The Egyptian dilemma and avoiding political chaos

Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections have reminded us anew of the durability of the authoritarian Arab state.

egypt (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
egypt (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
THE RULING NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC Party (NDP) obtained a near total monopoly in the 518-member People’s Assembly, with representatives from official opposition parties winning only 15 seats. More significantly, independent supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, who contested 30% of the seats, were shut out entirely, after having controlled 88 seats in the outgoing parliament (60% of those they contested).
The respected analyst Abdel Moneim Said pointed to the NDP’s sophisticated organizational preparations and a general regional trend indicating public disappointment with Islamist political movements to explain the results. However, one could hardly ignore the authorities’ determination to cut the Muslim Brotherhood, and other opposition groups as well, down to size. Employing heavy-handed tactics of arrests, harassment and intimidation of opposition candidates, their supporters and sympathetic journalists, as well as preventing the independent oversight of polling stations, produced the desired results. In fact, the onesided results were sufficiently embarrassing to apparently prompt the authorities to ensure the success of some opposition candidates in the second round.
Discussions of Egyptian parliamentary elections may tend to inspire a collective yawn. Power in Egypt resides in the presidential palace and the interlocking military-bureaucratic- business elite, with the parliament merely an appendage. The three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule have been marked by political stagnation, emasculation and repression.
No one is more aware of the irrelevance of parliament than the Egyptian public: officially, voter turnout stood at 35%, but the real figure was significantly lower, perhaps even as low as 10%. What that indicates is not so much a general apathy, let alone satisfaction with the existing state of affairs, but public cynicism and alienation towards their leaders and towards opposition politicians as well, for that matter. This stands in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of civil society, expressed in recent years through the proliferation of NGOs and social action groups, many of which have made use of the new media to advance their causes and mobilize supporters.
Most recent discussions of Egyptian politics have centered on the succession question. The ailing 82-year-old Mubarak has been in power since succeeding the assassinated Anwar al- Sadat in October 1981, making him the longest serving Egyptian ruler since Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt more than 200 years ago. Will Mubarak stand for an additional term in the presidential elections scheduled for September 2011? If not, will he be succeeded, controversially, by his son Gamal? Intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman? Or someone else from within the ruling military-bureaucratic elite? Will there even be a semblance of competition – something that the regime would certainly like in order to provide additional legitimacy for the results?
A recent op-ed in The Washington Post by US Asst. Secretary of State Michael Posner indicated that Washington would like to see the Egyptian presidential elections conducted in a freer, more transparent atmosphere so as to “bolster citizens’ confidence in their government and enhance the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.” A key element to that end, he wrote, would be lifting the 30-year-old state of emergency that confers extraordinary powers on the authorities. While not entirely insignificant, Posner’s recommendation hardly compares in importance to the fleeting moment during the first administration of George W. Bush, in which both he and his secretary of state explicitly pointed to Egypt as a country that needed to introduce fundamental democratization reforms to its political life, momentarily rattling official nerves in Cairo, and giving hope to opposition currents.
These would be disappointed, just as, ironically, Egyptians would be disappointed by Bush’s polar opposite, President Barack Obama, in the aftermath of his Cairo speech.
Having determinedly chosen to avoid significant political liberalization measures, the Egyptian authorities have chosen to concentrate on addressing the country’s economic problems. Indeed, Egypt’s current socioeconomic profile highlights the challenges facing the country. Its population stands at just over 80 million, the 16th largest in the world, just ahead of Iran and Turkey, and just behind Germany, with 33% of the population aged 14 and under. The estimated annual growth rate for 2010 is nearly 2%, life expectancy is 72.4 years (123rd in the world), and its GDP per capita is less than $6,000, giving it a world ranking of 138, after adjusting for purchasing power parity. The Human Development Index, which combines 10 different indicators, ranks Egypt 101 of 169 countries.
Some indicators provide signs of progress, at least on the macro-economic level, winning the plaudits of the World Bank. Since introducing reforms in 2004 that enabled Egypt to attract increased foreign investment, the economy grew at an average annual rate of over 7% for the next four years. The worldwide slump in 2009 reduced the growth rate to below 5%, but this year’s rate may reach 6%. According to Egypt’s finance minister, 4 million jobs have been created during these years. Clearly, the regime is banking on economic growth to maintain social stability, hoping that it eventually trickles down to the poorer classes while giving the wealthier sectors more stake than ever in the existing system.
The dilemma for Egypt’s ruling elite is hardly unique. How do authoritarian regimes best manage competing pressures? Too little political liberalization may eventually create a situation akin to a pressure cooker without a safety valve; too swift of a democratic opening, without the requisite institutional safeguards and social contracts regarding the political rules of the game, may result in an eruption and descent into chaos, a la Algeria in the early 1990s. To be sure, Egypt is not in a pre-revolutionary situation. Nonetheless, the choices made by the Egyptian authorities, and the outcomes of those choices, will be watched closely, in the region and beyond.
The author is the Marcia Israel Senior Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.