IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2005


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


Change and Continuity in Egyptian Politics

Amr Hamzawy

Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Egypt’s political development between June 2003 and December 2004 is marked by a persistent political stagnation. A continuous polarization between the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and opposition parties and movements within civil society characterizes the national scene in this key player on the Southern Mediterranean shores. The “democratization in spurts” strategy adopted by the ruling elite over almost three decades has led to no more than minor transformations on the fringes of the political sphere.

During the period of the analysis, partially in response to regional and international circumstances, the NDP was undertaking a series of internal reforms. There was a significant injection of young technocrats, well-versed in the rhetoric of good governance and human rights, accompanied by efforts to modernize party structures. Particularly following the first annual convention of the NDP entitled “Citizens Rights First” (September 2003), the dominant impression was that the ruling party was on the verge of radical change in its workings and as a consequence, the way it perceives its role and interactions in the Egyptian political sphere. The policies and programs of the reformist group – mostly mid-career professionals, young business men and university staff members – circling around the president’s son, though, have proved both fragile and in blatant contradiction to the demands of the major political forces of the country. The public legitimacy given to the party’s reform oriented Supreme Council of Politics headed by Gamal Mubarak, emanating out of the credibility of initiating reform discussions within the party and the undoubted appeal of new slogans such as “let us reform our own house first” and “we invite all forces to dialogue with us on needed reforms”, has withered away. Several structural limits of the NDP approach have become more apparent. The NDP has ignored the wide consensus that existed outside its own constituency, over the three reform imperatives needed to render the dream of democratization a realistic project in progress: amending the constitution; revising the selection process of the president, setting a limit on terms of office and minimizing his powers as head of the executive; and thirdly, changing the laws obstructing political parties and syndicate life. Throughout the period between June 2003 and December 2004, the inability of opposition parties and civil society representatives, liberal as well as religious based, to mobilize broader constituencies along the lines of these reform imperatives and subsequently the absence of internal pressures on the ruling elite have resulted, rhetoric aside, in a complete stagnation of Egyptian politics. Major structural deficiencies which hinder transformation to a democratic governance have remained unchanged. The Egyptian constitution, which was issued in 1971 and amended a few times since then, vests enormous authority in the president as the head of the state and empowers the executive branch over both the legislative branch and the judiciary. The election of the president continues to be an uncompetitive process. The People’s Assembly nominates the presidential candidate by a two-thirds majority and he is then confirmed in a national referendum. The upcoming presidential elections in October 2005 will most probably follow the same pattern, in spite of the ongoing campaign of various opposition parties and movements since the summer of 2003, rallying for a constitutional amendment that allows direct pluralist presidential elections.

The major legitimating strategy for the Egyptian model of “democratization” has been twofold; on the one hand systematically evoking, both in discourse and in policy statements, the outworn mantra that economic reforms must come before political reform and on the other hand, that the population should be prepared for democracy. Substantial differences between the apologetic appraisals for restricted pluralism that dominated the political sphere during the 1970s and 1980s and the allegedly reform-oriented NDP of 2003 and 2004, with its overemphasis on economic modernization are difficult to point out. Once again the Egyptian regime has appeared between June 2003 and December 2004 to have assumed the mantle normally worn by democratic governments in liberal polities, having nominated itself as the legitimate representative of the real needs of the Egyptian society and not by freedom of association. In defending its approach the regime has put forward two additional notions: Egyptian particularity and regional exceptions. On the one side, the formula “Egyptian way to democratic transformation” has been systematically put forward by leading regime figures in a rather inflationary mode in the president’s statements during the period of the analysis, to justify cosmetic and minor steps as synonym to required gradualism in introducing democratization measures to an Arab-Muslim society whose majority does not perceive democracy as a popular demand. However, gradualism without a, in time and scope, clear conceptualization of breakthroughs, such as amending the constitution and opening up the political sphere for new parties by means of abolishing existing restrictive mechanisms remains a corrupt, apologetic defence of authoritarianism. On the other hand, the Egyptian regime has played, since the fall of Baghdad, the miserable game of frightening the population of any uncontrolled change as ultimately leading to disorder similar to post-war Iraq. Instable regional conditions have been permanently used to sort out and discredit calls on the ruling elite to permit deeper political reforms as irresponsible gibberish that has the potential of endangering Egypt’s security. Looking at political developments in Egypt between June 2003 and December 2004 one can hardly ignore the fact that these different democratization-containment strategies have been extremely effective. After all Western democratization pressures on Mubarak have remained firmly in the realm of rhetoric rather than moving in the direction of political conditionality.

