Egypt and New Hampshire

Rami G. Khouri

CAIRO - When I woke up and read the headlines in the local papers yesterday, it took me a few minutes to sort out if I was following politics in Cairo or in New Hampshire. That is a remarkable reflection of how quickly political developments have moved in Egypt since the January revolution a year ago. Egypt and wider Arab trends capture both the beauty of political uncertainty anchored in electoral democratic pluralism, and the darker side of how assorted forces (money, military, foreign lobbies) work in the shadows to shape democratic results.
The big story in Egypt these days is not about policies -- like peace or war with Israel, economic reforms, the role of women in an increasingly Islamist political sphere, or views of the United States. It is about political process -- the birth of a system in which political power is contested peacefully and in public, and a multitude of actors come out of the shadows and compete to shape policies and even national values.
I was asked in a lecture here in Cairo earlier this week whether I was worried about the rise of conservative, politically militant, Islamist groups in Egypt who will have over 60 percent of the elected lower house of parliament. I replied that I was much more worried by the tone of the political debate and foreign policy prescriptions of the conservative militants who have been contesting power in Iowa and New Hampshire in the American Republican Party contests.
The key parallel in both places is that a range of conservative groups backed by many groups of citizens and quiet supporters vie for control of a political system. That system in the United States is the Republican Party presidential nomination; in Egypt it is the governance system itself, comprising a combination of new and rejuvenated institutions such as the parliament, the presidency, and a 100-member committee to write a new constitution. In New Hampshire the players in the arena seek candidacy and incumbency; in Cairo they seek to configure the new structures of state, identity and power. The American political system reached this point of a stable democracy anchored in the principle of the consent of the governed after nearly two centuries, a civil war, genocidal decimation of Native Americans, centuries of the crime of slavery followed by long-term institutional racism, and regular bouts of anti-Semitism and discrimination against assorted minorities.
Egypt has been walking down the path to democratic, pluralistic, electoral and parliamentary governance for just nine months. It has reached a critical juncture this month, one year after the January 25, 2011 revolution was launched in central Cairo and other cities across the country. The mass protests that overthrew the Mubarak regime and replaced it with Mubarak’s generals in the transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) a year ago have now been complemented by several other important indicators of national political sentiment: the three rounds of elections, the candidatures of assorted presidential candidates, intermittent street demonstrations by a wide range of mostly young people, and intense debate and contestation about the shape of the new constitution.
The striking thing about Egyptian public life today is the wide range of actors and opinions that circulate freely in society, and compete intensely for power. The past year of real politics has flushed out a variety of groups that had existed in society covertly or passively, but had not organized for public politics (the Salafists, the revolutionary youth, secular liberals). The formal political system now is dominated by three right-of-center groups -- the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more hardline Salafi Islamists. This looks more like Pakistan than Iowa for the moment, but the moment is a fleeting one. Power configurations will stabilize later in the year, as parliamentary coalitions and more clandestine backroom understandings shape Egyptian politics for years to come.
Other groups operate in society, but have less impact. They include many youth groups that share similar sentiments but cannot form a single movement, a variety of zealous secular and Islamist revolutionaries, some thuggish street kids, the shadowy counter-revolutionaries who are thought to have funded the latest rounds of street fighting and attacks against government buildings, civil society activists, and a wide range of leftist and secular groups that only secured around ten percent of parliamentary seats.
The criteria for success in Egypt are whether the system that is being built this year and in the years ahead responds to the key demands that one revolutionary youth organizer spelled out to me as follows: “an elected parliament that represents me, a president chosen by the citizens, an independent and fair judiciary that protects my citizen rights, and socio-economic policies that empower me.”
In Arabic, these four phrases rhyme nicely. In any language, they are music to the ears of any human being who values life in a free, democratic and responsive society. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global