Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

10 years back, 10 years forward

There will be no seismic shifts in Egypt's coming decade, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*. Rather, we can safely expect a continuation and consolidation of reforms that are already underway

Predictions are the nightmare of scholars, postmortems their agony. It is the job of journalists and pundits to keep the publishing mill, producing predictions, prognosis and analysis. Egypt, though, presents them with a special problem, not least because of what's being viewed as its resistance to change. Rewind 10 years, or move a decade forward and Misr -- the Arabic name for Egypt -- looks seemingly the same. When 2020 dawns the state will have clocked over six millennia: what difference, one wonders, can a decade make?

THE PRESIDENCY QUESTION: The attempt to approach the yet unanswered question of the presidential succession in Egypt certainly adds higher interest to predictions for the coming decade. This is the result of two realities: President Hosni Mubarak's current fifth term will come to an end in 2011, and there is no apparent successor. And he has not appointed a vice-president as Gamal Abdel-Nasser did in 1970 and Anwar El-Sadat in 1981. These two simple facts have led to a frenzy of speculation and hypotheses about the character and personality of Egypt's next president.

The riddle is further complicated by what is viewed as Egypt's ostensible immunity to change over the previous three decades. It is possible to argue that the status quo has remained intact, despite the sometimes frenetic political activity witnessed since 2005, presidential and parliamentary elections, along with constitutional amendments, legal changes, preceded by the formation of a new cabinet, which itself later saw a number of reshuffles. President Mubarak won a fifth presidential term with a majority close to 88 per cent in competition with 10 other candidates.

Presidential election results are not the only continuity of the political past. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) ended the parliamentary race of 2005 with 70 per cent of assembly seats, giving it the necessary two-thirds majority to pass new legislation. But in a break with the past, only 23 per cent of registered voters took part in the presidential poll. The turnout for parliamentary elections was little better, with just 26.2 per cent of the electorate going to the polls, compared to only 24 per cent in the parliamentary elections of 2000. If all eligible, as opposed to registered, voters are counted, turnout drops to around 18.6 per cent. The political protests that began to dominate headlines from 2005 have clearly not encouraged wider political participation.

SHIFTING GROUND: Despite the slow pace of change in Egypt the last three decades have seen noticeable shifts in the country's security, social, economic and political settings while peace with Israel helped reduce the external threat to Egypt's basic security interests.

Consequently, the last three decades have seen a gradual shift towards a market economy. By 2000, the private sector accounted for 73 per cent of Egypt's economic activity. A total of 165 companies -- more than half the public sector -- have been privatised. The private sector has also ventured into areas that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago, including major infrastructure projects, airports and communications. By 2008, the private sector was contributing 62 per cent of Egypt's GDP. This shift has been accompanied by the rise of a business class which has steadily consolidated its influence over the decision-making process.

In social terms Egypt has changed dramatically. Its population has increased to 80 million, doubling since 1980. Twenty per cent of the Egyptian population is now aged between 15 and 24, and two- thirds of the total are under 35. It is a better educated population than in the past -- literacy rates have increased to 72 per cent -- and is better informed, accessing expanding independent, private and transnational media.

Civil society in Egypt has grown immensely in the past few decades. By 2008 Egypt had 25,000 civil associations operating in fields from development to political advocacy.

Politically, the result has rendered the Egyptian political scene both more sophisticated and complex. Political movements, civil society organisations, the media and the growing role of the judiciary have all contributed to this increased complexity that belies traditional authoritarian models. In short, developments since 2005 point to fundamental changes taking place in the next 10 years.

Despite similarities with the past both the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005 appeared as harbingers of change. The presidential elections were not only competitive, there was less interference by state security and much fairer media coverage. Despite irregularities that favoured the incumbent, the irregularities did not define the results of the election, nor can they be said to represent official policy. Put simply, any Egyptian citizen who opposed the president had an opportunity to record his or her position, and candidates running against Mubarak were given access to both the public and private media.

Despite noted irregularities, the 2005 parliamentary vote was the first time transparent ballot boxes and indelible ink were used and reflected a trend towards competitiveness in Egyptian politics. They were also the first to be monitored by civil society organisations and resulted in one of the highest levels of opposition representation in Egyptian history.

The ruling NDP has lost some of its dominance. Only 145 candidates (32.65 per cent) of the 444 candidates originally nominated by the NDP won, gaining an 8.5 per cent share of registered voters. It was another jolt for the party after its unsatisfactory performance in the 2000 elections, when it secured just 38.7 per cent of the seats. It was by re- admitting NDP defectors who had run as independents that the party secured its parliamentary majority.

The declining fortunes of the NDP has been paralleled by the demise of the secular opposition parties which gained only nine seats -- six to Wafd, two to Tagammu, and one to Ghad -- in 2005, compared with 14 in the 2000 parliament.

Also of significance is the high turnover within the ranks of the NDP and other parties. During the elections for the parliamentary speaker's two deputies some NDP members broke ranks and voted for the opposition candidates.

