Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Mubarak's fourth term

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Sid President Mubarak's fourth term will coincide with the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. From that standpoint, it coincides with popular aspirations for a new reality more in keeping with the requirements of a new and different world. To respond to those aspirations, it is necessary to assess the challenges that are likely to be faced by Egypt in the future, an assessment that, given Egypt's unique position as the oldest nation-state in the world, must take the long view of how things will be after the dust settles.

One of the most challenging issues Egypt will have to face as the new century unfolds is a new type of relationship with Israel, defined in terms of peace, not in terms of confrontation and war. The relationship is no longer that of hostilities nor is it that of a partnership in a common attempt to convince the other Arab protagonists of the benefits of joining the peace process launched by the Madrid conference. What is new is the rivalry that is likely to grow within the new parameters of peace, where the central issue will become which of the two states is better equipped to shape the future of the whole Middle East.

It could be argued that the present efforts to re-launch the peace process will revitalise Egyptian-Israeli relations and create new opportunities for cooperation that could not have been foreseen only a short while ago. But this formalistic approach fails to take account of the complexities of the situation. In this connection, it is useful to point to German-French relations. The close relationship that developed between the two countries in the aftermath of World War II was held up as an example of how genuine peace could be established between parties who, as recently as this century, had fought on opposite sides in three of the bloodiest wars in history. Once described as irreversible and considered the cornerstone of the European Union, this close relationship is showing signs of strain. In a recent article in Le Figaro, Maurice Druon, a leading figure of the French establishment and permanent secretary of the prestigious Académie Française, warned that Germany is reverting to its pre-World War II arrogance. He sees many signs of this, including Bonn's demand that German have the same status as English and French as a working language at all levels of EU activities, and its assertion that Germany is entitled to speak in the name of German-speaking minorities in any European country. Druon adds that while European integration makes war an improbable option, nothing should be excluded, especially with the recent flare-up of crisis situations in various parts of Europe.

The challenges Egypt will face in its relations with Israel are likely to resemble those Druon fears Germany now represents for France. In the context of a comprehensive Middle East settlement, they will be qualitatively different from the challenges Egypt had to contend with in the past, and we are likely to see the relationship between the two countries retaining features of confrontation in certain matters and of cooperation in others. For Israel, maintaining its military edge over all the Arab states combined is a strategic imperative, one it will continue to uphold as a prerequisite for its survival in the region. It will also expand the confrontation into the economic field, where there are already signs that it will spare no effort over the next few years -- which is the period of Mubarak's fourth term in office -- to achieve economic superiority over all the Arab states. Whether it succeeds or not is another matter, but its determination to achieve those objectives will in itself represent a challenge.

For the Arab states, Israel represents the challenge of a developed society, both economically and technologically, in a less developed environment. In the area of computer technology, for example, Israel is on a par with the United States, while its educational system is recognised as one of the best in the world. In other words, the challenge that Israel now represents is not primarily of a military nature, although Israel's military might remains a critical factor in the equation, but of a 'civilisational' nature.

In the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, the late Ahmed Bahaaeddin wrote that the challenge posed to the Arabs by Israel was primarily a cultural, or 'civilisational', one. At the time, I contested his view but now I know he was right. Standing up to the challenge entails achieving some form of parity, in 'civilisational' terms, with Israel. This requires the full mobilisation of Egypt's potential capabilities and human resources, which can only come about in the context of genuine democracy.

Egypt is a presidential system. While this may have been suitable to face challenges in the past, the challenges Egypt will be facing in the coming period differ significantly from what they were in the days of Nasser or Sadat. At a time Egypt was on a permanent war footing, it made sense to have a strong centralised authority. So too when Egypt embarked on a peace process that alienated it from much of its Arab environment. But now that the war option has receded significantly and with the other Arab states no longer representing a political challenge to Egypt, it is to be questioned whether a presidential system is still the best formula by which all Egypt's potential energies can be mobilised to stand up to Israel's 'civilisational' challenge in the context of peace, now the first item on our agenda.

Of course, that is not to dismiss the challenge represented by the various trends of radical Islam, which is still very much there. But it should not overshadow all other considerations. Egypt is faced with the need to wage two battles simultaneously: one, to eliminate the reasons that encouraged the growth of Islamic radicalism and, two, to foil Israel's bid to become the dominant force in the Middle East. In a way, the two battles are connected to one another, in the sense that Egypt's success in preventing Israel from calling the shots in the region will go far towards defeating the threat of radicalism in the name of Islam.

Recognising that the key to victory in both battles is a commitment to democracy, the four main opposition parties, the Wafd, the Tagammu', the Labour Party and the Nasserist Party, addressed a petition to President Mubarak on the occasion of the plebiscite for his fourth term. The petition, which was signed by the leaders of the four parties, put forward a number of demands, followed by a call "to take the first step on the road of radical political and constitutional reform, to lay the groundwork for Egypt's transformation into a parliamentary republic in which the people are the source of all authority, and which would be based on genuine party pluralism, allowing for the rotation of power between political parties according to the results of free and fair elections, and where the government will enjoy the confidence of the people and shall be answerable to them in the performance of its ministerial duties, so that the head of state becomes a symbol of the nation, elected from among a number of candidates for no longer than two consecutive terms."

This petition is not a challenge to President Mubarak, but is motivated by the need to face Israel's aspiration to become the hegemonic state in the region on the one hand, and to undermine religious fanaticism on the other. The leaders of the opposition parties are all elderly men representing the generations that have been struggling for national liberation and social emancipation throughout the last half of the 20th century, but, as a team, they also carry an accumulation of Egypt's wisdom and experience in seeking its national targets in non-violent ways that can enhance the cause of peace both inside Egypt and throughout the region. The more effectively Egypt stands up to the Israeli challenge, the more successfully it can stand up to the challenges of totalitarianism and fanaticism. All efforts must be mobilised in this endeavour from Egypt's state leadership and from the opposition; from the elderly and from the young; from what has now come to be described as Egypt's 'civil society'. President Mubarak has six years to bring about the required transformations and uphold what has now become a universal demand, that of implementing democracy, human rights and pluralism, with no other restrictions than those prescribed by law.

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