This week's presidential elections
Egyptians are going to the polls today to elect their first democratically elected president since the fall of the Mubarak regime some 15 months ago, writes Galal Nassar
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'[Protest movements] were the result of a long, cumulative process of political, social and professional ferment... The process continued in this undulating way until the tragic day when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit-seller, set himself on fire... By this point, the Arab street had been fully primed for what Mao Zedong once called "the single spark that can set the whole plain on fire"'
The political map of the Arab world has been changing radically as a consequence of the several successful revolutions known collectively as the Arab Spring. The Tunisian and Yemeni revolutions brought in new presidents to complete their transitional periods, and Egypt and Libya are following suit. In fact, today Egyptians are queuing at the polls to choose their president for the next four years in their country's first genuine multi-candidate presidential elections. This landmark event compels us to look back at what led up to this point, such that we are better able to see where we may be heading from here.
Looking back over the past 15 months of Arab history, we should not be surprised by the outbreak of the grassroots protest movements that burgeoned into the Arab Spring. They were the result of a long, cumulative process of political, social and professional ferment that sometimes seethed to the surface and sometimes subsided but never truly ceased. The process continued in this undulating way until the tragic day when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit- seller, set himself on fire in front of the government building in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzeid. By this point, the Arab street had been fully primed for what Mao Zedong once called "the single spark that can set the whole plain on fire".
ARAB RULERS BEFORE THE ARAB SPRING: The latent revolutions required not only the existence of cumulative objective factors that were pushing for change, but also of subjective factors able to seize upon the propitious moment. These factors appeared when fear shifted from the ruled to the ruler.
By the time the fuse of revolution was lit, people had been driven beyond the point of fear by the machinery of murder, plunder and starvation used by the Arab regimes, and the prospect of death was no longer terrifying to them. Instead, it was the rulers who now became alarmed to find that they were mortal, both physically and politically, and they began to retreat, step after step, declaration after declaration, and concession after concession. The balance of power had shifted to the ruled, and the rulers began to scramble for a way to save their skins.
Perhaps the most important common denominator of the Arab revolutions was their appeals for freedom, human dignity, and the elimination of the massive corruption that emanated from the top of the political hierarchy. The incestuous marriages between power and money in the Arab world had given birth to types of regimes that were capable of making one laugh and cry. These regimes could not be pinned down by such labels as "tribal fascism" or "provincial fascism." Instead, they were strange beasts that defied scientific taxonomy, especially following the oil boom of the 1970s when government merged with big business and developed traits such as entrenched social backwardness, cumbersome and parasitic bureaucracies, and systematic repression and violence.
It made no difference whether a given regime was articulated economically by a form of "socialist" central planning and a dominant public sector, or, subsequently, by measures of economic "liberalisation" paving the way to the rise of the private sector, as long as all political and economic power remained in the hands of the ruling family or clique. All funds were subjected to a kind of relentless centrifugal force, sucking them into a family- based centre that controlled imports and exports, tourism, sports, culture, the media, not to mention the country's natural resources.
The types of states that had arisen in the Arab world transcended any concept of despotism, "benevolent" or otherwise. As a result of the regimes' ubiquitous hold over all the property and machinery of the state, and their all- pervasive monopoly on the methods of control through coercion, propaganda and corruption, the latter affecting even the most private aspects of people's lives, these states were utterly totalitarian in character.
For years the Human Development Reports put out by the UNDP had been documenting the deteriorating living conditions under these regimes. Human development indexes had shown that the Arab countries were consistently trailing behind in education and knowledge, individual and political rights, minority rights, and gender equality, forming a sad socio-political backdrop to the Arab region.
Of course, there were some minor exceptions to this general rule, such as the equal rights that were granted to women under the Bourguiba regime that came to power following Tunisian independence from France in 1956. There were also variations in the outward structures of government. Syria was characterised by one-party rule, as embodied in that country's Baath Party, and the same can be said of Tunisia and of the revolutionary committees that ruled Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.
When Mubarak came to power in Egypt in the early 1980s, the country completed the shift from a one-party system to one that was nominally pluralistic in form. In Yemen, there was an uneasy equilibrium between the ruling People's General Congress and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties, while in Bahrain the political reforms introduced as a result of the National Action Charter, approved by 98 per cent of the vote in a 2001 referendum, fell far short of the opposition's expectations.
