Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 May 2012
Issue No. 1098
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In pursuit of the president

Egypt's forthcoming presidential elections will be a battle between candidates representing three distinct political generations, writes Ahmed El-Tonsi*

That the forthcoming presidential elections represent the peak of the political careers of all the candidates in them is a fact that has its origin in the nature of the Egyptian political system, with its legacy of the paramount importance of the head of state. For decades, if not centuries, Egyptians have shown reverence towards their rulers, and many historical and cultural ingredients have added more momentum to the eminence of the ruler. In other words, there have been multiple factors that have lain behind the unjustifiable dominance of the presidential office.

US political scientist Amos Perlumtter once claimed that Mohamed Ali's foundation of the modern Egyptian state in the early 19th century was an example of Weber's definition of the patrimonial state. According to this definition, the "prince", or ruler, organises the use of political power over the citizens in the same manner as he does his authority over his household. Some commentators, such as Khalil El-Anani, have highlighted the disintegrative impact of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt on the patrimonial relationship between the state, as represented by the president, and society, arguing that this has cast shadows on the submission of civil society institutions to the hegemonic power of the state.

However, the dissolution of such patrimonial relationships has not been a systematic process, and it will not reach its fully-fledged state until after the current generation of revolutionaries assumes full responsibility over both state and society.

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS CANDIDATES: Many of the candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections have challenged the patrimonial character of the institution at certain points in their political careers. These points or moments have represented the debut, or sometimes the main part, of the respective candidates' roles in the political landscape.

The confrontations between former president Anwar El-Sadat and both Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for example, illustrated their first real appearances on the political scene at a national level. Moreover, these introductory events to some extent shaped the images of many of the candidates within the collective consciousness of their followers and supporters. Abul-Ezz El-Hariri's famous demonstration in 1978 against Sadat's policies, which resulted in his expulsion from the People's Assembly, for example, was a major event in shaping his popular image as an obdurate opponent of Sadat's policies.

Even beyond the personal image that such critical moments have contributed to, for some candidates at least they have been illustrations of the disillusionment or grievances of at least a sector of the generation of Egyptians from which the candidates come. For instance, Khaled Ali's struggle to take privatised industries back into public ownership has explicitly manifested the alienation of the large section of Egyptian youth who later formed the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution. Put differently, such stands by some of the candidates have coincided with the emergence of new or evolving patterns in Egypt's social and political development over the last few decades.

Accordingly, many of the candidates have represented the aspirations, many times dashed, of a proportion of a generation, or even of many generations, of Egyptians at various points in Egypt's contemporary history. However, there are also candidates who have become a challenge to the regime as a result of their increasing popularity, notwithstanding their explicit opposition to the regime. Amr Moussa is unique among the candidates in that his popularity, founded on strong criticism of both Israel and the US, rendered him distant from ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Yet, he never explicitly challenged Mubarak or his regime, though he always appeared as a viable alternative for sections of Egyptians. For Mubarak, Moussa remained a dormant threat that had to be contained rather than eliminated, while Moussa himself acted as a representative of Arab nationalists who were frustrated with the Arab regimes' apparently unconditional rush to reach a peaceful compromise with Israel even at the cost of Arab strategic interests and long-held patriotic values.

There are also the Muslim Brotherhood candidates, who on an individual basis never constituted a direct challenge to the Mubarak regime, even though the Brotherhood was the only force to be considered a threat. As a result, the Mubarak regime resorted to traditional means of coercion, though it also occasionally allowed the Association to run in parliamentary elections. Throughout its 80-year history, the Brotherhood periodically challenged successive regimes in Egypt, particularly in the two confrontations it had with former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Under Sadat, the re-establishment of the organisation paved the way to a new generation of members among university students who contributed to a new wave of Political Islam in the aftermath of the 1967 setback. This new generation has now contributed the Brotherhood candidates in the presidential elections, first Khairat El-Shater and now Mohamed Mursi. Abul-Fotouh, though a dissident from the organisation, also belongs to the new recruits that joined it in the 1970s.

