Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Putting words into action

State institutions, on a firmer footing than at any time in the last five years, still have a great deal to prove, writes Nevine Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

The 25 January Revolution was determined to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and his security apparatus. Some protestors, emboldened by their success in changing the faces of those in power and placing the notorious State Security apparatus on the back foot, even developed dreams of dismantling the institutions of state altogether.

Five years later, after a period of political turmoil that included a disastrous year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, and the state is back in place. The provisions of the roadmap, announced in the wake of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood on 3 July 2013, have been fulfilled.

A new constitution is in place, presidential and parliamentary elections have been held, and media reforms are in the works. So is Egypt’s political transformation complete? Observers say it is too early to judge. Whatever the rhetoric, they argue that actions will speak louder than words.

“Though there are some differences, the state is essentially a clone of the one in place five years ago,” says Hazem Hosni, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “They are more naïve, less clever and have little political experience. It is a crude regime that stands on very fragile ground. There is no statesmanship.”

Veteran diplomat and political commentator Mustafa Al-Fiqi agrees, at least in part. “It’s a new regime but it is using the same old tools. The one marked difference with the old regime is that it is wiser. Still, the strong grip of the state is the same, if only because of security, political and economic conditions.”

Says Al-Fiqi, “While too many sacrifices have been made for everything to be cast anew, the regime is excessive in distancing itself from the past.”

Tarek Fahmy, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, believes state institutions that are now solidly in place need to earn the trust of the people. “Citizens must be convinced that these institutions are effective and progressing along the path of political and democratic transformation,” he says.

It is a path littered with obstacles, says Fahmy, as the recent controversy centred on the Central Auditing Authority (CAA) shows. Criticism levelled at sovereign institutions should, he says, focus on whether or not they are doing their job properly rather than dragging them through the political quagmire.

Another problem Fahmy identifies is the absence of public consensus over the direction Egypt should be heading, and how it might get there.

Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), argues that state institutions never really went away. The security apparatus, bureaucracy and judiciary remained intact even at the peak of the revolution. “They were not restructured or even marginalised though there were presidential and parliamentary vacuums at certain points,” he says.

State institutions have shown their resilience. The task now, says Akl, is to prove they can act effectively together. “There is no clear formula of interaction between these institutions, especially the presidency, government and parliament.”

The House of Representatives, argues Akl, seems hardly politicised, given the absence of any major opposition bloc. “Given the relative immaturity of parliament, we do not know what to expect.”

Al-Fiqi disagrees. The 2016 parliament, he says, is “better than any in the past because it is more representative of the people, containing more Christians, women, young and handicapped MPs”.

While Fahmy insists it is too early to evaluate a parliament that has not the time to cut its legislative teeth, Hosny believes, “You can judge a book by its cover.”

“In the absence of any political direction or vision, parliament is likely to do everything the executive branch asks. At best, MPs will barter for benefits for their constituents, as happened under Mubarak,” says Hosny.

He worries that the majority bloc in parliament — “managed by a former intelligence officer” — will work “to support the regime and not, as they like to claim, the state”. He finds it disturbing that the bloc has already made use of slogans like “For the love of Egypt” and “Support the state”. What they are attempting, he says, is to monopolise patriotism and truth.

The presidency in Egypt is all about the person, says Hosny. “His aides are basically the secretariat. They carry out orders to realise the ambitions of the president.” He worries that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is “exercising power as if he were an army commander, relying on the Armed Forces for support rather than connecting with civilian forces and society”.

The presidency in Egypt has always been a “one-man show”, points out Akl. “Because of our patriarchal culture we have a very centralised decision-making process. The person at the top of the pyramid runs the entire hierarchy.

“Although there are many advisors there is confusion about how decisions are made, what criteria they are based on and whose vision wins the day. The entire process is far too opaque.”

Claims that the president works in isolation and does not have advisers are erroneous, counters Fahmy. The president has appointed advisory councils and their roles are far from superficial, he says.

“They are assigned remits and the president listens to them, though of course it comes down to his decision at the end. But that is the prerogative of any president.”

Fahmy sees it as positive that Al-Sisi has not created the kind of bureaucracy around the president’s office that his predecessors did, preferring instead to work in smaller groups.

Al-Fiqi is unconvinced. “The president’s immediate circle should include qualified and experienced advisers. And as long as they are not incriminated in any crimes their pasts should not matter,” he says.

The remaining component of the roadmap — media reform — is in the works, and it is high time, say commentators, that a meaningful code of ethics was issued to regulate the often absurd conduct of the media, not least private television news channels.

“The media, whether state-owned or not, has become a propaganda tool. Its role in disseminating information, conveying different views and informing the public has been all but forgotten,” says Akl.

In the words of Al-Fiqi, the media has become “too sensationalist, moulding situations and positions with no regard to context. It has become destabilising and impacts the public very negatively.”

Fahmy is optimistic that “excesses in the media” will be tamed once media and access to information laws are passed.

It is something Hosny too hopes will happen. The media, “especially private channels that are a front for business interests”, have not, until now, been “an expression of the new Egypt”.

Says Hosny, “The media will never perform its core duties until it learns to be objective, and that requires regulation.”

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