Yet, while there were few signs that the Arab world was on the verge of a massive upheaval, it perhaps appearing that the region was an "Arab exception" to the democratic transformations taking place elsewhere, pressure was nevertheless building up beneath the surface, eventually reaching a critical mass. The explosion came in some countries before others, but it soon became apparent that no country was immune, and all scrambled to avert a crisis.
Some countries, such as Morocco and Jordan, rushed to institute constitutional reforms, while others, such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, implemented a series of economic measures designed to appease public demands for reform. In the Gulf, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent Peninsula Shield forces into Bahrain to help put down an uprising. In all these cases, the purpose was to prevent the sparks of revolution from taking hold, or to stamp out the flames before they could spread.
How long these attempts at containment will hold is difficult to say. What is certain is that the Arab world has now shown that it is not the exception to the rule of political democratisation and that it, too, has now bowed to the laws of political development.
The second half of the 20th century saw two major waves of democratisation. The first brought to completion the democratic evolution of western Europe, beginning with the fall of the Salazar dictatorship and the establishment of democratic rule in Portugal in 1974-75. This was followed by the end of the Franco dictatorship and the rise of democracy in Spain, together with the gradual democratisation of Greece. All these southern European countries were able to create modern constitutions, with a civil state based on pluralistic democratic institutions and mechanisms, the separation of powers, provisions for oversight and transparency, and guarantees for a broad range of civil, political, social and human rights.
The second wave of democratisation began in eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, picking up pace following the largely peaceful transitions that took place in Poland, Hungary and to a lesser extent Czechoslovakia. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East Germany democratised by virtue of its reunification with West Germany in 1990. The wave did not proceed quite as smoothly elsewhere. In Romania, there was much bloodshed, for example, and in Yugoslavia the state fragmented into five separate entities amid years of civil war and armed conflict. By the time the second wave of democratisation has passed through eastern Europe, the Soviet Union itself had broken up into 15 independent states or federations.
This second wave of democratisation also swept through Latin America in the 1990s, where the "liberation theology" of a portion of the Catholic Church played a crucial role in steering these countries away from dictatorship and towards democracy.
In the Middle East, the forces of peaceful change succeeded in overthrowing the regime of Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in Iran, after a year of mass demonstrations and protests in 1978- 1979. However, the wave of democratisation did not reach the shores of the southern Mediterranean. First among the reasons for this was the fact that the Western powers were not prepared to countenance any change that might jeopardise their control over the region's oil resources. The ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict was also a contributory factor.
THE NATURE AND SHAPE OF CHANGE: However, despite such delay, the Arab world ultimately proved that it was not an anomaly to the laws of global political development. If the third wave of democratisation was slow in coming, this was because the cumulative build-up of propitious circumstances was slow and also because it may have had to wait for an encouraging international environment.
This is by no means meant to suggest that the Arab Spring was manufactured abroad, however. The Arab uprisings were in every sense an outcry against long-entrenched systems of injustice and tyranny that had severely distorted the distribution of wealth and had increased levels of destitution and unemployment. On the eve of the Arab Spring, millions of Arabs still lived below the poverty line, even in the wealthy oil- producing nations, and more than 70 million Arabs were still illiterate.
The process of change that has been unleashed by the Arab Spring has cast many issues to the fore. Not least among these are questions having to do with minorities and cultural diversity, especially religious, sectarian and ethnic diversity, the relationship between religion and the state, women's rights, and other broad issues of social progress. More immediately, the countries that shared in the Arab Spring must now contend with the nature and shape of the new governments that they are set to create.
Will the democratic states that now come into being be single or multi-tier polities? In other words, will they be centralised states, or will they be decentralised or even federal entities, with powers distributed between federal and regional levels of government? Such questions arose in Iraq following the US-led occupation of that country and in Sudan before its partition. Today, they are being posed in Yemen and Libya and perhaps also in other countries. Egypt has yet to determine its new system of government.
There also seems to be considerable confusion, perhaps deliberately caused, between the concept of a federation as a legal/administrative arrangement and other arrangements that could go as far as partition. It is therefore important first to clarify terms and then to ascertain the will of the people.