It can therefore be argued that the current presidential candidates reflect Egypt's socio-political development, its shifting ideologies, and the ever-changing power base of its regime. They can be categorised into three groups depending on their ages, these reflecting the prevalent political atmosphere and related personal and ideological expectations. Such expectations have sometimes been dashed by the ruling presidential institution, as well as by the grim political realities that have betrayed the candidates' personal and ideological preferences. Like geological eras, each of the three generations has enjoyed common characteristics, while at the same time exhibiting idiosyncratic differences, even among candidates belonging to the same generation.

The January Revolution with its promises represents a new landscape for all the candidates, regardless of their political generation and ideological inclination. The history of the various candidates was crucial to their participation in the revolution and to their nomination as candidates in the presidential elections, though they differ in terms of their revolutionary credentials.

THE FIRST-GENERATION CANDIDATES: The first generation of candidates, represented by Amr Moussa, Mohamed Selim El-Awwa and even Mohamed El-Baradei, who declined to stand, is a typical product of the middle class of the 1930s and 40s, whose members pursued the legal profession as the path for social and political mobility.

It was during these decades that the legal profession in Egypt reached its zenith, with the vast majority of political leaders belonging to the profession. Moussa, El-Awwa and El-Baradei all became law students. However, the 1952 Revolution altered the fortunes of many professions in Egypt, and, instead of relying on lawyers to supply politicians, Nasser started to diversify to include technocrats and the military, having only limited resort to the old elites with their characteristic legal background. Moreover, the social transformation of the elite was combined with Nasser's frequent resort to notions of revolutionary legitimacy, alienating the legal profession that had been raised under the liberal trend of respect for the rule of law. Many law school graduates started to feel the gap between their expectations, both personal and ideological, and the new realities.

Yet, despite this gap, Moussa, El-Baradei and El-Awwa opted to work for the government. Until the 1970s, public posts remained the preferred, if not the sole, employment opportunity. It is fair to say that Moussa was the real pioneer among the three in identifying the unfulfilled promises of the legal profession, a fact reflecting his analytical mind, courage and ambitions. Joining Egypt's diplomatic service instead of following a legal career was for Moussa a bold decision that identified him as an aspirant politician who would always follow his own ambitions even within a changing environment. Moussa seems not to have been involved in political activities at university, and, whatever the real reason for his not becoming politically active during his student years, he always chose to play it safe, a feature that added much to his surviving successive ruling regimes with their contradictory political orientations.

In the 1960s, it was said that Moussa was a member of the regime's Vanguard Organisation in the ministry of foreign affairs, this showing that he sought to remain politically active even within the narrow window offered by this organisation inside the Arab Socialist Union of the time. Moussa's later distancing himself from Mubarak was forced upon him, as the latter's pursuit of maintaining power pushed the politically ambitious Moussa into the shade and made him secretary-general of the Arab League. On a local level, this move earned Moussa tremendous popularity, making him almost a figure from popular folklore. A cunning politician, Moussa was able to maintain a delicate balance between his popular image, his relationship with Mubarak, and his duties in his new position.

In his job at the Arab League, Moussa's popularity remained relatively unscathed despite the setbacks that impacted on nearly all the Arab States in the turbulent regional and global politics that were characteristic of the first decade of the third millennium. Within the same context, Egypt's politics also became more turbulent in the last years of Mubarak's rule, partly as a result of his endeavours to push his son forward as his heir apparent, and partly because of other events happening in Egypt.

Moussa was cautious in expressing his ambitions, and despite the challenges that confronted him he survived in his role in the Arab League, even "participating" in the Arab Spring. In sum, Moussa has remained a viable presidential candidate for many diverse sectors of society in Egypt, and he is also a favourite among some regional and global foreign actors. The fact that he has become a leading candidate is not only because of his undisputed charisma or his mastery of politics. It is also because he was able to change his pre-arranged failure as secretary- general of the Arab League into a new start that could push him forward in his political career.

