we set the Egyptian house in order again.

Half a year or so is not a long time, certainly not long enough to fulfil all the requirements for getting a sturdy democratic system on its feet, not least of which is the need to draw up a new constitution commensurate with the age in which we live. I therefore have a recommendation, credit for which is due to my fellow colleague Salah Muntasser, which is to bring in a president representative of a national consensus of all political forces. This president will be charged with overseeing the realisation of a new constitution, the completion of the process of laying the foundations for democratic government, and the establishment of civilian and constitutional legitimacy. He will also have the onerous responsibility of steering the economic salvation process that follows all revolutions in history.

A national consensus presidential candidate in any country would need to have certain characteristics. Above all, he would have to meet the general approval of all the effective political forces and parties in the country. Such approval would be based on a set of rules and principles governing the democratic process and political game, such as those that will most likely be the fruit of the current constitutional amendments committee. At the same time, the general approval would not necessarily signify complete agreement over all the points and details of these rules and principles, although it would presumably indicate the existence of a good deal of common ground on them. Without such common ground, the process of democratic transformation could run up against an insurmountable wall, as occurred, for example, in Ukraine where the inability of the various factions to reach a consensus over certain general rules undermined all the positive repercussions of the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" of 2004, which had riveted world attention just as the Egyptian revolution is doing today.

The interim president must also be above all political divides and independent of all major political parties and trends. In other words, any candidate for this office must be a technocrat unconnected to any political force or party, while simultaneously commanding the respect and admiration of all.

I believe that the national consensus president should serve no more than one term, regardless of the provisions of the constitutional amendments, which will most likely limit subsequent presidents to a maximum of two terms in office. In fact, there is no reason why the constitutional amendments should not state this explicitly with the clarification that this one term tenure is part of the transitional phase.

One of president's chief tasks will be to oversee the preparation of a new constitution that conforms to the new state of the nation. In this regard, the constitution must be the fruit of a broadly based dialogue that engages all political forces. Therefore, attempts to impose conditions in advance may have the effect of throwing a spanner into the wheels even before they start turning and, therefore, could be regarded as a form of intellectual intimidation, which flies in the face of the spirit of this great revolution.

The central aim of the interim president will be to steer the country back to normalcy so that it can safely re-emerge as a modern civil state. There are many models we can draw on in the process. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Eastern European countries inaugurated political reform and democratic transformation processes that relied primarily on consensual determinants that proved instrumental in the success of these processes. These experiences were also associated with a number of prominent figures whose charisma had cast them to the fore as prime candidates for a domestic consensus over their leadership during the transitional phase. Three stand out in particular.

In Czechoslovakia, the famous Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, a prominent dissident opposed to communist rule, led the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that marked the beginning of democratic transformation in his country. Before this, he had gained international repute for his plays through which he attacked the established political order, such as The Memorandum (1965), which was instrumental in broadening the base of support for the Czechoslovakian revolution. After the revolution, Havel became president, serving from December 1989 to July 1992. An ardent opponent of the separation of Czechoslovakia, he tendered his resignation as president in protest against this process. Nevertheless, he fielded himself again as president of the Czech Republic in 1993 and served two terms until 2003. Havel accomplished a number of aims for his country. He led it to EU membership after having seen it through the fulfilment of the conditions necessary to qualify for accession. At the same time, he steered it away from the Warsaw Pact in favour of a more Western and pro-American orientation, which was reflected by its entry into NATO. As significant as his political contributions have been, Havel had always played a more prominent role as an intellectual than as a politician, which became more evident after he left office and turned to cinema, in which realm he directed the recent production of Leaving, based on his 2007 play by that name.

Poland's Lech Walesa is another famous symbol from Eastern Europe's democratisation process. Originally an electrician employed in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, he was fired from his job in 1976 for having taken part in anti- government protests. Over the next four years he succeeded in building up a movement dedicated to the defence of labour rights that eventually grew into a broad-based syndicate movement. If his leadership in this protest movement led to his arrest in 1981 it also contributed to his growing popularity and base of support both inside Poland and abroad, which was reflected in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1983. In October 1981, he was elected chairman of Solidarity, an umbrella organisation for more than 50 free trade unions. Although the movement initially scored some major inroads, it soon came under heavy pressure from the government, which declared martial law and arrested many of the organisation's top leaders. Walesa himself was incarcerated for almost a year and released in 1982. Eventually, in 1989, Solidarity succeeded in toppling the communist government in Warsaw. Poland thus became the first Eastern European country to overthrow its system of rule, a development that occurred, moreover, before the fall of the Berlin wall later that year and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Walesa's supporters swept the polls in Poland's parliamentary elections in 1989, paving the way to Walesa's election as president the following year, after he resigned as head of Solidarity. However, in the 1995 presidential elections Walesa lost to the resurgent post-communist SLD candidate Aleksander Kwa¤niewski, who went on to serve two terms until October 2005.

Russia offers a different model of the peaceful rotation of authority. This experience was launched by former president Boris Yeltsin, who was elected president in 1991 and re-elected in 1996. But rather than complete his second term, Yeltsin preferred to bring the date for holding presidential elections forward and to hand over power to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. When he issued the decree to this effect, he announced that he had failed to realise the aspirations of the Russian people for growth and development. At the same time, he refuted rumours that he had initially refused to step down or that his decision was prompted by reasons of poor health, insisting instead that his decision emanated from the desire for a civilised and voluntary handover of power. Following this, Putin and Medvedev, as president and prime minister respectively, introduced a system of alternating these offices between them until the situation stabilises in the nascent democracy of the Russian Federation.

There are many other models of transformation, some illustrating a radical transition from one type of political order to another. However, all share one common trait; which is that they underscore how strenuous and demanding a transformation process can be. This is why I believe that this proposal for an interim president who would serve for one term in order to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the process of getting our economy back on its feet merits serious consideration. I further believe that Ahmed Zuweil is perhaps the person best suited for this position. I offer this suggestion, not as a representative of any organisation or party, but in a purely independent capacity, while remaining open, as always, to any better ideas.

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