The federal system, today used in some 25 countries worldwide, is a sophisticated political arrangement that may not be perfect, but whose problems, when they arise, can be solved peacefully through democratic means as expressed through the people's elected representatives. The essence of the federal system is the democratic principle of self-determination, without which it cannot thrive. However, addressing the major question of the basic form of the state is inseparable from questions of plurality, cultural diversity, women's rights and many other issues that are also crucial to democratic rule.
Will the region now see the development of conditions that are conducive to progress in this direction after decades of dictatorship, now that it has crossed the threshold to rulers that are elected by the popular will?
INTERNATIONAL AND REGIONAL DIMENSIONS OF ARAB RULE: During the last century, the major international powers followed a simple recipe in their policies towards the Middle East: force is the best way to handle the Arabs.
This formula was the key to imposing their agendas, extending their influence, consolidating their hold over the region's wealth, and sating their colonialist pride. They were greatly assisted in doing these things by the lack of patriotism of the Arab rulers and their lack of respect for their people, seeing the latter as having played no role in installing them in power and not feeling in any way accountable to them.
To implement their plan to destroy the region politically and geographically, Britain and France, the major colonial powers of the time, at first occupied territories directly. Following this, in what is a permanent stain on the conscience of the international community, they broke pledges of national independence that they had made to the Arabs during World War I and secured international approval for arrangements that had been worked out in secret in 1917.
One of these arrangements was the so-called Balfour Declaration, made by the British government and granting the Jews the right to establish a national homeland on Arab land in Palestine. The result of this act of treachery and deception was that the Middle East became one of the world's foremost conflict areas and the theatre of six full-scale wars in less than half a century: the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, the Iraq-Iran War from 1980- 88, and the Gulf War of 1990.
Such was the way in which the colonial powers worked. As these declined following the ravages of two world wars and the rise of populist Arab regimes that refused to allow their territories to remain under the brutal control of foreign occupation forces, two superpowers emerged. These superpowers, the US and the former Soviet Union, adopted a new colonialist tactic, which was to control from afar using proxy governments and various means of enticement or coercion.
With the collapse and subsequent dismantling of the former Soviet Union, the US became the sole leader of a monopolar world, and to secure its place at this pinnacle it drew up and implemented plans to impose its dictates on various parts of the world, with a special focus on the Arab world.
For decades, the US succeeded in turning Arab rulers to the service of its interests and against the interests of their own peoples. These Arab leaders were well rewarded for implementing Washington's policies and for helping to protect Israel, being able to wreak terror at home, plunder the national wealth and fill their personal bank accounts at home and abroad with impunity.
However, eventually the day came when the people rose up against these rulers, toppling their regimes one after the other. There was nothing that the US could do, despite its military might, to protect them, and, indeed, it was forced to recognise the legitimacy of the revolutions and the right of the Arab peoples to choose their own leaders and to bring in genuinely democratic governments answering to the will of these peoples.
The question now is whether the major international powers and the US above all as the leader of the monopolar order will be able to accommodate themselves to the new realities ushered in by the Arab Spring, which brought about the fall of most of the region's tyrants.
Will Washington be able to stop itself from meddling in the internal affairs of the countries of this region? It may be that if the Arab revolutions succeed in overcoming the obstacles that lie before them and the conspiracies that are being hatched against them both at home and abroad, and if they can bring in truly patriotic leaderships that place national revival and genuine freedom and democracy first, then the West will have no alternative but to bow to the new realities and learn to treat the Arab countries in a new way.
It will have to rebuild its relations with them on the basis of common interests, cooperation, and mutual respect. In order to do so, it will have to revise its attitudes and policies towards this region, such that it is able to respond to the will of peoples who have made their voices heard and have proclaimed that it is impossible to turn the clock back and that the time has come for them to obtain their legitimate rights.
At the international level, one sign of the success of the Arab revolutions is the fact that the Arab peoples themselves will become the compass of international policy.
EGYPT'S FIRST DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: Elections held with the aim of officially launching the political transition are perhaps the most important step towards democratic transformation. They are the first democratic elections following a period of authoritarian rule, and therefore they should mark the beginning of a new era of government that will be more democratic and open than any that came before it.