The response of El-Awwa to the declining prestige of the legal profession was different to that of Moussa. Al-Awwa focussed instead on adding more local and international legal education/development to his CV, and he achieved a success that reflected his position as an Islamist thinker and reformer. Save for a brief period of arrest in 1965, allegedly as a member of the then banned Muslim Brotherhood, El-Awwa has smoothly pursued his legal career. It seems that his candidacy for president represents a form of self-actualisation, rather than the peak of a totally different academic career in which he had previously established himself.

Though not a member of the legal profession, Ahmed Shafik is also among the first-generation candidates. Born in 1941, almost a decade before the 1952 Revolution, Shafik alone of all the first- generation candidates opted for a different career. Influenced by the prospects of the military as a career in the aftermath of the July Revolution, Shafik joined the Air Force Academy, which seemed to match the ambitions of many young Egyptians at the time. A military career was attractive to many young men as it offered a guaranteed path of social mobility, while the military establishment itself was reaching its zenith in the 1960s. Shafik was one young man who set out on such a career with its apparently endless opportunities. His prospects were further enhanced by his marriage to one of the daughters of one of the Free Officers who led the revolution. Shafik became a prototype for what could be called one of the "promising" or "promised" candidates, having a bright future in the military and then in the civilian sector after his retirement.

In effect, Shafik enjoyed the best of both worlds, since he reached the peak of the military when he was appointed commander of the Air Force and he later reached the peak of a civilian career when he was made Mubarak's last prime minister. Shafik's military and civilian careers have been exceptionally successful, the only parallel example being those of late prime minister Kamal Hassan Ali. The most important event in Shafik's career was his assumption of the title of prime minister in the last days of Mubarak, though as it turned out this event was also the first scene in a new play with different actors.

THE SECOND-GENERATION CANDIDATES: The second-generation candidates are Abul- Fotouh, Sabahi, Mursi, Hisham El-Bastawisi and El-Hariri. Ideologically, they are heterogeneous and cover almost the whole of the political spectrum from extreme right, like Abul-Fotouh, to far left represented by El-Hariri.

Yet, with the exception of El-Bastawisi and Mursi, the second-generation candidates started their political careers during the 1970s when they became known as ardent opponents of Sadat's regime and policies. For strictly job-related reasons as an eminent judge, El-Bastawisi was a latecomer to the political arena, in which he has been able to provide a synthesis of political liberalism and a deep commitment to social justice, both characteristic of the major leftist party that has endorsed his candidacy. In contrast, El-Hariri has been in the opposition since the late 1970s, and he is an example of an uncompromising leftist candidate who will not abandon his early convictions in order to achieve political office.

The fact that these five candidates belong to five different professions and come from various social backgrounds reflects the major social transformations that were characteristic of Egypt in the 1950s and 60s. Social mobility was unprecedented during these decades, and the gates of education were opened to many, allowing the middle as well as the lower social classes the opportunity to exploit education as a major tool of social mobility. Many of the second-generation candidates are among the beneficiaries of Nasser's free education policies, which were part of the transformational experience under his rule. However, the 1967 setback represented a major blow to Nasserism, halting its development while at the same time exposing the regime's inadequacies.

Many commentators have highlighted the impact of the 1967 setback on the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Abul-Fotouh and even the disqualified El-Shater endorse this notion, since they both joined the resurgent Islamist trend in the aftermath of the 1967 setback. During these early years of Islamist revivalism, there is almost no mention of Mohamed Mursi, at the time at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, which was known for its student activism. Mursi was not part of the student protests that took place against Sadat for continuing the situation of no war-no peace that prevailed from August 1970 until October 1973.

