Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Reform responsibilities

Protecting and developing the state should be understood as a comprehensive project needing not only vision, but also detailed planning, writes Ayman Abdel-Wahab


Al-Ahram Weekly

Many current political and social developments point to how difficult it is to build a strong political system. They also reflect a lack of harmony between political and social structures, which can have serious detrimental repercussions on reform and development processes and, hence, the progress of democratisation.

It is therefore essential to steer the processes of political and social transformation in a manner that ensures they effectively contribute to development and the completion of the construction of the modern Egyptian state. Meeting the requirements for building and enhancing the features and capacities of the state depends on the existence of strong social and political will, so as to counter attempts to sabotage development or undermine, debilitate or partition the state. But that will must also be supportive of, and conducive to, innovation and progress, while the fight against terrorism and the formulation of a new social contract must rest on the fulfilment of demands for social justice. It is simultaneously crucial to build a political system capable of propelling democratic transformation and the political process forward.

In keeping with the foregoing conditions, it is important to bear in mind a number of principles:

— The development of a strong political order rests on a real multiparty system and practices that drive the democratic process and define the shape and nature of the political system.

Two points are crucial in this regard. Firstly, the ruling elites and political forces must believe in the reform process and possess sufficient credibility and legitimacy among the public in order to take the right decisions that usher in constructive change, especially with regard to such issues as political and civic freedoms, social justice and the question of citizenship. Secondly, there needs to exist the ability to translate the constitution into concrete structures and modes of behaviour on the ground. There are many laws that need to be passed by the political forces that are voted into the forthcoming parliament, which underscores the importance of current legislation, such as the legislative assembly law and the law governing the exercise of political freedoms and the creation of political alliances, and the impact this will have on ushering in a parliament that is representative of the diverse segments of society, reflects demands for reform, and meets the needs of society and the state.

This in turn throws into relief the current debate over the electoral system and the question of closed lists versus proportional lists. In this regard, it is possible to envision a number of potential scenarios for the future of political party life in Egypt:

Scenario 1. Continued political party fluidity. This is the worst scenario as it means the continuation of a large number of small political parties with little real efficacy or ability to mobilise support. This would translate into political fluidity inside parliament and a lack of cohesiveness among political forces that would hamper the formation of a cabinet and increase the influence of the executive in the creation of the cabinet.

Scenario 2. Political party coalitions. The merger between some political parties that are ideologically similar and share a number of goals and programmes not only enable these parties to pool their energies and resources, but also ensures appropriate representation of political blocs and alliances in the elected assemblies (whether parliament or municipal councils). In this scenario, the chief challenge is to develop the ability to sustain the cohesion and continuity of the coalitions that, in turn, would be reflected in the process of forming the cabinet and the executive’s choice of prime minister.

Scenario 3. Large scale political party mergers. This will generate a small number of strong political parties representative of diverse political forces. As difficult as such a scenario is to envision in view of the current political and political party expertise and the generally low levels of political party culture and political maturity, this is the best means to generate a democratic process supportive of a strong political party life.

In light of the foregoing, it is important to take a number of actions. We need to build political party alliances and coalitions that voice the views and aspirations of different segments of society and that simultaneously reflect the diversity in society. We need to promote internal dynamics that deepen democratic culture within political parties and that enhance their institutional frameworks and minimise the personality dimension. Such actions are needed in order to enable political parties to exercise their functions more effectively, to become more attractive and acquire broader grassroots support, and to become political and democratic training schools.

— The majority of youth alliances and revolutionary forces still revolve in the revolutionary orbit. This aggravates current political and social polarisations, on the one hand, and on the other limits these forces’ ability to organise themselves and emerge as an effective opposition force capable of contributing to the reform and construction process, and to countering the challenges to the state that have arisen in the post-30 June 2013 period.

Accordingly, these forces should engage in a process of self-assessment of their revolutionary/political experience with an eye to enhancing their ability to organise and structure themselves, and to countering a number of detrimental phenomena that have hampered them, such as the funding question, their lack of continuity and inability to communicate with the broader public, their structural weaknesses and their high tendency to quarrel and splinter.

In this regard, we can envision two scenarios. One is that these groups succeed in changing the ways they interact with society and in organising themselves as effective pressure groups capable of mobilising mass support in order to counter political deviations from the aims of the revolution. The other scenario is that they either join existing political parties or establish new ones of their own in order to gain entry into elected bodies.