Naturally, the nature of the political system will determine whether it is the legislative or the presidential elections that carry the greater relative weight, but as a general rule it is the presidential elections that carry a greater symbolic value because of the political weight invested in the post, even if the president's powers are restricted by the constitution. Because the occupant of the post is elected by all the citizens, he can claim a broad mandate emanating from the popular will, something that does not apply to any other official in the country.
Thus far, there have been two forms of landmark presidential elections in those countries that have shared in the Arab Spring. On the one hand, there have been multi-candidate elections, such as those currently in progress in Egypt, and on the other there have been the elections that took place in Tunisia and Yemen in which the winner emerged by a process of negotiation. The latter might be called "concessional" elections, since concessions were required of all parties to agree on a winning candidate.
The main difference between the two forms of elections can be quickly sketched, before proceeding to an evaluation of their respective merits and an assessment of the factors that led one option to prevail over the other.
Multi-candidate and concessional elections differ primarily in their degree of competition. The former take the country from a condition in which political competition was heavily restricted, if it existed at all, to a condition of open competition characterised by "organised uncertainty". In other words, while everyone knows the available alternatives, no one can predict the outcome with certainty. Concessional elections, on the other hand, are less competitive, and hence uncertainty is reduced, if not eliminated.
In this type of election, the main political forces in the country negotiate with each other directly in order to choose the candidate that they believe is best suited to serve as president for the transitional period. This individual is then fielded as either the only candidate in the elections, as was the case in Yemen, or is presented as the leading contender, owing to his being backed by the larger political blocs. Some political groups in Egypt were toying with this option for a while. In either case, the outcome is predictable, or highly predictable, before the polls take place, making them a formality.
Perhaps the major advantage of the concessional model, also one of the disadvantages of the competitive model, is that it minimises uncertainty, which can have significant political and economic repercussions, especially during the transitional period. All the Arab states that have undergone transformation in the context of the Arab Spring have suffered enormous economic losses. This is true of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, even if the latter has been able to compensate for its losses more quickly owing to its petroleum resources.
In cases where the economic situation is serious and in need of urgent remedy, competitive elections may not be the best procedure to follow. Virtually by definition, they prolong uncertainty, and hence they can increase the reluctance of foreign entrepreneurs to invest in the country. Such uncertainty can also cause foreign donor agencies and governments to defer the extension of aid until things become clearer in the recipient country, which would be when someone is able to take over the helm of government in a legitimate way and the transitional situation begins to stabilise.
On the other hand, one of the major disadvantages of the concessional model is that by acting as a precedent it can threaten to postpone genuinely competitive elections, and this in turn can lead to doubts about whether genuine democratic transformation has taken place or whether it can be completed within a reasonable timeframe. Such doubts can even grow into suspicions if the new president has been a member of the former regime, as is the case in Yemen, for example.
People might then start to question whether any serious change has taken place at all. In Yemen, the ballot paper used was quite telling in this regard, since it indicated the extent to which the competition had been settled in advance, making the polls a simple formality. This ballot paper contained the name of a single candidate and his picture, next to which was the candidate's campaign slogan, "We'll build the future together."
Assessing the current conditions in the Arab Spring countries that have held or are in the process of holding presidential elections can help determine which model a given society will choose. The most important variables here are the powers vested in the office of the president, the structure and balance of the political forces in the country, the degree of political polarisation in the society, and the relative political weights of the presidential hopefuls.
Regarding the powers vested in the office of the president, the more these powers are limited by law, the less intense the contention is likely to be over which candidate fills the post. Conversely, the greater the role that the future president is expected to play in the period following the elections, the more fiercely the rival parties and political forces will fight to promote their candidate and the less likely it is that they will be able to reach the agreements necessary to adopt a concessional approach.
In Tunisia, the president was not elected by direct elections, and therefore his powers are limited since he does not have a direct mandate from the electorate. This was perhaps one of the main reasons why Tunisia opted for a concessional system in its recent elections. In Egypt, on the other hand, where it seems that the next government will operate according to a mixed parliamentary/executive system in which the president will have extensive powers, the election of the future president has critical importance.
