By changing the Egyptian constitution, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has caused a revolution in the Egyptian mind. The change signifies that the President announces that the “Pharaoh’s duty” is no longer a divine concern, but rather a legitimate right for the people and that it is by that right any Egyptian could compete for the top of the political pyramid. This is a historical, a decisive and a distinctive moment for Egypt with regard to both its culture and its political history.
Voluntarily, President Mubarak presented before the Parliament (the People’s Assembly and the Consultative Council) a request to amend article 76 of the constitution, which is concerned with the choice and election of the President in a move that allows free competition on the leadership of Egypt. This will result in the availability of more than one candidate. The President said that his request aims at making the laws compatible with the present stage of the nation’s history, which is a quintessential goal. What the President has done opens the door wide for the “winds of change” to dominate one of the most important Arab societies.
What the President said has a large significance and a larger set of responses as what happened or happens in Egypt takes place in a changing regional context signified by free and impartial elections in Iraq and Palestine, and a boiling civil society in Lebanon. Here, the Egyptian President and the Egyptian state should be accredited for their ability to realize the global atmosphere in a world that says that democracy and none else is what regulates the relation between the ruler and the ruled, and that democracies do not fight each other, do not invade and do not cost their people a lot of casualties.
In this respect, the cultural-social symbolism launched by the President is even more important than the legal significance of the constitutional change. This symbolism says that the “Presidency” is a subject of competition “at the highest levels”. The President has in effect opened up the system from its top and consequently what applies to the Presidency equally applies to what is below it in the political pyramid. Thus, if the Presidency is now open for competition, this means that the editorship of the state owned newspaper is open to competition, the chairmanship of TV is open for competition and the chairmanship of village councils are open to competition as well. This reminds us of captain Mohamed Latif’s (a former very popular soccer broadcaster) saying “no one is better than the other.”
History will record for President Mubarak that he took the initiative to end the idea of the Presidency surrounded by a light ring that disallows any attempt to get close to it or to even touch it. Perhaps he will be written about as the man who changed the cultural ideas of an entire society concerning the notion of presidency. The one who changed the concept of a civilization, in which the Pharaoh was everything to a society where the competition to that Pharaoh is accepted; such a change is a revolution not be downsized as revolutions often generate from the peoples’ cultures.
However, for every revolution there is a counter-revolution. It is true that President Mubarak strikes us daily as a different kind of rulers, and now he says to all of us that he accepts honorable competition, a historical step which I greatly welcome; however, I myself – as any other political entity – would become meaningless if I do not carry fears and apprehensions. The first of my fears is the counter-revolution because the challenge that was presented by President Mubarak through his announcement may reveal a lot of big shortcomings in the Egyptian society and its political culture. When President Mubarak rejected the principle of inheriting authority, I wrote in this paper that inheritance is salient in society with all its categories: the son of a judge becomes a judge, the son of an officer is an officer, that of an ambassador is an ambassador, that of a minister is a minister and that of a journalist is a journalist. I say that Mubarak’s position against this corrupt culture as well as the fact that he is the first president to accept competition will be recorded in his favor by history.
However, there are interest groups in Egypt – I termed them as “settlements” in one of the TV shows – that will try to impede this reform because it is not of their interests to entrench in the society the principle of honorable competition, which is governed by qualifications. It is perhaps ironical that the Egyptian political parties are the ones that decline from competition. What president Mubarak said may reveal the shortcoming of these parties for after the constitutional change it remains before the parties the task of clarifying for the whole world that they are able to gather approvals and mobilize people for the sake of supporting their candidates. We know that most political parties in Egypt, with the exception of the National Democratic Party (the ruling party) and to a lesser degree the Tagammu (the socialists), are paper parties. Each party consists of a newspaper office in Cairo that is used to get out more licenses for other papers, and a group of activists who are propagating to a baseless political existence (meaning that it is not supported by a base of popular support.)
The second challenge is a question that was presented by Mubarak to the Egyptians. The President asked them whether they are ready and able to transcend the culture of presidency, to get out of the “soft wear” of fear, and to build institutions that are capable of free competition.
The third challenge, which the president may be able to meet through his respect, power and strength, is facing up to the challenge of what I called “the settlements “which are deeply entrenched in the second paradigm of the Egyptian society – the first being the culture of presidency – starting from the Middle Management institutions. Will the president use his powers to deconstruct these “settlements” the way he deconstructed the notion of absolute presidency from the heads of the Egyptians? I think he will.
Without creating these mechanisms of competition in society, like free press and freedom of association, we will end up in a situation very similar to the Tunisian case. In Tunisia, the constitution has approved the right of competition for the opposition’s candidates; since then two consecutive presidential elections were held in which the president won by 93 – 97%. This was incredible, the people were either frightened so they did not go to the polls or that the competing candidates did not have any popular basis. The Tunisian model has to be a warning to the Egyptians because it is a model that – and here I should quote president Mubarak – “that is incompatible with this stage of the nation’s history”.
Change has to be in accordance with the local atmosphere first, then the regional and finally the international. We have seen for example in the case of Lebanon that any withdrawal in one of those fields causes serious problems. Observing Syria today, we can see that it is revealed locally through the demonstration of thousands of the Lebanese against it in Beirut. It is also revealed by the formal end of Al Ta’if Accords and the statements by Mubarak and king Abdullah of Jordan. Internationally, Syria is revealed by the Security Council resolution 1559.
For the Syrian regime to be revealed in those three fields, will eventually lead to a true shaking of the regime. Last week, President Mubarak realizing that this is exactly what is happening to Syria, as he announced a warning for the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. As Mubarak proved a specific wisdom in reading the Syrian situation in Lebanon, he also proved capable of reading the Egyptian local situation in both of its contexts, the regional and the international. The changing of the constitution and the protection of the constitution are two praiseworthy steps by which Mubarak resurrected a new vitality in the Egyptian regime. It is praiseworthy because the stability of Egypt and nits welfare would mean stability of the whole Arab world.
What happened in Cairo as initiated by President Mubarak is undoubtedly a historical event, as the entire Egyptian society has to adapt itself to it. As I mentioned in the beginning of the essay, the legal significance is large as it expands the space of competition in one of the largest Arab countries. Thus, Europe and America have to positively regard this change and support it. If they (Europe and America) are looking for a model of peaceful transition to democracy, this model then is Egypt.
President Mubarak made history when he deconstructed the notion of Presidency legally and culturally. That is why all have to stand with him in managing this change. The ball is now in the field of the politicians and intellectuals; will they rise up to the challenge presented to them by the President of Egypt?
Translated By Mohamed Al Ansary