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

A less noisy evolution

Egypt's next leap towards progress need not be the product of the sound and fury of revolution, writes Gehad Auda*

Five essential and comprehensive concepts govern the "New Thinking" in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) -- the party's new agenda for Egypt's future. They are: the rationalisation of public consumption; stimulating and broadening public participation in the economy; the rationalisation of the management of public, private and social assets; citizenship and social justice and equity; and competitive investment and production via international partnerships.

Rationalising public consumption, the first pillar of the "New Thinking", entails changing irrational forms of consumer behaviour. Reform of people's behaviour as consumers is an essential avenue towards reform of their behaviour in social and political domains. Combating cheating, in the broadest sense of the term, is the first step toward rationalising consumer behaviour. It is for this reason that the government passed laws and instituted measures to curb monopoly and ensure fair commercial competition in order to achieve a robust development process.

The second essential pillar -- stimulating and broadening economic participation -- involves creating the legal and organisational frameworks needed to stimulate the participation of youth, women and other sectors of society in productive activities. Norms of behaviour inherited from the authoritarian era, is not particularly economically effective. Numerous studies still attest to an alarmingly high degree of dependency, as seen in statistics on the relatively large number of non-economically productive individuals supported by wage earners. The idea is to increase the number of economically productive individuals in all sectors of society through the promotion of the spirit and practice of personal initiative.

The rationalisation of the management of national assets, the third objective of "New Thinking", regards state assets as though they formed a single investment portfolio, the management of which seeks to maximise economic and social benefits. The transition to this form of financial management should eliminate nepotism and graft that have become endemic. We could also see it as the transition from state capitalism to the capitalist state. In the former, which prevailed under Nasser, Sadat and much of Mubarak's rule, state assets were administered in a capitalist way but using bureaucratic instruments. State bureaucracy managed state assets on behalf of the state and, operating with no form of public control, something which gave rise to rampant corruption and inefficiency.

The mounting waste and corruption, in turn, triggered repeated attempts on the part of the ruling elite to reform government and build a modern state. Unfortunately, all such attempts failed to make the definitive transition from state-driven capitalism to market-driven capitalism.

Citizenship and social justice and equity form the fourth pillar of "New Thinking". This objective has also formed part of the 1952 revolution ideology which advocated social justice. However, when the NDP calls for social equity, it does so from a different perspective. The Nasserist- style social justice effectively accorded some social groups more rights than others, which adversely affected those who were not among the groups favoured by the regime.

This, however, changed with the addition of the concept of citizenship to the first article of the Egyptian constitution. Citizenship is now a definitive criterion for the interpretation of all subsequent constitutional articles, thus throwing open the gates to the emergence of a new political culture -- one that rests on the concept of equal rights for all citizens.

The fifth pillar of "New Thinking" combines four elements: competition, investment, production and international alliances. Competitiveness is the ability of the individuals or a groups (company, institution, association or any other such body) to compete in order to obtain a portion of the public realm within the framework of the rules and regulations established by public order. Investment is the ability to generate surplus value socially, economically, politically or otherwise. It is generally connected to resources that are managed in the context of the interaction between society and the state. Production is the ability to organise the production of surplus in a manner that meets the goals of technological advancement and diffusion, full employment, economic efficiency and social justice in conditions of work and the distribution of returns. Finally, the element of international alliances implies that competition, in principle, can only take place in an international or global context.

The principles of competition, investment and production through international alliances express a conceptual and practical network for accommodating to new international changes. It essentially states that those who cannot cooperate with others, be they individuals, groups, companies or state entities, cannot win and cannot survive. Cooperation is not so much something motivated by human desire, as it is a necessity. Competitive cooperation, in turn, requires creating a new psychological environment enhancing the ability to know, to choose, to participate and the ability to plan and design. Each of these traits has a scale, and it is the mission of the new political culture to elevate individuals to the highest possible ranks on these four scales.

In conclusion, the recent constitutional amendments have made it possible to stimulate a greater ability to exercise choice and to dismantle the authoritarian regime inherited from the Nasserist era. The labour strikes, sit-ins, collective bargaining and -- indeed -- the creation of the first independent unions since 1952 testify to this. Clearly the question as to whether or not the regime will evolve into two major parties is misplaced. What we should be asking is what form of plurality will be produced by the socio-political cauldron in Egypt, bearing in mind that this mode will depend upon the efficacy with which the diverse political and social forces in the country engage in the political struggle and negotiate.

Modern Egypt since the 1919 revolution has never experienced the logic or practice of two major parties; there has always been a single dominant party at best flanked by small ones. Changing this modality will be contingent upon the ability to fight for it in the political arena and the willingness to make sacrifices in the process, as occurred in long-established democracies.

The most crucial problem in promoting political development in Egypt is the lack of the culture of political engagement. The only way to address this is to further stimulate the dissemination of the values and policies of the "New Thinking", in its broadest sense, as opposed to the narrower National Democratic Party sense. In other words, the real challenge is whether Egypt will be able to evolve into a modern constitutional civic state with a presidential system.

The "New Thinking" is what it will take to bring change and achieve progress. It is the thinking of national revival. For the first time in Egypt we have the prospect of a much less noisy revolution.

* Professor of political science at Helwan University and a member of the ruling NDP's Policies Committee.

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