January 12, 2006
Democracy, red in tooth and claw
This is an excerpt of something I wrote elsewhere, a retrospective on the Egyptian elections.
"Democracy," said President Anwar Sadat after the suppression of the bread riots of 1977, "has fangs and claws."
In all, only 145 of the NDP's 432 candidates won their elections. But it would be wrong to see this as the mark of a party in crisis. Safwat al-Sherif and Kamal al-Shazli, the NDP's veteran fixers, were soon they were boasting that a further 166 ”independents” had been absorbed into the ranks of the party – just as they had in elections past – giving the NDP its crucial two-thirds majority.
While most have focused, understandably, on the vicious mêlées that marked so much of the voting, the elections provided a brief, illuminating glimpse into the complex dynamics at the heart of the Egyptian political system. The NDP's losses; the Ikhwan's successes; the jostling, hustling bargaining as “independents” were reabsorbed into the NDP: gone were any illusions of party discipline, of manifesto pledges or coherent policies. What remained was a tangled, shifting spider's web of influence, of wasta. Across the country, local luminaries called in favours, leant on allies, bullied enemies and paid hard cash to mobilise whatever support they could.
And most of those who won continued to bargain, extracting what concessions they could from the NDP in return for adding their names to the party roster. Many have angled for top posts in the Assembly. Mr al-Shazli is trying to ensure they toe the party line, instructing them not to question ministers without prior approval from on high.
The elections illuminated the self-sustaining morass of clientelism Egyptian politics has been since 1978, when Sadat dissolved Nasser's Arab Socialist Union to create the National Democratic Party. Absent from the new party were the idealists who had followed Nasser; in their stead stood a motley coalition of technocrats, military officers, businessmen and landowners, united less by ideology than by the mutual utility they offered each other through their connexions in business, in the security services, and in government.
The NDP has never outgrown its humble roots. Designed as a mechanism of cooption – distributing patronage and withholding favour to draw the young and ambitious, the powerful and the influential, into its orbit – the party has never cohered around a concrete political vision. For Sadat, the party was a tool by which to pursue intifah, the economic and geopolitical reorientation of Egypt towards the United States. For Mubarak, the party functions as a similar tool, giving him the means to force through a political and economic reform programme developed by the Policy Secretariat that his son controls.
In an interview with Al Ahram published on November 4th, the president reiterated the need for an “active”, “effective”, and “strong” parliament that would enable his political project. "The NDP has a platform based on my electoral program," he said, "and is attempting to obtain a parliamentary majority to allow it to carry out this platform."
If only it had been so straightforward. As the election neared, squabbles erupted in the party. Allegations emerged in early November that provincial NDP officials had been exchanging nominations for bribes – at a going rate of LE1m (US$ 175,000), according to Mohammed Kamel, a Wafdist candidate – and the scandal triggered a deeper faultline within the party.
The divisions were clearly visible. On the one hand, the idealists, dubbed 'reformists', believed in principles. The country's first contested presidential election had been intended as a catalyst for the development of secular opposition parties: now the ruling party would lead by example, with a progressive slate of candidates – more women, more Copts, more fellow idealists. On the other side, the realists, dubbed the 'old guard', saw in the elections only a zero-sum game to obtain the two-thirds majority in parliament required to rubber-stamp the reform programme; who, and what they stood for, was immaterial, so long as the party had its majority. The debate was vitriolic enough to spill out into the media.
But is easy to overplay the differences between the two camps. Both largely agree on the success of the reforms that have been ushered in under the government of Ahmed Nazif; and both want to maintain the NDP's control over the commanding heights of the country's economy. They differed only over tactics: whether to appeal to the better nature of the Egyptian electorate, or to play the game as they had traditionally played it – hard.
While the realists had long had the upper hand in the debate, it was the strong showing of the Ikhwan in the first election round that crystallised the issue. Subsequent rounds saw the regime abandon any pretence of democratic incubation: the tried and tested tactics of intimidation, obstruction and cooption were deployed as so often before.
For while the NDP controls the commanding heights, the Brotherhood controls the streets. Irrespective of their politics, the Ikhwan have become seasoned operators in their own right, politicking, horse-trading and advocating on behalf of their constituents. Theirs is not the heady idealism of a coherent political idea – Islam fills that role, although it cannot be referenced too openly – but rather the pragmatism of bargaining and trading influence. It is a pragmatism that has served them well: while they declined to go head to head with the NDP in many constituencies, they were able to mobilise genuine support in those where they did.
It is hard to tell what the Ikhwan's success could mean. Around a quarter of the electorate cast ballots, belying claims that an Islamist turn in Egyptian politics is inevitable. But all too conspicuous by their absence were the secular opposition: Kefaya, the popular movement whose demonstrations so caught the attention of the Western media in the summer, were barely discernible. Ayman Nour, himself once lionised by the foreign press, ended the year in ignominy, as the same judge who, in 2000, sentenced dissident academic Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim to jail on the spurious charge of “damaging Egypt's image abroad” found Nour guilty of the equally dubious charge of forging documents, and sentenced him to 5 years imprisonment. The United Opposition – the aggregated residue of the once respected Wafd and Tagammu parties – barely registered.
Tellingly, almost every secular opposition group flirted with the Ikhwan in the run up to the elections, hoping to hitch a free ride. Anaemic, authoritarian and starved of new ideas, the best that the secular opposition could muster was a feeble attempt to beat the NDP at the cooption game.
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Shazli got tossed overboard in the cabinet reshuffle, btw.
Posted by: praktike at January 12, 2006 10:06 PM
I know, I know - I can't print the whole thing for copyright reasons.
It may well be because of just how blatant the whole thing was, but if there's any hope that it will mollify many people then it is completely misguided in my opinion.
Posted by: waterboy at January 13, 2006 04:30 AM