Abul-Fotouh emerged as a leading political figure within the Islamist trend inside the universities during the 1970s. Moreover, his joining the re- established Muslim Brotherhood added more momentum to his career, as well as giving him visibility on the political scene, rather than seeing him fade away after the end of the university protests, a fate that many of the 1970s student movement leaders unfortunately suffered. The other trends of the time, mostly Nasserite and leftist, did not have the Islamists' organisation, and they were not able to nurture the newly emergent cadres who had been fighting individually against Sadat's policies to reshape the Egyptian economy and society. The late 1970s also saw an escalation in Sadat's coercive measures against the Nasserite trend and the whole Egyptian left. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed considerable freedom under the Sadat regime, allowing its newly released leaders and those returning from exile to resume their activities.

Thus, the fortunes of the two leading candidates belonging to the second generation, Abul-Fotouh and Sabahi, are very different. Sabahi, a charismatic revolutionary leader with solid ideological convictions, was barred from meaningful political participation during his best years as a promising popular leader, these coinciding with Mubarak's long years in office, even as the rest of the landscape was full of poor quality leaders and politicians. To his credit, Sabahi never espoused grandiloquent Nasserite principles, and in his famous debate with Sadat he argued for very nearly the same principles that he has been elaborating on in his recent electoral platform.

Abul-Fotouh has a different profile that sometimes looks ill-defined. He has been one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he contributed to its re-establishment in the 1970s. Ideologically, he has been a devout member, though he has been officially declared a dissident. Enjoying the support of a large section of Salafi voters may compensate for the absence, if not counter-mobilisation, of his former organisation. On the youth side, the situation has been uncertain because of the volatility of this bloc, particularly as a result of Abul-Fotouh's increasing visibility as a Salafi nominee, though this has also shown his political cunning and his ability to amass political support from everywhere.

Mursi has been in a difficult situation as the Brotherhood's nominee, since he entered the arena at the last minute while the popularity of the organisation was on the decline. Mursi's fortunes are a function of the organisation's popularity, and he can do little to restore it to its heyday. Apart from that link, Mursi has been a typical party nominee who has lacked the credentials, as well as the history of political activism, of his fellows among the second-generation candidates.

THE THIRD-GENERATION CANDIDATES: The third-generation candidates are Khaled Ali and Hazem Abu Ismail. The last two terms of Mubarak's reign, characterised by political stagnation, the elimination of any potential successor, and endeavours to groom Mubarak's son as his heir apparent, explain the relatively small number of presidential candidates from this generation, as well as their limited ideological options.

The Mubarak era saw the development of a political arena and environment that was counter- productive to the evolution of either new visions or new leaders. This drastically impacted many aspects of Egypt's society, culture, and people, and it damaged their long-held values. As a result, it should not be surprising that the revolutionaries have not been able to put forward a single candidate, even though they were in the vanguard of the revolution, or that they have not been able to frame a well-articulated ideology.

Mubarak's era was the real incubator of candidates like the disqualified Abu Ismail and Ali, the only representative of the Generation Y that led the revolution. A human rights activist who spent years fighting the ousted regime in the courts, Ali was a genuine participant in the events of the revolution and in the various protests that characterised the last years of Mubarak's rule. He represents the new generation of revolutionaries who irreversibly toppled the ancien regime, while not being able, or not wanting, to seize power themselves to complete the mission of the revolution.

Herein lies the relevance of Ali's candidacy as the only genuine revolutionary who opted to complete the revolution. Astonishingly, many of his comrades have been supporting the other candidates. Ali's leanings to the left may have distanced him from the majority of the revolutionaries, whose interpretation of social justice has been rather sketchy and ill-defined. Yet, it is strange that the 6 April Movement has not endorsed Ali, and it is even stranger that the National Front for Change has supported Abul-Fotouh.

The forthcoming presidential elections will witness a competition among three generations, as well as between many candidates. The personalities of the latter and their popular images will be major factors in determining the voting behaviour of the vast majority of Egyptians. Two ill-defined forces will have a major impact on the selection of the next president: the youth forming more than 60 percent of the voters and those voters casting protest ballots against the candidates of Political Islam.

Such forces will be important in deciding who from among the three generations will win. In the same way that it was not possible to predict the January Revolution, it is impossible to anticipate who will be the next president.

* The writer is a political analyst.

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