The then decline of the NDP has been coupled with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, and despite having no legal status in Egyptian politics, the Brothers gained 88, or 19.81 per cent, of People's Assembly seats, up from 17 seats, or 3.82 per cent, in 2000. The Brothers won just eight seats in the 1984 elections and 36 in the 1987 poll. A de-facto legalisation of the Brothers is taking place as a result of the rise in their public performance and their permanent presence in the Egyptian and pan-Arab media.

The 2005 elections also saw the judiciary playing a larger role in arbitrating Egyptian politics. The judiciary, while consolidating their independence, have proved to be a stout defender of civil and political rights in Egypt. The Supreme Constitutional Court has continued to act in defiance of executive hegemony, issuing judgements in favour of political and civil rights. The judiciary, and the Supreme Constitutional Court in particular, has emerged as a major engine of political reform in Egypt.

Although the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has seen only eight new ministers join the cabinet during its term in office, the new faces reinforced the reformist group within the cabinet appointed July 2004. The group, along with Nazif, includes the ministers of finance, trade and industry, investment, tourism, and economic development, has succeeded in pulling Egypt out of recession, stabilising the financial markets, strengthening the Egyptian pound, increasing exports and Egyptian reserves to a respectable $34 billion, increasing foreign investment, and speeding up major reforms in taxation, customs and privatisation. It negotiated a steady course through the global economic crisis of 2008/2009 and has presided over growth rates of 5.2 per cent in 2005 and around seven per cent for the last three years.

FAST FORWARD: Now there is no evidence to suggest Egypt is on the cusp of radical change. The next 10 years are likely to see both an extension and consolidation of the reforms of the past decade, particularly in the economic, social and political spheres. Whoever runs Egypt will basically chart a course first set 10 years ago, transforming Egypt gradually into a market economy and moving from a social-subsidy system to one based on social security. Current indicators suggest that by the end of the next 10 years Egypt could be in a similar position to Turkey today.

The political system is a different story altogether. Since the apparent continuity of Egypt's governing elite and the spread of apathy among the masses, the need is greater to address the question of succession.

The appearance of continuity, first off, cannot mask the simple fact that Egypt has been changing, partly because the world itself is changing, and partly because the demographic and socio- economic realities of the country have altered drastically. That said, There is no reason at all to expect any rupture post-President Mubarak. The legal framework for the succession has been set by the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution in 2005. It allows for competitive elections among candidates nominated by "legal" political parties that have at least one elected representative in parliament. Independents can still run, in principle, but the stipulated level of support they need to show before their nomination is accepted, in the People's Assembly, the Shura Council and on elected local councils, make it difficult.

For the last few years the scene was rife with various floated about scenarios and projected possibilities along with a flurry of speculation over when and whether President Mubarak will decide to run again at the end of his current term . One distant scenario envisages some sort of an intervention by the army to settle any latent dispute/ struggle over an election outcome or a contest of power. If this ever occurs, the armed forces, in its capacity as the state's supreme guard, will be present as always in times of need, to preserve stability and legitimacy. According to this assumption, such intervention, however highly unlikely, will expectedly be temporary until a consensus over a successor emerges. While brushing over the role of the military in Egypt's political life, such an argument ignores that though in Egypt four consecutive presidents have come from the armed forces, the fact is that members of the military and the police do not, by law, perform a structured political role. In addition, the most recent constitutional amendments make it clear that the next president will be the nominee of a civilian political party.

The proven and accumulated experience of the previous examples of peaceful and smooth transition of power in Egypt during the last half century is also answer enough to groups either fearing or anticipating, or even spreading rumours promoting a Muslim Brothers' takeover, via either a peaceful electoral process or otherwise. The results of the last parliamentary election fuelled the imagination of those who rightfully feel uneasy about such a prospect and those who wishfully subscribe to this kind of scenario which remains unlikely for a variety of reasons. The Egyptian state has kept the Muslim Brotherhood under consistent legal and political pressure. The constitutional amendments of 2007 explicitly ban the formation of political parties on the basis of religion. The power of the Egyptian state and the complexity of its bureaucracy mitigates against the likelihood of such a drastic change, as they have done so since 1922.

The odds therefore lend credence to a more credible solid and most feasible scenario that foresees an extension of the current situation with President Mubarak, who has already started the process of reviewing the Egyptian constitution, completing the shift towards a more democratic constitution. Progress towards a market economy will also continue along the road that has already begun, as will reforms in the social sphere. The hegemony of the NDP might wane in the coming decade, its power checked by much more sophisticated institutions and the media, but the balance of power between the NDP and other political parties means it is unlikely that anyone but the NDP's nominee will win the presidency.

In short, one cannot expect the next president of Egypt to be an outsider. He will be drawn from the political elite and will assume office with as much legitimacy, in form and in substance, as the current system permits. President Mubarak will have a strong say in whoever succeeds him, either by prolonging his presidency or by selecting someone already in a senior position in the NDP as his heir apparent. Political stability and the success of economic reforms will be deciding factors. Both are coming to be cornerstones of Egypt's values. One way or another the engines of accelerating or slowing down the process of reform and democratisation will be the sophistication of the new generations of Egyptians in terms of democratic values, the size and effectiveness of the newly growing private sector, the possibilities of liberalisation or radicalisation of the Muslim Brothers, and the stability of the Middle East region.

* Chairman of the Board of Al-Ahram.

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