The Middle East Channel

Why Egyptian progressives should be chanting 'economy first'

It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday's front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?

While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.

Despite the attention given to the ideological divisions between secularists and liberals on the one hand, and Islamists on the other, the fundamental division in Egypt is one of class. Debates about the character of the Egyptian state and the extent of personal liberties is primarily an intra-elite debate that does not address the practical problems the vast majority of Egyptians face in their daily lives: how to find food, shelter, health, and education. We are all familiar now with the idea that 40 percent of Egyptians live on $2 per day or less; but that should not lead us to believe that those living on $3 or $4 per day are living good lives. By contrast, Egypt's well-to-do have solved the daily problems of life in Egypt in a manner customary to elites in the developing world: by withdrawing into an isolated world of gated-communities, private schools, and private health care. Many of these Egyptians, despite their relative privileges, nevertheless participated in the Jan. 25 revolution, and stand to benefit -- perhaps substantially -- if a more democratic and accountable government is put in place. There is already evidence that Egypt's hi-tech sector is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance in the wake of Mubarak's departure. Yet the opportunities in hi-tech will almost inevitably be restricted to already privileged segments of Egyptian society.

As I argued in a previous article on this site, the success of the Jan. 25 revolution depends not only on strengthening formal democratic procedure, but also requires a substantial restructuring of the Egyptian economy so that it works for the benefit of the bottom three-quarters of Egyptian society.  The only way to move the revolution forward, and avoid the risk of a return to de facto or perhaps de jure military rule, is progress on a new social contract that makes credible commitments to improving, in the short term, the living conditions of the mass of the Egyptian people, and in the long term, their productive capacity. 

Unfortunately, the secularist-Islamist divide has obscured, and continues to obscure, the more urgent debates needed on how to restructure Egypt's economy so that it can solve both its short and long term challenges. Indeed, the brooding omnipresence of the "secularist-Islamist" debate is particularly distressing because it ignores the substantial common ground shared by all Egyptian political forces: Namely, the need to have a genuinely representative government that is accountable to the Egyptian people through periodic free and fair elections; the need to guarantee freedom of expression in order to monitor the performance of the government; the need to have the law applied in a neutral fashion so that it serves the public good instead of the interests of the regime in power; the need to eliminate arbitrary detention and abusive police tactics including torture; and the need to guarantee a decent standard of living for all Egyptians. 

Thus far, the chief revolutionary demand with respect to the economy has been to raise minimum wages, and indeed, the government has taken steps to do just that. Unfortunately, raising minimum wages is at best a band-aid incapable of solving the structural problems endemic in the Egyptian labor sector. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has thus far seemed more intent on obtaining aid from neighboring countries and the west, with the goal of delaying needed economic reforms, rather than pursue the vigorous restructuring of the economy that Egypt needs. Moreover, it is unlikely to change course unless domestic political forces pressure them to do so. The Jan. 25 coalition, however, has not been able to articulate sufficiently to the Egyptian public the connection between political and economic reforms, and have allowed themselves -- and their continuing demonstrations -- to be portrayed as hindering the recovery of the economy.     

Instead, Egyptians of all political groups need to focus on the inter-linkages between individual rights, accountable and effective government, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. No system of law, whether Islamic or liberal (or pick your other "ideal"), can function if it is effectively undermined by a bureaucracy which is demoralized by low pay, for example. Yet no government can pay its civil servants a fair salary if it fails to collect sufficient taxes from its citizens, a fact which in turn requires a growing economy. Economic reforms, which must include substantially enhanced redistribution of national income and social investment, are the most crucial prerequisites for a modern, independent, and democratic Egypt that can live off the sweat of its own brow rather than the capricious "generosity" of an international community that inevitably comes with strings attached. The revolution can only regain its footing if political forces focus their attention on achieving the core demands of the Jan. 25 revolution as expressed by the shared demands of all Egyptian opposition groups and defer debate on the more philosophical and divisive questions such as the relationship of religion to the state. By fetishizing the constitution, moreover, Egypt's civilian political elite are placing the cart before the horse and substantially increasing the risk of creating a constitutional military dictatorship. Such an outcome will only lead to further deferral of the day of reckoning in Egypt and would represent the most profound betrayal of the more than 800 Egyptians who died in the Jan. 25 revolution.

Mohammad Fadel is an Associate Professor of Law and the Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law

The Middle East Channel

Beyond Bahrain's dialogue

Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain's single largest political movement, yesterday announced its withdrawal from a much-heralded "national dialogue" after only two weeks. The immediate trigger for the decision was an anti-Shia insult used by a pro-government Sunni MP at the discussions. But underlying this are deeper concerns that the dialogue process is unrepresentative and unlikely to bring meaningful reforms. The withdrawal of Wefaq marks a dangerous deterioration in an already fragile effort to move past the abortive uprising and sweeping repression that marked the first half of 2011.

The National Dialogue was already flawed, but the withdrawal of the largest opposition group after only two weeks is a further setback. The recent announcement of an independent commission to investigate the recent events and deliver a report in October is one of the few remaining sources of hope. There are few indications that the government is prepared to countenance the political reforms the opposition are seeking, such as empowering the elected parliament or ending gerrymandering. Indeed, a worrying narrative conveyed by some officials portrays much of Bahrain's Shia population as disloyal and undeserving of democracy.

Bahrain's National Dialogue has been portrayed in some media reports as a series of talks between the rulers and the opposition over political reform. In practice, however, the process is very different. For one thing, the rulers are not actually taking part in the talks. Early speculation that the dialogue would be brokered by the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, proved to be incorrect. Instead, the month-long discussion forum is chaired by the speaker of parliament, Khalifa Al-Dhahrani, a conservative figure close to the prime minister. The 300 participants in the dialogue each take turns to speak about their "visions" for Bahrain's future, which are then to be edited into a summary document that will be delivered to King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa. King Hamad can then choose to issue new royal orders based on the recommendations, should he so wish. (A satirical view can be found here.)