Egypt's presidential elections have been, and will probably remain, stiffly competitive, since there is little incentive to choose a concessional model.
Regarding the current structure of the political forces, the choice of a concessional model may also depend on the existence of political forces that may not have numerical strength in the elections, but that nevertheless carry significant weight in the structure of the country's political forces. It is not in the interests of such forces to leave the choice of president to the ballot box alone, since their influence here will be considerably less than it would be in other types of political decision-making. Under such circumstances, these political forces would have a strong incentive to push for the concessional model, which reduces, if not nullifies, the role of the ballot box in determining the next president.
Taking the Egyptian and Yemeni cases as examples, in the former case the major unofficial player is the military establishment, whereas in the latter there are several unofficial players, primarily the neighbouring Gulf countries as well as some international parties, notably the US.
In Egypt, the military does not exert great influence over voter preferences. It cannot back a particular candidate, at least not openly, and it does not have the ability to mobilise millions of voters at the polls. However, the military does not want to be excluded from having a say in the choice of the next president, and therefore it would have a strong incentive for pushing for the concessional model.
In Yemen, on the other hand, regional and foreign powers may not have great influence over the voters, but they will be keen to ensure that any new president does not work against their interests, for example by creating conditions that are hostile to them in the region, or not being perceived to be tough enough in the fight against the militant groups that are thriving in many parts of the country.
On the question of the degree of political polarisation, here the sharper the political/ ideological polarisation in a country, the less likely it is that the political forces will be able to make the necessary compromises to agree on a single candidate under the concessional model.
In Egypt, for example, not only has there been mounting polarisation between the secularist and the Islamist forces, but there has also been increasing polarisation within each of these camps. Such polarisation naturally inhibits the concessional mode, which is essentially a process under which diverse and sometimes opposing political forces reach a collective decision. It requires that certain conditions be met, foremost among them being the existence of common ground among the participants during the decision-making process.
Another important factor that can affect the degree of polarisation is the timeframe for the holding of the presidential elections. The farther away elections are set from the end of the previous regime, defined as the moment the former president steps down, the further society will have moved away from those moments of collaboration and harmony that led to the end of the former regime and the more frictions will have had the opportunity to mount and rifts expand into gulfs, hampering efforts to reach any consensus on a single candidate.
This situation certainly applies to Egypt, since the first post-revolutionary presidential elections have been scheduled to take place nearly a year and a half after Mubarak stepped down.
Finally, regarding the relative political weight of the presidential hopefuls, the very individuals who put themselves forward as presidential candidates may affect the chances of one electoral approach prevailing over the other. By their very nature, the presidential hopefuls may not be in favour of a concessional approach, preferring to fight things out among themselves. This is probably one of the few points that they can all agree on.
During the period in which none of them can be certain that they have a chance of becoming the person selected under a concessional system, they will have to court the major political forces and make concessions that they may find disagreeable. They may therefore feel more comfortable if the whole idea of a concessional system is ruled out in advance. Moreover, the greater the popularity or credibility of such individuals, the more successful they will be at tarnishing the idea of a concessional president in the minds of the public, and perhaps also in the press, thereby reducing the likelihood of this option being selected.
If this converges with the interests of the major political forces themselves, then competitive multi-candidate elections will almost certainly prevail. These considerations may go some way towards explaining the rapid turn of events in Egypt when within the space of a few days several potential candidates issued strongly worded statements opposing the notion of a concessional president and forcing political forces that may have been contemplating the idea to deny that they had been entertaining it.
Any political scientist would be risking his academic impartiality were he to suggest that the concessional approach may be the more democratic one. But it is also possible to turn to a more objective standard, namely public opinion, which is reflected in indicators like voter turnout figures.
Voter turnout in the Yemeni elections stood at around 60 per cent, in spite of the fact that there was only one candidate standing in the elections. The fact that this candidate then received 99 per cent of the vote in largely free and fair elections was not just a sign that the Yemeni public approved of the candidate, but was also a sign that it approved of the concessional method chosen for the polls.
In order to make a comparison with approval ratings for the competitive model, we will have to wait to see voter turnout figures for the Egyptian presidential elections, the first round of which began yesterday and continues today.