— The organisation of civil society, in all its components, is of critical importance to the processes of organising social interactions and mobilising society’s energies within the framework of the responsibility to promote reform and construction.

There are two fundamental issues we need to bear in mind here. The first concerns the question of the religious and political utilisation of civil society organisations, the prevalence of informal networks, the weakness of the culture component and the limited role of rights advocacy and development advocacy (in spite of the relative increase in the latter over recent years). The combination of these phenomena weakens civil society and renders it unable to organise itself effectively, address its flaws and shortcomings and promote its values. It follows that it is necessary to reformulate roles and responsibilities through a process of confronting the challenges associated with social culture, accumulated experience, and the prevalence of traditionalist over modernist modes that reinforces a kind of schizophrenia in society and among its socio-political forces. In the drive to modernism and raising cultural awareness through the renovation of cultural legacy, the highest priority, especially in the overlapping areas of responsibility between government and social institutions, should be given to efforts to reconstruct popular culture in a manner consistent with the value systems associated with the concepts of citizenship and plurality.

The second issue concerns legislative reform for all components of civil society. In this regard, we should note the controversy surrounding the community associations law, the required substance of which should stand as a model for what all the other laws regulating the components of civil society should contain. We have observed that all draft community association laws, from the experiences connected with Law 153 of 1999 and Law 84 of 2002 to the present, have been caught between two visions or philosophies. On one side is the government vision that seeks to keep community association under its wing as a mechanism to fill the gap created by the decline in the government’s role in the provision of a number of basic services to the public. This vision has not excluded the possibility of the government granting some select spaces to developmental and rights advocacy agencies, especially when faced with domestic and foreign pressures. On the other side, is the vision generally shaped by a rights advocacy outlook that supports international criteria and seeks to counter the targeting and suppression of rights advocacy organisations on the part of the ruling regime. Naturally, this vision is the antithesis of the governmental one as it seeks greater independence and dynamism for NGOs and, therefore, promotes criteria that should be incorporated into law so as to create the legislative framework and guarantees that free NGOs from the government’s security and bureaucratic grips, and that creates broader spaces for their work beyond the charity sphere and specifically in the realms of social and economic development and rights advocacy.

The fact that many of the draft bills that are currently being proposed remain caught between the two visions above (with some slight modifications) leads us to that portion of the controversy that revolves around the nature of the relationship between state and society, the extent to which civil society can be relied on in development concerns, public participation, and how to assimilate social forces and organise their interactions. Clearly there needs to be a revision of the authority’s ruling philosophy and its view towards civil society as a whole and not just NGOs, and this new outlook should be reflected in the formulation of a gamut of laws such as those regulating syndicates, cooperative societies, and municipalities. In this regard we should stress that the participatory democracy approach should serve as a ruling philosophy for the new community associations (NGO) law and as an important means to resolving many of the problems connected with civil society work, as opposed to relying exclusively on security and red tape mechanisms. Notions such as opening realms for NGO work, facilitating registration procedures, minimising penalties and turning to the courts as arbiters should be key components in a law to stimulate civil society work, even if complemented by some mechanisms to regulate the matter of foreign funding.

— The economic system and economic policies need to be supportive of human development, social empowerment and the fight against poverty and unemployment, while stimulating domestic investment and attracting foreign investment. These goals can be accomplished through the development of sound management systems in the various economic institutions, in conjunction with the development of a legislative framework that strikes that difficult balance between protecting workers’ rights and promoting free market competition and the processes of ongoing development and attracting the best qualified staff that this entails. This subject naturally leads to the need to devote all possible attention to the development of science and research establishments, a crucial base for any progress and development. Such a focus, again, forms an additional argument to promote participatory modes of development.

— There must be a consensus on the need to promote a social and political culture that supports democratic culture and not to rely solely on the mechanisms of the democratic process. This entails furnishing a considerable margin for freedoms of expression and participation that, in turn, is related to the application of the sovereignty of law and to the question of stimulating institutionalisation and minimising the personality element in leadership and policymaking. Naturally, it also involves stimulating public participation, strengthening civil society and promoting its roles in development.

Clearly, the reform process will not be short or easy. However, it is also clear that marshalling the prerequisites for development, progress and the revival of the status and prestige of the state will be the priority of the Egyptian leadership. This, in turn, means that political and social forces will need to play a greater role in confronting the current fluidity in order to push the democratisation process forward.

The writer is editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Ahwal Masriya published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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