Out of the bottleneck
Ending military rule is the only way out of Egypt's political and social impasse, writes Seif Abu Zeid*
Egypt today is in a political bottleneck. It is close to having a full roster of fairly and freely elected officials for the first time in its history, but it is still in the midst of an allegedly "third party" caused chaos that threatens to hinder its progress towards democracy and freedom. The way out of this bottleneck is through a better understanding of the regime the revolution came to take down.
What does it mean to take down a regime? We have been subject to a peculiar form of rule in Egypt for a very long time, possibly unmatched worldwide and unprecedented in history. The state was both a police state and a military dictatorship for more than two decades. This created institutions that had no value except insofar as they followed the autocrat's will, most of the time the head of state, or the will of the oligarchy, from the military to the state-produced upper class.
As a result, the foundations of the state need to be utterly cleansed. If Egypt is to become a powerful state with a growing economy and one able to provide acceptable levels of welfare to its people, then we need to go through a three-step process: identify the profound nature of our current state; define what a strong, prosperous and democratic state would be for us; and make an uncompromising transition towards the state we long for.
Egypt today is not a true example of a democratic state. Even worse, it doesn't really have the foundations of a state. The country's rulers have long depended on hard power through the military and the police and soft power through the state-controlled media and other tools, in order to spread a feeling of fear that had self- censorship as its main asset. In other words, Egypt has been a disorganised society for so long that it has only managed to retain the compliance of its citizens through fear, or through co-opting the members of certain classes.
The country has had a semi-totalitarian government for decades. State control extended over the media both in the public and private sectors, as the private media was only allowed to operate if controlled by the same cluster of businessmen that had undoubted loyalty to the regime. The same thing was true in education, where licenses to operate private schools were only given to regime loyalists. Artistic work, both commercial and non- commercial, was subject to censorship and was tightly managed by the government. The same thing was true for books and almost any kind of literary work.
Yet, although centralised around and controlled by an oligarchy, both before
and after the revolution, the state is fundamentally weak at its roots.
This is evident in how almost all institutions and government agencies
perform: governmental incompetence is so noticeable that it can be seen
in any office or in any dealings with any civil servant. Nonetheless,
decision-makers still insist that the keys to development should be,
not only centralised in government, but also concentrated in the hands
of a few who govern, which prevents the continuous improvement of social
and economic policies through community-driven ideas and projects. Despite
the fact that there are huge numbers of public-sector employees that
put a huge burden on the government's back, successive governments never
worked on decreasing that burden because those employees play a major
role in communicating the belief that Egypt is a deep state.
The paradox of being at once autocratic and weak has led the state to deteriorate year by year, because its rulers failed to introduce aggressive non-democratic development, as took place in China and Malaysia, or even a community-driven growth model backed by civil society and/or the private sector, such has been the case in many western countries.
The semi-totalitarian rule that controlled almost all forms of life, from politics and economics to religion and art, not only hindered the country's development, but also created a fake societal fabric. Egypt has not had a real social stratification with real traits among its different classes and social groups since the 1952 coup- d'état, real meaning natural and not dictated by any person or institution, spontaneous, being dependent on opportunity, capability and context, and fluid, in other words, changing and not rigid.
The former Mubarak regime "created" an upper class in the 1990s, for example, through making poorly regulated loans via public and private banks to businessmen that had close ties to the former president's son Gamal Mubarak. In order to keep this fake societal structure in balance and tighten its grip on social mobility, the regime made sure that Egypt's civil society was weak and limited by only allowing charitable organisations that could provide "economic painkillers" to a society aching with poverty, illiteracy and disease to work on a large scale. The work of the development sector and advocacy groups was strictly limited.
This deep state's control over the means of production, close ties with big
players in the private sector, control over FDI, and control over funding
for civil society has remained unchanged. What the 25 January Revolution
changed was the minds of a critical mass of Egyptians, allowing them
to see that they were stakeholders in their country and not merely guests.
In order to understand this situation, it is necessary to understand the deep state that was born in the aftermath of the 1952 coup that put the military at the top of the power structure in the country in a way that could only be got rid of through revolution. Egypt's military is reported to own 40 per cent of the country's economy, and army officers and retirees hold almost all the top positions in the country. They are ministers, governors and diplomats, and they are to be found in the tourism sector, in the media and even in sports management.
What makes all this even more complex is the lack of transparency, since the military budget is not included in the general state budget except as an overall figure. Commissions taken by former generals are given to them by law, and though the privileges given to retirees and officers are not necessarily formalised, they are nevertheless entrenched in the minds of decision-makers. The military is also heavily involved in foreign policy on issues related to hard power and soft power alike. After the revolution, the military even took over the ministry of the interior by replacing the oppressive security apparatuses with ones of its own.
This situation, believed to be temporary in the wake of the revolution, constitutes a major threat to Egypt's democracy if it is sustained, as it will reinforce the notion that the military is still in power and that it is still at the top of the power structure, while civilian government necessarily comes second. A political culture of fear and obedience is one that lacks creativity, or the spark for success and the ambition for excellence. And that is the main reason why such a regime has to be replaced.
Kamal Abu Eita, a significant figure in the Egyptian labour movement, once said that "the soldier is in our heads." By this, he meant that the presence of the "soldier", in other words military or police rule, is not only present around us, but is also inside us as well. Military rule is therefore multifaceted. If it is not dismantled skillfully during the transition to democracy, it could stay with us for decades to come.
A holistic approach should be used to dismantle Egypt's military dictatorship, because the complexity of the problem stems from how deeply rooted this regime is in the state's identity and foundations. This necessitates introducing a set of solutions that will work concurrently to achieve the changes we are longing for. The legal aspect is pivotal to the transition because not only does the judiciary need a lot of repair, but also the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been the legislative authority for almost a year, enacting one law after another favouring the deep state mindset as well as unjust privileges for the military.
Last April, SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi issued a decree that made the prosecution of army officers for corruption only possible in military courts, while civilians can be tried in military courts. Commissions on arms deals are still paid to the top ranks of the military by law. The judiciary is still not independent, but is controlled by the government. All these laws should be changed, and it is a matter of life and death to ensure that the military does not have the right to exercise any political role in the new constitution.
The political aspects of the change are more complicated, though they are important milestones on the road to a new Egypt, consisting of the presidential elections, the new constitution, and strengthening the public's opinion towards the revolution and its main figures. Public opinion is the key to keeping up the pace of change, but the public will not be behind the revolution unless politicians and activists focus on the social and economic issues that matter to the majority of Egyptians.
Political plans have been so abstract over the past year that the gap between the activists and the rest of society has grown. Poorer members of society, though benefiting from the revolution and believing in its goals, do not have the luxury of time that the politicians and middle-class members of society have. Therefore, they are more risk averse, and less lenient towards abstract narratives whose harvest will come only after many years have elapsed.
Egypt's democratic transition necessitates that the country's next president is not a member of the military and is someone who possesses a great deal of domestic and foreign political experience. He or she should be a strong, independent and uncompromising character. Such a president, with a competent government in place, will set out a roadmap towards an Egypt that is economically, politically and culturally independent. Significantly decreasing the military and police presence in government is vital to creating a state that is led by civilians who have been fairly and freely elected.
Ending military rule is not the only step towards a prosperous and strong Egypt. However, it is the most important step towards an Egyptian Second Republic that lives by the principles of the revolution: bread, freedom and social justice.
* The writer is a political strategist.