Hubris and Ozymandias

February 8, 2011 § 8 Comments

The dust is nowhere near settled in Egypt but it is at least now less swirly, and besides I finally have the time, so here is a brief piece on Egypt – a stock take followed by a look at who the emerging leaders are, and what the key battles are going to be. But first a poem.

This revolution (for although Mubarak has not yet gone it is still fair to call it that) has been a great excuse to use some English romantic poet quotes. It is hard to thing of that awakening of hope and expectation that took place over the last two weeks without thinking of that beautiful Wordsworth couplet (from French Revolution – as it appeared to the enthusiast at its commencementBliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven! Now looking at Mubarak’s hopeless hubris, it is impossible not to think of Shelly’s words about that other great Pharaoh:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said–“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart….Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

ozymandias as Mubarak

Ozymandias/Mubarak is not gone yet but he is heading out the door. He has agreed not to stand at the next election, and he has suggested bringing that election forwards from September to July/August. He claims this is because if he left now there would be constitutional chaos (although actually a group of constitutional lawyers think they have sorted that out). This may well be the case but is also somewhat self-serving: the longer in the past these protests are the more chance the NDP have of regrouping and preserving something of his legacy. He did however sound fairly believable when he said he was now heartily sick of Egypt and looking forward to retirement.

This has however split people into three groups; this is also coinciding with the protests – which until now had been amorphous and leaderless – coalescing around a series of leaders.

On the one hand you have the hardcore anti-Mubarak brigade who believe that no business can be done until Mubarak is out of the country. Quite simply they believe he would not stick to any deal, and would use any time he brought to rebuild the NDP and the institutions of his reign. They envision a nightmare scenario whereby promises of reform mollify the crowd enough for them to return home, allowing the NDP to rebuild its police and its gangs of hired thugs so that when they rig the elections Egyptians have no choice but to take it. So they are determined to stay on the streets until Mubarak goes.

The two most powerful advocates of this path are ElBaredi – who I discussed at length last time, and the “April 6th movement” and their leader Mohamed Adel. They are a pro-democracy, pro-social justice youth movement based upon the Serbian Otpor. They were founded, as the name suggests, on April 6th (2008 as it happens) when they organised a strike at a textile factory in El-Mahalla El-Kubra.

As can be seen from the number of people out on the streets today, this group are far from small, and may still carry the day – in which case you’d back one of its leaders to make a successful run for the presidency.

The second group are the negotiators. They’re no fans of Mubarak but they appreciate that the constitutional and legal changes that need to be made take time, and so they are happy for him to remain whilst these changes are made. Some of them are still on the streets to keep the pressure up for change (and arguably so that if the protests do work and he does go, they will still be seen as part of that group), but they are also in dialogue with VP Omar Suleiman and have mostly dropped their calls for Mubarak to go – albeit they would prefer he was stripped of al power.

Perhaps surprisingly, and perhaps not, the Muslim Brotherhood are in this group. As are Egypt’s two largest liberal political parties: the nationalist liberal Wafd (previously the largest opposition party with 6 seats – although wiped out along with all opposition in last year’s “election”), and the liberal socialist Tagammu, or National Progressive Unionist Party.

However the leaders of this movement are the “wise men”, a self appointed group of negotiators – sadly yes they are all men – who are supposed to represent the great and the good of civil society, academia, and the liberal establishment. They are made up of the following people:

  • Dr. Ahmad Kamal Abul Magd – a highly respected lawyer, Former Minister of Mass Communication (but a long time out of the regime) and the President of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights
  • Dr. Ahmed Zewail – won the 1999 Nobel Prize for chemistry, a well respected academic who until recently was working at the California Institute of Technology. He is seen as a close political ally of Ayman Nour, of whom more in a second
  • Mr. Naguib Sawiris – perhaps the most controversial wise man. He is a multi billionaire, and his claims to being part of the intellectual or civil elite are somewhat tenuous. Moreover he made his money out of mobile phone start-ups in North Korea, Tunisia (under the old regime), and Iraq (both sides of the war). So his money is not squeaky clean.
  • Mr. Ambassador Amr Moussa – leader of the Arab League and seen, until recently, as being quite close to Mubarak. He is a very highly respected international diplomat
  • Mr. Gawdat Al-Malt – one of the few supposedly popular members of the old regime and the only current NDP member in the group. He was chair of the audit commission and is supposed to have done a good job tacking corruption.
  • Dr. Usama Al-Ghazali Harb – Editor in chief of the Arab world’s most read and oldest political science magazine/journal: Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya; and also a prominent political scientists with academic chairs at various Egyptian institutions.
  • Dr. Amr Hamzawy – a senior associate with the international think-tank The Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
  • Mr. Muneer Fakhri Abdul Nur – a “leading businessman” and – until he too lost his seat last year – one of the only Coptic MPs in Parliament.
  • Mr. Mahmoud Saad – I’m sorry to say I don’t know which Mahmoud Saad they mean here. There was a popular Egyptian TV host of that name who came under fire from Mubarak’s regime very early in the day for praising the Tunisian people  – I think it is himthat is the Wise Man. Then the coach of Zamalek SC – one of the best football clubs in all Africa – is called Mahmoud Saad, and unless he is a very busy man that is not the same guy. He too is a fairly prominent figure in Egyptian culture so it is not out of the question that it is this Mahmoud Saad that is the Wise Man. I’m sorry about this. If anyone knows which one it is, please tell me.