The system of power relationships, as well as the constitutional and legal arrangements organizing political participation, has remained essentially unchanged and semi-authoritarian in nature. Opposition movements, if not co-opted and controlled by the state authorities, have continued to be isolated. Any attempt to criticize the regime for its lack of commitment to reform, or to publicly articulate alternative political views originating out of liberal and religious civil society actors, has been chalked down by the ruling elite to one of two things: that the criticisms or views represent the demands of a handful of isolated intellectuals who have no understanding of what the masses really want, or that they represent a dangerous attempt on the part of Islamist movements to take over society and control the state.

Between June 2003 and December 2004, the Egyptian regime has used different strategies to retain its control over civil society actors. The State of Emergency, which was extended by the People’s Assembly on 23rd.February 2003 for three more years, continued to limit the ability of political and civic groups to associate and assemble freely. Political parties have been highly restricted in their activities. The Emergency Law prohibits parties from organizing public meetings without prior permission from the Ministry of Interior. Security forces have intensively utilized their unsupervised powers to arrest and detain individuals, a practice that has been systematic in the case of Islamist groups whose members are traditionally arrested prior to parliamentary or local elections. The legal framework for the NGOs in Egypt has been governed since 2002 by Law No. 84, which requires civic associations to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and opens up the gate of political manipulation through granting the Ministry the right to disband by administrative decree any association deemed to perform illegal activity. Furthermore, it prohibits NGOs from taking part in political or syndicate activities, as well as from receiving foreign funding needed without governmental approval. The Egyptian government has used these legal instruments to control and co-opt a great number of NGOs. Apart from the restrictive legal framework and the state cooptation, both political parties and NGOs have been facing various internal dilemmas. Opposition parties have not moved beyond the level of creating artificial structures that are not able to function as modern political parties and hence have been suffering from societal marginalization. NGOs have continued to be urban centred and to serve, apart from traditional religious networks, narrow constituencies. In general, the intermediary sphere between June 2003 and December 2004 has been highly controlled and has lacked effectiveness. One of the few positive aspects has been, though, the fact that opposition parties, NGOs and intellectual groups have managed to retain on the one hand their ability to criticize the authority and to keep open a minor space of political articulation on the other. These two factors have been responsible for the difference between Egypt and other more authoritarian states in the Middle East.

In contrast to other countries in the region, the political relevance of radical Islamism in Egypt has been declining in the period of analysis. The last wave of radical Islamist motivated violence can be dated back to the first half of the 1990s. State-led counter violence and repressive polices resulted in the destruction of the power resources of the radical groups. In the last two years a significant revisionist rethinking of the radical Islamist legacy and a questioning of the use of violence for political objectives has been taking place among members of both al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad Group and partially resulted in a greater distancing to religious motivated militancy. A rather limited number of radical Islamists have continued to propagate violence and to justify it by referring to regional conditions in Iraq, Palestine, etc. as well as to societal crises in Egypt. However, their political relevance has been diminishing rapidly. Within the Egyptian Islamist spectrum in general, moderate movements and activists have continued to gain political ground. They have retained the capacity of reaching out to considerable constituencies, although the government has continued its restrictive policy towards them, in order to limit the political space open to them. The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular and other groups such as the Wasat-Initiative have integrated liberal democracy as an objective in their discourse and programme. Therefore, a normative and pragmatic consensus about democracy has evolved gradually in the Egyptian public sphere, culminating in summer 2004 in different reform campaigns organized by secular and religious movements. A strategic platform for democratization has emerged and gained momentum. To call for constitutional reform, to abolish the Emergency Law, to  have competitive elections for the presidency, to legalize political parties and to reform the legal framework that restricts their activities (mainly Law 40/1977) and finally, to form ad-hoc alliances for democratic change across ideological divisions, have been the rare encouraging signs of the stagnant political sphere in Egypt.