Mubarak and 'Mubarakism'
The concentration on individuals rather than on policy orientations in the presidential elections means that Egyptian voters, having removed Mubarak, are in danger of legitimising Mubarakism, writes Bassem Hassan
The first presidential elections of the post-Mubarak era are supposed to usher Egypt into a new phase in its history, or so we are told. Pundits are calling this anticipated new chapter in the country's history the "second republic" on the basis that from now on elections will be fairer and more flexible. However, by so doing they are conveniently glossing over the vast gulf that exists between the policies of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, on one hand, and those of former presidents Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak on the other. Alas, this is just one example of the multiple expressions of electoral fetishism that have been prevalent over the past 15 months in Egypt.
It seems that politics in post-Mubarak Egypt have been more or less reduced to concerns about the fairness of the electoral process rather than the content and orientations of the candidates' visions. For those who consider democracy in its liberal version to be a panacea for all the country's problems, even a value in itself, this is sufficient cause for celebration. Such people expect, if not demand, everyone else to rejoice at this, for then Egypt will finally join the club of democracies. In their world, it seems as if the spectre of Mubarak's men remaining in positions of authority in the country is the only impediment to turning the page on the Mubarak era once and for all.
I beg to differ. While Mubarak's career has certainly come to an end, his legacy is likely to live on regardless of the winner of the presidential elections. I would even go as far as to suggest that the main effect of the democratic process, at least in the short run, will be the legitimisation of "Mubarakism". By the latter I am referring to the orientation of Mubarak's foreign and socio-economic policies, which the opposition in the recent past claimed to disagree with. To be fair to Mubarak, he was only following in the footsteps of his predecessor in carrying out such policies. After all, it was Sadat who, whether we are talking about the strategic alliance with the United States and the Israelis or his pro-capitalism measures, blazed this trail in the 1970s, a fact that is often forgotten in the midst of the current anti-Mubarak rhetoric.
It goes without saying that because of the length of Mubarak's presidency, these policies were associated more with him than they were with his predecessor, especially in the minds of the younger generations. Yet, while Mubarak, his family and his prominent lieutenants have been the targets of incessant criticism and attacks for more than a year now, it is hard to discern any intention to alter the orientation of the country's foreign and economic policies in the proceedings of parliament thus far. It is even harder to detect any sincere desire to revise these policies in the electoral programmes of the main contenders for the presidency.
Aside from some timid and vague statements made by the left-leaning candidates about restoring some underspecified role to the public sector, all the main candidates, leftists included, have showered praises on the private sector and have competed in stressing its central role in advancing the country's economic development. Naturally, this commitment to capitalism has also been sugarcoated by promises not to infringe on the "rights" of the underprivileged segments of society. Does this sound familiar?
The same applies to relations with the United States, and, more remarkably, to the peace agreements with Israel. In these respects the positions of the Islamist candidates have been particularly telling. Both Mohamed Mursi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh have eschewed the Muslim Brotherhood's long-standing anti-Israel stance. Neither of them has seen a problem in respecting the peace treaty with Israel as long as it is in Egypt's interest to do so and the other party adheres to its terms. Is this really any different from Mubarak's position? The Islamist candidates have even gone further than Mubarak by invoking the Quran to stress a religious obligation to adhere to the treaty.
It has also been revealing that neither of the Islamist candidates has considered the issue of the Qualified Industrial Zones, one of the main manifestations of economic normalisation between the Egyptian and Israeli business communities, if not the outstanding one, to be worth raising during the presidential campaign. Ironically, the main change in Egyptian-Israeli relations in the post-Mubarak era has been initiated not by the former president's ardent opponents, but rather by quarters that could be considered to be remnants of his regime. I am referring here to the decision to terminate Egypt's gas sales to Israel.
In many respects, the current emphasis on the electoral process has served as a smokescreen to conceal the similarities between the politics of Mubarak and of those who spent years opposing him. The same could be said about the attempts to frame the political debate in terms of a confrontation between individuals who worked with Mubarak and those who opposed him, rather than in terms of a choice among alternative policies. I would venture to say that the former opposition has resorted to this strategy deliberately, in order to cover for its lack of interest in discussing the content of its policy vision, which in essence represents a continuation of Mubarakism and not a divergence from it.
None of the above is meant to belittle the importance of popular participation in decision-making processes. Yet, elections can only be meaningful when the electorate has a chance to choose between different political visions and programmes. When all that is on offer is a choice between variants of the same thing, then all the voters are given is the chance to pick the candidate that they consider to be the best manager.
In many respects, this is what electoral processes have become about in the liberal democracies. For decades, this was concealed, first by Cold War rhetoric and later by buzzwords such as "transparency" and "good governance". However, it was made apparent, even for proponents of liberal democracy, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. The Greeks, Irish, British, Spaniards and Italians, among others, have now discovered that their choices are limited to two parties that represent more or less two sides of the same coin.
Such a situation is tantamount to the death of politics, not the flourishing of democracy. Egyptians might end up soon in the same position, regardless of who will be inaugurated as the next president at the end of this month, unless they insist on doing away with Mubarakism and not just with former president Mubarak. Otherwise, they will wake up to the sad reality that though they have dethroned Mubarak, they have legitimised Mubarakism.
The writer is a political analyst.