Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shafik: What's at Stake?

There is little doubt that on a personal level presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik provides his audience with many reasons that would deter them from voting for him. But the issue at stake clearly transcends the persona of Shafiq, his unmasked arrogance, and his many media blunders. It rather goes into the heart of the nature, structure and alliances of the formidable Egyptian state.
A little bit of history is needed here. The nation state that emerged in the Arab world after independence has exhibited a remarkable ability to reproduce itself against all odds. The numerous military defeats against Israel, the inability to fulfill the basic needs of their populations, the stark deterioration in public services, and the pervasive corruption among top officials have all produced a huge legitimacy deficit. However, to the surprise of political and social scientists, these regimes managed to survive, and not only for a year or decade, but for more than five or six decades.

The post-independence Arab state relied on a variety of means to preserve itself in the face of a plethora of internal and external threats. First, and perhaps most importantly, it relied on the might, or rather cruelty, of the security apparatus to crush dissidence and restore order. And so "republics of fear," which capitalize on executions, military trials, prolonged detainments, and torture, thrived. Secondly, the economic and military support of superpowers constituted the lifeline of these ailing regimes. Whenever internal threats seemed to topple them from their fragile thrones, a new kiss of life was provided by their external patron.   

Thirdly, the art of propaganda and brainwash techniques were incessantly utilized to give the impression that major change (or reform) is underway. For instance, in the late 1970s, President Anwar Sadat replaced the single-party system, in place since the 1950s, with a multi-party system. The heavy rhetoric of "change" notwithstanding, the dynamics governing the old/new political system remained untouched. The dominance of the single party persisted, with only the National Democratic Party (NDP) replacing the Arab Socialist Union. Also, by the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, more than twenty parties were operating in Egypt, most of which serving the interests of the authoritarian state well by giving the impression of a competitive democratic process. Meanwhile, the ruling party was, using fraudulent means of course, always winning the majority of parliament seats, including the landslide 97% win in 2010.   

Five years earlier, the state media's machine was beating the drums of "the new dawn of democracy" after President Hosni Mubarak decided to amend Article 76 of the constitution in order to open the door for a direct, multi-candidacy electoral process. But, again, with the executive control of the ballots, the presidential election was a farce. Mubarak remained the unchallenged president, aided by a few puppets used to decorate the sham election.

Old wine was once more poured into new shiny bottles to thwart real fundamental change.
Fourth, a fierce ruling class (in Egypt, composed of the presidential center, the security apparatus, the huge bureaucracy and the largely parasitic business bourgeoisie) emerged with its vested interests, privileges and ambitions. In control of these vital institutions, the ruling class has closely worked behind the scenes to ensure the continuation of its decades-old dominance. The 2011 revolution sent shockwaves through this formidable establishment, and the privileged classes have vigorously reacted to retain their power and fortune.  

In brief, the Arab state in Egypt and many Arab countries persisted, but at a huge human and political cost. Development and progress were impeded, basic human rights were denied and political liberalization remained elusive. Egypt stood still for decades, as it agonizingly watched dozens of developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America making great leaps toward democracy and economic prosperity.  
This corrupt state has defied change, and it is this state – with its deep-rooted structure, alliances and policies – that Shafik embodies by virtue of association, profession, and doctrine. His unwillingness, perhaps even his inability, to bring down this state is alarming. If elected president, Shafik and his associates will obviously pay lip service to "the glorious January revolution" and "the sacrifices of the martyrs" and will brag about their unwavering commitment to put Egypt on the "road to democracy." But this gigantic corrupt entity will be preserved under his leadership. Shafik's discourse, age, long association with the military establishment and the Mubarak regime all suggest that he is no revolutionary; he spearheads the counter-revolution. Tahrir will become a symbol, not a vehicle for change. Meaningless cosmetic reform, a la Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, will be put forward, and real reform will be deferred. Déjà vu.
The authoritarian state installed post-1952 (or the "deep state," as the Turks prefer to call it) is still intact. Its raw and administrative coercion is seen everywhere, the havoc it has brought to Egyptian society is immense, and its intense resistance to change is glaring. All this must be – finally – brought to an end.   

Nael M. Shama

* This article first appeared on The Egypt Monocle ( on June 7, 2012. 

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