The wise men are being supported from the outside by two prominent activists – prompting suggestions that one or both of them might run for President. Firstly there is Ayman Nour, leader of the fairly new secular centrist Waft splinter group: El-Ghad. He came second to Mubarak in the last (2005) presidential elections, and so can legitimately claim to be the most popular opposition voice – although some would argue this is largely because so many others boycotted or were not allowed to run. Since then he’s spent a lot of time in prison on trumped up charges. He was rather devastatingly described in the Totonto Star as “credibility without charisma”.

The second is Wael Ghonim, a senior Google executive whose star is rising fast thanks to his bravery following a short but incredibly uncomfortable spell in the regime’s custody for his part in the protests, and for this extraordinary interview performance (if the English subtitles don’t appear you might have to press the CC button to turn them on, and you need to see parts 2 and 3 as well):

Of course the other potential presidential candidate people are concerned about is someone (anyone) from the Muslim Brotherhood. Personally I think people could do with calming down about this. Firstly, for what it is worth, the Muslim Brotherhood have said they won’t stand. Secondly, whilst the MB are certainly currently the best organised opposition group, they are still only polling at around 25-30%. Thirdly, the MB enjoy support from a broad umbrella of different types of people, and – whilst they have of late adopted quite a mean Salafi vision – their roots are actually in the liberal reform movements of the early 20th century. These days they say and think some fairly unpleasant things, but even so they are an avowedly non violent group who respect democracy and the institutions of state. I disagree with them about virtually everything, but some of the cartoonish descriptions of their beliefs which have been circulating recently do the entire debate a disservice.

Anyway moving back to the discussion at hand, the third group are those who argue for stability. Clearly the NDP, the Police, the secret Police and the government are in this group – but so are a, currently quite small but increasing, group of business owners who just want a return to economic normalcy. There are also external supporters of this movement: whilst most western governments have at least tried to build some bridges with the protesters, three decades of foreign policy do not turn 180 degrees overnight (CF Tony Blair’s “force for good” comment). This is most noticeable in the US where whilst some neo-liberals have proven themselves not to be hypocrites, others have really struggled with this, most epically: Glenn “this will lead to Holland going Communist” Beck.

One key recent shift is that the Army, which had previously been biding its time and weighing up its options, seems to have now moved fairly firmly into this camp. This could polarise the protests. Meanwhile the NDP, still by far the largest political organisation in Egypt, are in a huge fix. They simply don’t have a frontman. The heir apparent for many years – Gamal Mubarak – is simply too unpopular and has now quit the NDP. It is not clear if this is him admitting defeat or whether he will attempt a comeback at the head of some new vehicle. Meanwhile Suleiman has ruled himself out and that leaves: nobody, because Mubarak Snr eliminated all rival power sources far too effectively.

The issues

Aside from the obvious issue of Mubarak, and if and when he will go, there are several other issues which need to be resolved if there is to be real change. These are the sticking points in negotiation, but what progress is made on these issues will determine how much actual change takes place – and what manner of elections will occur in Egypt from now on.

The first issue is that of timetable, and this seems to be the main sticking point at the moment. This is a trade off for both sides. The longer elections are delayed, the more the energy from the protests will dissipate and the more likely NDP thugs are to re-establish their primacy. Yet at the same time the more time it gives the opposition to organise, and every constitutional and legal reform does have a cost in terms of time to implement.

The next issue surrounds the primacy of the President, and how hard they are to remove. In the hope of preventing another situation like this where the president is effectively unremovable, reformers want constitutional article 159 (the powers of the VP) and article 82 (the powers the president can delegate) considerably strengthened.

Most reformers also want the president’s powers clipped considerably so that never again can so much power be concentrated in one man. They also want a return of strict term limits so that there cannot be another 30 years of one man rule. This involves reforming article 76 (powers), 77 (term limits), and 136 (president’s powers over parliament) of the constitution.

Then there is the question of the running of Presidential elections: the draconian requirements for nomination which make it so difficult for opposition parties and independents to run for election, and the requirements for registering a new political party under which so many parties including the Muslim Brotherhood have been excluded for so many years. This involves changing Article 76 (how to get on the ballot) and changing or even repealing completely Election Law 177 of 2005 (requirements for new political parties). It also involves repealing a subsequent Election Law 1 of 2011, which prevents any new political parties from being registered before 2017 and amending constitutional article 5 which explicitly forbids the Muslim Brotherhood, and all religious political parties, from competing.

Then there is the issue of the police’s extraordinary powers of arbitrary arrest, detention, search and wire-tapping. These are legal in two ways. Article 179 of the constitution explicitly makes them legal, something reformers want revoked, and they are legal under the state of emergency: Egypt has been in a state of emergency for all but 18 months of the last 43 years and reformers want the state of emergency dropped and Law 162 of 1958 modified so that one cannot be declared again so easily.

Finally, and most contentiously, is the return of the repealed Article 88 of the constitution which gave control of elections to the judiciary. Reformers claim it was the repeal of this article which gave Mubarak the ability to so utterly rig the last elections.

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