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Coming change in Egypt
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 05 - 2008

The lack of institutionalised government in Egypt means that future change could take any form between autocracy and revolution, writes Azmi Ashour*
Perhaps the most crucial failure of the post-independent Arab nation-state is its inability to set into motion an institutionalised legal mechanism for government and to create an environment conducive to its growth and ability to adjust to internal and external developments. Because of this failure, the actions and behaviour of the Arab nation-state were shaped by the individual outlook and personality of the ruler, with the result that Arab countries in the post-independence era careened from one reverberating disaster to the next. Naturally, the more these types of leaderships constructed the mechanisms needed to consolidate and perpetuate their control, the more they fostered the conditions and modes of behaviour that would hamper the growth and development of their societies, as compared with other societies in the developing world.
Naturally, too, the transfer of authority in these post- monarchical societies over the past half-century was as arbitrary as the system of rule. Indeed, more often than not, it was one of the consequences of the mistakes committed by the unbridled autocrat. Undoubtedly Iraq offers the most salient contemporary example of the calamitous consequences of un- institutionalised rule. Because of decisions taken almost exclusively in accordance with the individual whims of its ruler, Iraq rushed headlong into three successive wars, from the first Gulf war in 1980 to the third Gulf War in 2003, culminating not only in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but the dismantlement of the Iraqi state and the plunging of Iraq into a morass of civil strife and warfare that threatens to fragment Iraq into a collection of rival petit states playing into the hands of outside interests.
In its 60 years since independence, Egyptian political experience has not been all that remote from this problem. Here, too, change in the ruling elite was associated with an essential flaw in the composition of this elite, which stemmed from a range of other flaws and weaknesses in the state edifice. The 1952 Revolution was the product of erroneous policies, misguided decisions and iniquitous conditions, the cumulative effect of which was to generate a powder-keg and propel many political forces into demanding reform and an end to rampant corruption. As it transpired, the power to effect change resided in the hands of the party that possessed both audacity and the element of surprise. Many, therefore, were completely stunned by the coup d'état of the Free Officers, a group that had not even been in the picture at the time, that did not have the political clout or acumen that several other political forces possessed, and that initially had no mass popularity since the masses were ignorant of its existence, not only before the revolution but also for some time afterwards.
The new ruling elite took the mallet to the monarchic order, slowly but steadily knocking down all existing institutions of political life, from the parliament and political parties to the independent press, labour syndicates and other civil society organisations. Within less than 20 years, an entirely new order had arisen, based on new patterns of political and social interaction, but one that, ironically, had brought Egypt full circle. Many of the phenomena that had precipitated the revolution were now attributable to the leaders of the revolution and their followers, and, to make matters worse, the power that had once been distributed among the king, parliament and other political forces was now concentrated in the hands of a single executive which, for the purposes of self-preservation, adopted loyalty to it as the primary criterion for the delegation of authority. As a result, corruption ran rampant again, competence and expertise were marginalised, and a new set of values spread, fostering apathetic dependence on the leader's slogans, as though these were the panacea that would solve all problems merely because the leader spoke them. This anesthetisation of society was the essential flaw that, perhaps inevitably, resulted from the absence of institutionalised forms of government and that led to the end of the Nasserist era, as marked by the 1967 defeat and the death of the leader.
If the Nasserist era gave rise to socio-political transformations that were more detrimental than beneficial, the subsequent period did little to reverse the situation. In spite of the "corrective revolution" aimed at altering previous policies, the ills of the Nasserist era proved difficult to uproot. The statist bureaucracy that came into being following nationalisation decrees entrenched the culture of the overbearing, unproductive bureaucrat and put paid to all merit- based incentives that had existed before the revolution when there existed a certain dynamism (due to the distribution of power and influence between the king, parliament, rival political parties and a relatively free press) that encouraged innovation and production in spite of then existing corruption.
While Sadat era (1970-1981) introduced political and economic policies intended to steer society away from the statist culture, these policies followed the same top-down approach as the nationalisation decrees of the Nasserist era. Because deregulation was not established on solid economic foundations, it is not odd that the detrimental features of the political and economic structures extant in society continued to prevail. As a result, the political parties that came into being under Sadat were little more than façades. Rather than reflecting an actual socio-political base in society, as was the case before the revolution, they were props that enabled the rising class of entrepreneurs to assert disproportionate political influence. Thus, despite foreign policy breakthroughs that characterised this period, the mode of rule was such as to breed lethal mistakes in domestic policy. Perhaps the most salient was the regime's cynical use of the religious card and, specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood that, paradoxically, led to the assassination of Sadat by militant Islamists.
Since President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, contradiction has been the predominant trait of the system of government. Sadat had neither resolved the question of economic reform nor put a definitive end to the socio-political situation inherited from the Nasser era. Unfortunately, due to its inability to summon the necessary resolve to implement serious economic and political reforms, the Mubarak era acquired a form of schizophrenia, the detrimental effects of which have accumulated in the course of this long period of rule. Uncertainty, confusion and lack of direction now dominate the lives of Egypt's more than 70 million people, because arbitrariness, wavering and confusion have dominated the way the government has handled society's problems, most of which are the consequence of the cumulative ills of previous periods and most of which persist because the malignancies themselves have never been addressed, only their symptoms -- in a very ad hoc fashion.
Again, we find at the root of this situation that essential flaw of the all-powerful individual executive and the absence of all but the façades of institutionalised government. In view of the accumulating pressures this has generated, one senses that change is immanent and that this change will not be a transition, as from the Nasser era to the Sadat era and from the Sadat era to Mubarak, but more in the nature of a revolution that will encompass the whole of society. What type of government will ultimately emerge from the upheaval is difficult to say. It could be an Islamic state, or a liberal democratic one, or another autocratic one. Indeed, one cannot rule out a protracted period of chaos, to which bitter fate Iraq and Lebanon, for example, have deteriorated. Whatever the case, there will be no end to the cycle until people wake up and press for rational, institutionalised and stable mechanisms for effecting change.
* The writer is a political analyst at the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.


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