There has been a lot of talk repeated in Egypt over the past few months about a “second republic”, on the basis that the first republic emerged as a result of the 23 July 1952 revolution, witnessing a transition from monarchy to republic. The First Republic produced three presidents: Jamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, that is, if we exclude Muhammad Naguib, who never actively governed the country. Despite the fact that the three presidents differed in many aspects, some of these differences caused by their respective eras, others by changes that took place in Egypt, and others still by the individual personalities of the three presidents, they all shared three characteristics. Firstly, they were all from the military establishment. Secondly, they all shared pharaonic [autocratic] that turned them into “pharaohs” of one kind or another, ruling over the dominant political party, as well as the security services and affiliated media, thereby allowing them to enjoy a privileged rule. Thirdly, [under their rule] the state forcefully interfered in society and the economy, in an effort to satisfy the regime’s cronies and followers.
Despite the apparent similarities between the three “pharaohs”, there are also substantial differences. Abdel Nasser discovered “Arab Nationalism”, and found it to be an effective weapon in granting him status and capabilities; but this had an extremely high price, with Egypt being occupied twice during his era.
Sadat was the man who discovered that he was among the “last of the pharaohs”, therefore he sought to liberate the Sinai Peninsula using both war and peace, and laid the foundations for economic openness and political pluralism, which he claimed subsequently to be the “golden age of democracy”. When the last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, came to power, he completed the liberation of Sinai, and tried to strike a balance between Egypt’s foreign policy and its capabilities, because he knew that he was responsible for 40 more million people [than Nasser or Sadat], and that Egypt’s political and economic development was not in line with its population growth. Meanwhile, the core of the regime stayed a “republic”, as it remains today.
Hence the talk about the “second republic” – and I think former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa, was the first to coin this expression – as a different model to the first republic in terms of its characteristics, essence and direction, establishing another framework based on democracy and accommodating for the changing times. The first signs suggested that this may in fact be true, as the recent parliamentary elections were held with acceptable transparency, and there is a roadmap towards civil rule in the country, under the banner of a new constitution based on a civil consensus regarding the nature of the state and its Islamic identity. However the story is far from complete, despite the short time remaining until the presidential elections. The path to the formation of the second republic remains unclear, whilst the road is filled with obstacles and hurdles.
To examine the intricate details would require the highest levels of analysis, and more than the space of one article, but it is apparent that the road in Egypt may not be leading to a second republic at all, but rather a “second state”. The difference being that the former would be an extension of the first republic but with a change in the political system; namely that the “pharaoh” would change at regular intervals, even if the “pharaonic” nature of power and rule remained the same, under the umbrella of a major, dominant political trend. This leading political force would have the upper hand in political alliances and the orientations of the regime and furthermore a genuine ability to mobilize the masse; an ability that was lacking in the first republic, when the “pharaoh” instead relied upon the security services were used as a substitute [to popular support].
Faced with a situation such as this, perhaps we are now looking at a second Egyptian state. The first modern state was established at the hands of Muhammad Ali in 1805. Afterwards it took on an Ottoman form, relying upon the Ottoman Firman to assign governors. Following this, a monarchy was established and matters stabilized for the royal family following independence in 1922. Later, the first republic [of Egypt] was born from the July revolution. Yet the essence of the pharaoh and the “pharaonic” nature of rule remained evident in Egypt throughout all of these periods; sometimes leaving the country vulnerable to occupation, and at other times fighting against this occupation and achieving freedom. Certainly Egypt changed during the first state and completely emerged from the Ottoman era, but it never caught up with the developed nations. However, this was never a major objective of Egypt’s kings, rulers and leaders.
The second Egyptian state may be different; it may retain its “pharaonic” nature but this time without the pharaoh. Perhaps it will be an ideological state; something that has not been possible throughout the ages, where the masses are mobilized and come to the ballot boxes. This did not happen in the first state, where a sense of ideology could not be fostered even with the [nationalistic] songs being played on the radio and the images being shown on television. Finally, a separation between the “pharaoh” and the “pharaonic” state could perhaps open the door to something deeper and more democratic.
Al-Azhar University sending Umar Makram to urge the great Muhammad Ali to become ruler of Egypt, with the will of the Egyptian people and the acceptance of the country’s religious establishment is something that bears witness to this. Today, al-Azhar finds Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb leading the march towards the new state, through two documents: The first is what is known as the al-Azhar document, which sets out basic principles for a civil democratic constitution in a religious state aware of its holy values. The second is what is known as the document of basic freedoms, which puts “Egyptian human rights” at the forefront of the provisions for the next constitution. By virtue of the political parties and forces signing them, these documents will become a charter of political life.
Al-Azhar was both an eyewitness and a driving force behind the establishment of the first state, and it emerged from the cloak of the Ottoman Empire in order to become a private, independent entity that has lasted for more than two centuries. This is where pharaohs and the “pharaonic state” first converged, with attempts to modernize them into one package. Nowadays, Al-Azhar is still bearing witness and helping to form the new state, setting limits and barriers against Egypt’s “pharaonic” tendencies, after the pharaohs themselves have departed.
The al-Azhar religious institution is leading the historical process of forming a new state, and this seems strange given the winds of the revolution that prevailed in Egypt. Indeed, there has even been a sense of resistance on the part of some secular forces who want to get rid of the legacy of the state once and for all. However, the reality is what is happening on the ground, and perhaps the secular forces are simply waiting for change to come, leaving the pharaonic state in place but removing its barriers and limitations, and instilling human rights. However, who knows whether this is the inevitable outcome? What we do know is that history is taking shape before our eyes moment by moment, and there are many details and contradictions to provoke the mind. We can do nothing more than observe, follow-up and wait – the month of July [when presidential elections are scheduled to take place] is not so far away.