Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

In others’ eyes

Egypt’s next president will not only face vast domestic pressures, but also outside expectations, as Arab neighbours await the return of Cairo to its regional role, writes Gamil Mattar

Al-Ahram Weekly

They came from near and far to exchange views and understandings on issues that threaten peace and security in the Middle East. They discussed the “amazing transformation” in the pattern of interactions among Gulf Cooperation Council members. They spent hours listening to conflicting opinions and information on the background and future of the new understanding between the US and Iran. With expressions of pain verging on despair they poured through the pages of their Syrian documents in the search of some hope or some dream. They spoke of the “old-new” Russia and the revival of opportunities for it to play deeply missed imperial roles, and of Turkey, which had launched a new regional vision beneath the banner “zero problems” only for that banner to segue into “innumerable problems” 10 years later. No one broached the subject of Palestine and Israel, apart from a writer well known for his age-old preoccupation with Palestinian concerns. The well-known writer spoke on the subject and no one responded.
Egypt had its share discussion, time and dispute. It was clear from the outset that those experts in security and military affairs and international relations who had gathered at a forum hosted by the Lebanese Armed Forces would differ on almost everything that had to do with Egypt as it currently stands. And differ they did and deeply over the truth or nature of what happened in Egypt in January 2011. The significance of that divergence in views was driven home to me by the conclusions and imagined futures they formulated on the basis of their readings of the events of those final days of January in Egypt that year.
Another subject of disagreement was what is meant by “transitional phase”. Some confused, albeit not with ill intent, the transitional phase with the post-3 July roadmap. They believe that the transitional phase is that interim between revolution and the beginning of measures to lay the foundations of a new era, on the one hand, and the presidential and legislative elections that inaugurate that new era, on the other. To others, some of whom have a greater awareness of the transitional phases that Latin American countries underwent, the real transitional phase begins the moment a new government takes power, complete with its president, legislative assembly and municipal officials. That is the point when the new officials and the new institutions assume their functions and responsibilities, and begin to implement programmes for development and reform, prime among the aims of which are reform of the police and judiciary. The two perceptions could not be further apart. According to one, Egypt is on the verge of completing its transitional period, which this view identifies with the roadmap. When it does, the revolution will have reached its end, if not its ultimate end, which is to replace one set of rulers with another. According to the second perspective, Egypt still has a long way to go until it reaches the aims of the revolution, which is to say until the completion of the required reforms at which point the transitional phase can be said to be complete.
Perhaps the confusion surrounding the two perspectives on transition helps explain why foreign observers are so perplexed. These observers, most of whom are strongly drawn to Egypt by complex issues and concerns (some of which do not necessarily serve Egypt’s best interests), wonder about the aims of the current authorities in Egypt and those who have since risen to fore in the management of the interim phase. Do they seek democracy, or stability and security?
The differing stances and opinions on Egypt’s near future reflect diverse perspectives. Most of these merit some contemplation if not intense scrutiny and careful study, on the part of us here at home. I will explain why.
In the sessions — and more frequently on their margins — it was said that “the new president” or the new presidential system that Egyptian voters will usher into place in a few weeks would face harsh challenges in terms of their numbers, urgency and depth. Foremost among these is a set of pressures the first and most important of which I termed the “pressures of spring”. By this term, which I used in one of the conference’s sessions, I referred to the slogans voiced by Egyptian revolutionaries and embraced by the people to varying degrees at various times, namely “democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and social justice”. These and other such demands will assert themselves on a daily basis and with a significant degree of insistence from the moment the new president takes office and the new parliament goes into session. Regardless of what they are told, people know that just because the constitutionally stipulated institutions of government have been established, this does not mean that democracy has been realised. They know that the establishment of these institutions marks the beginning of the transitional phase that should lead to democracy. They are simultaneously aware that there are institutions that have not yet entered the reform workshop and that have begun to lay the groundwork for a constitutional dictatorship, which is to say a form of tyranny that rests on a network of laws and arrangements that twist the constitution and its principles.
I anticipate that the greatest amount of pressure will come from the “ordinary person” whose attitudes and modes of behaviour have changed towards authority and towards the new forces that have emerged or that have grown increasingly active during recent years. This “ordinary person” is one who is not so easily led by the nose. She or he is the woman or man or youth who has become more adept than ever in distinguishing between the honest person and the hypocrite, the expert and the dilettante, the true patriot and the trader in patriotism, between those who work quietly for the advancement of Egypt and those who work noisily for the advancement of themselves.
Nor should we overlook the fact that the January revolution set into motion a huge sifting process, socially between classes and particularly between classes and their margins, culturally between the proponents of globalised authenticity and placatory modernity, and politically and governmentally between liberals entrenched in the principle of necessity and gradualists willing to comprise on some of the conditions for progress, freedom and justice. These are some of the results of the sorting processes triggered by the spring and that have evolved into domestic pressures that can challenge a governmental system in the process of formation. This system, willingly or by force, will seek to forge an identity associated with “January” or with the prevailing social forces that have emerged after “January”, or with those forces that have reasserted themselves and gained sufficiently in strength in order to turn the page on January for good.
Regional and international pressures seem to pale in comparison to the domestic pressures that are awaiting the new regime that will assume the helm of government. With a little effort it should be possible to adjust to them or overcome them. Yet, when you listen to others discussing their views and expectations for the domestic evolution in Egypt you find that most of their opinions proceed from biases that are intimately connected to major regional and international interests. In that conference in Lebanon, there were extensive discussions and bilateral and multilateral dialogues on the regional repercussions of the Arab Spring. I emerged from those talks more convinced than ever that some of the challenges confronting the new order in Egypt will stem from the indirect consequences of the “spring”.
It is sufficient to note that “January” cast into relief in an unfamiliar way the regional deterioration deriving from Egypt’s absence from the regional sphere. Today, the “spring” will be propelling many regional and international powers to push the forthcoming government in Cairo into making some hasty decisions regarding the assumption not just of one role but many roles. From what I heard in that conference, most of those roles would be costly ones and it is not difficult to imagine the weight that will fall on the authorities that will be expected to prepare the country to undertake them.
 Discussions and deliberations on Egypt are taking place at various levels abroad and they will continue to take place over the next few years. There is a virtual unanimity between Arab and non-Arab players over the need to encourage Egypt to return quickly to the exercise of various roles and functions. While some of these roles are familiar to Egypt, there are others it is not accustomed to playing. Therefore, I believe that Egyptian specialists in international relations have a duty not only to follow the discussions and studies on Egypt being conducted abroad, but also to formulate specifically Egyptian visions on how to handle those types of challenges and pressures that are looming just around the corner.

The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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