In addition, the forum has been constructed in such a way as to make the opposition a small minority. Representatives of seven legally recognized opposition political societies, including Wefaq, were allocated only 35 out of the 300 seats at the forum. The rest went to NGOs, professional associations and trade unions (which have been purged of protestors and people who went on strike), as well as representatives of the media (which routinely self-censors and avoids criticizing the government), and "prominent personalities." There are no representatives of the youth protestors, many of whom are now in prison. Overall, the forum is even less politically representative than the country's parliament, and has even fewer powers to implement any of its decisions.

In May, President Barack Obama warned that a genuine national dialogue in Bahrain could not happen when parts of the peaceful opposition were in jail. They still are.  Some prisoners have been released in recent days, including Ayat Al-Qormozi, a 20-year-old woman sentenced to a year in prison for reading an anti-government poem; her case was taken up by Amnesty International and the Hubail brothers, two national football stars whose case attracted attention from FIFA. That these cases had attracted international attention throws into question their value as domestic confidence-building measures.

Crucially, the releases have not included opposition leaders. Among the imprisoned politicians is Ebrahim Sharif, the head of Waad -- a secular liberal political society that had a government license for its work -- who has been sentenced to five years in jail for seeking to topple the government, after calling for a constitutional monarchy at the protests. Likewise, one of Wefaq's designated representatives, Jawad Fairooz, a former chairman of parliament's utilities committee, was unable to attend because he is in prison on charges of spreading "lies." An official told CNN that these "lies" related mainly to interviews he had given to satellite television stations. The most prominent detained politicians including Sharif, Fairooz, Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil Al-Singace of Haq and Abdelwahhab Hussain of Al-Wafa -- among others -- recently had their appeal hearings postponed from July until September, after the dialogue is completed.

Given all this, the National Dialogue forum never seemed likely to be the venue where the specific political problems between the government and the opposition are resolved. That said, this type of wide-ranging forum could potentially be a useful platform for Bahrain's citizens to air their ideas, if they felt free to speak their minds. Saudi Arabia likewise holds a National Dialogue where members of civil society can debate issues, though there is no binding follow-up. In the Saudi case, some have been disappointed with what they see as an elite talking shop; others argue the dialogue process has subtly helped to foster discussions among Saudi society more widely about previously taboo subjects. But Bahrain already has a well-developed civil society, something that, in better times, the country is proud of. It started educating people before the other GCC states, and it was the first to have trade unions. Sadly, this civil society is subject to significant intimidation today.

At a time of profound paranoia about opposition to the government, when people have been jailed for making political statements and attending protests, there is hardly an atmosphere conducive to open discussion about political reforms. Parts of the government, and the state media, have spent months, if not years, trying to convince much of the Sunni population that Shia Bahrainis are incapable of taking part in democracy because they have religious links with clerics in Iraq and Iran -- rather reminiscent of charges leveled against Catholics and Jews in different contexts. Some have described Bahrain's current climate as "McCarthyist," citing, for instance, Facebook pages that have identified even moderate critics of the government as "traitors," at a time when many officials have sought to portray the uprising as a foreign plot. Bahrain's angry Twittersphere is proving to be a striking example of the fallacy of the "cyberoptimist" view of social media as a force for democratization. In the wider society, "people have informed on their mates, in the workplace, the universities, the clubs," says one civil society activist.

Meanwhile, protests continue in Shia villages, where they are contained by security forces using tear gas and rubber bullets. A recent report by Human Rights First includes their observer's eyewitness account of police shooting rubber bullets at unarmed pedestrians, including woman and children, some 90 minutes before a protest was due to start in the mostly Shia area of Bilad Al-Qadim on July 6 (just after the dialogue had started). Over the weekend, just before Wefaq announced its decision, opposition sources said Zainab Al-Juma, a 47-year-old mother living in the mostly Shia village of Sitra -- always a hotbed for political activism -- died after inhaling tear gas. The government rejects the allegations, saying her death was due to natural causes. Riots ensued.

In this heated atmosphere, Wefaq has faced considerable pressure from its supporters not to take part in the dialogue; these constituents regard the dialogue as merely an effort by the government to improve its international image without compromising on any political reforms. Wefaq's original decision to participate in the dialogue was probably intended mainly as a symbolic gesture of conciliation toward the government, rather than being motivated by expectations that they could agree on real political reforms. It is likely that the U.S. and U.K. were also working hard to persuade Wefaq to join the talks, just as they sought to persuade it to end its boycott of the weak parliament a few years ago (which it did until its 18 MPs resigned in response to protestor deaths in March).

However, the group also has to balance pressures from the street, which has hardly become more moderate as a result of this year's crackdown. Past experience suggests that there are likely to be unofficial talks between the government and some opposition leaders, probably including Wefaq, behind the scenes. These could be more productive, but will still fail to represent the youth movements. These movements, like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, have been expressing their dissatisfaction not only with the existing regime, but with the established opposition movements -- including Al-Wefaq itself.  Youth protestors will continue to criticize the group for going into the talks in the first place, seeing it as a sign of weak compliance with a government that continues to repress their pro-democracy uprising, while government supporters will castigate it for pulling out halfway through, seeing it as an attempt to destabilize a much-needed reconciliation after what they regard as an Iran-inspired terror plot. The polarization of narratives -- within one tiny country -- gives little ground for optimism in the coming months.

Jane Kinninmont is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

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