The scenario of Egypt’s consensus president

Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections can be looked at as being the last major battle in the course of the first revolutionary wave that began on 25 January 2011, as well as the beginning of a new phase in which polarization and battle tactics are bound to change.

The first revolutionary wave consisted of multiple protest surges that coalesced around a general target: the establishment of a transparent political arena in which governance can be exercised, political conflicts can be managed, and the entrenched power relations in the different social spheres can be questioned. The presidential elections will inaugurate the second phase of revolutionary contestation that is likely to concentrate on the frontiers and limitations of this new political arena, i.e. who is included within the realm of legitimacy and who is outlawed, what are the new limitations on the public and personal freedoms, what are the grounds of such limitations, and what are the areas that will be kept away from the public oversight.

The politics of the current presidential race will partially shape the parameters of these future debates. In this regard, understanding the current alignments and divergences concerning the issue of the ‘consensus’ president would allow us to glimpse at some features of Egypt’s future polity. I believe that we cannot analyze the dynamics of this “consensus” without deciphering the precarious relationship between the ruling junta and the Brotherhood’s political class, which presents itself as an alternative to Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. It is within the parameters of this relationship between the junta and the Brotherhood that the idea of the ‘consensus’ president can be understood. 

The first step to develop this understanding is to better grasp the structure of the former/current regime and its looming crisis. The July 1952 regime, whose heirs are ruling the country at the moment, was founded on a set of measures aiming at the complete foreclosure of the political space and the exercise of power through a number of security apparatuses controlled by a security-military oligarchy — an oligarchy that was hybridized over the past decade by elements of the new industrial and financial bourgeoisie.

Prior to the revolution, that oligarchy depended upon a political class capable of managing the regime’s political institutions, including the political parties, in addition to the legislative and municipal councils, in a way that would guarantee the foreclosure of the political space without exposing the real power centers. Although this political class benefited from its positions, the ruling junta has always been keen on preventing it from ever evolving into a ruling class on its own behalf.

The revolution, however, dealt a dramatic blow to this class, embodied in the apocalyptic collapse of the NDP.

Attempts by the ruling junta to reproduce the same regime, with all its infamous features, were doomed to failure. It was easy to recover the main security bodies under the auspices of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but regrouping a whole political class is a complex process that could take years. Hence, even though the oligarchy still controls the tools of oppression, it is unable to govern in the practical sense, as its political class remains in disarray after the revolution.

The recent parliamentary elections, on the other hand, have revealed the existence of a new political class aspiring to rule Egypt. This is in reference to the Islamists — essentially the Muslim Brotherhood — who benefited from a period of relative tolerance during the mid-1970s. The Brotherhood was able then to regain its organizational capacity and to revive its networks, which were severed during the two decades of Nasserist repression.

Under the command of a firm leadership, which included a number of businessmen, and through the mobilization of substantial petrodollar capital, the Brotherhood nurtured a political class — an alternative to the NDP — composed of a wide range of professionals including lawyers, doctors and teachers belonging to the lower-middle class, which has been marginalized by the old regime’s monopoly on political representation. The question that follows is whether this Islamist political class will act as the junta’s political arm after the collapse of the NDP?

This is a rather dubious scenario, particularly because the Brotherhood’s ambitions indeed clash with the military establishment — the institutional backbone of the oligarchy and the guardian of the modern state’s doctrine. The military establishment is known for its historic aversion to politicization of the public. If you were to look at it from the military’s point of view, the transformation of Brotherhood into a ruling party in a democratic environment is a prelude to a wave of politicization of society as a whole, the extent and consequences of which will be difficult to control. In the military’s view, this societal politicization may affect the country’s fragile internal stability, if sectarian tensions escalate, social struggles become more radical and violent, or radical trends become involved in public debate and begin to exert pressures on issue of foreign policy, for example.

This situation thus creates two parallel spheres of power. On one hand, we have an oligarchy capable of exercising oppression and of controlling the day-to-day administration of the state, but that is no longer in a position to rule in the political sense of the word. On the other hand, we have a political class — the Brotherhood’s — capable of governing although it is far from achieving complete dominance over the decision-making process. Consequently, the two parties have to take a step backward in search for a possible meeting point.

Last year’s 19 March constitutional referendum was just the beginning of a series of mutual concessions between the junta and Brotherhood’s political class, and was followed by a number of stages that forged this consensual relationship, as evident in the People’s Assembly elections. The final step in this trajectory is the presidential race. The oligarchy perceives the new president as an essential agent in recuperating the Mubarak-era political environment. The Brotherhood, however, perceives the president as a buffer between it and the military establishment, as well as regional and international powers. From the Brotherhood’s perspective, such a buffer is much needed to assure the junta that its status will not be severely compromised. The power granted to this president, however, has to be controlled in order not to hinder the Brotherhood’s aspirations.

Additionally, the rationale behind the idea of having a ‘consensus’ president has to be understood as a scheme to maintain these newly founded revolutionary freedoms within ‘safe’ limits that would not threaten the junta’s interests nor the Islamist majority’s conservatism.

During the past months, the problem has been, and still is, centered on finding a person capable of playing this role. While Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Omar Suleiman, former head of the General Intelligence Services, seem to be ‘burned cards’ who will be difficult to market to the general public, or the Islamists themselves, former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa is a viable opinion — albeit a bit disconcerting — due to his considerable popularity that could allow him to establish a third center of power away from the junta-Brotherhood power balance.

Other names have thus emerged in recent days as reasonable options for the consensus president post, namely Mansour Hassan. Hassan, Anwar Sadat’s information minister, was an acceptable face to the Brotherhood and some opposition movements during the Mubarak era, particularly because Mubarak sidelined him. He is a conservative candidate who has expressed his willingness to cooperate with the SCAF and seems able to understand the military’s concerns regarding the new unbridled situation and its quest to prevent the revolution’s achievements from extending to its areas of influence.

On the other hand, Hassan’s lack of popularity may be another factor pushing the Brotherhood to embrace him, taking into consideration that the Brotherhood’s goal in the presidential battle, as previously mentioned, is limited to reassuring the junta that its interests won’t be harmed, while avoiding the possibility of creating a strong presidency capable of challenging the Brotherhood’s achievements and ambitions.

Significantly enough, Hassan was the only candidate to name a vice president that is Major General Sameh Seif al-Yazel. Although Yazal has mysteriously withdrawn from Hassan’s campaign, the mere appearance of his name bears a number of indications. It can be argued that Yazal appeared in the picture as the military establishment’s protege, offsetting the fear of a possible Brotherhood domination of the political sphere in the face of a weak president such as Hassan. Yazal is a former military general who ended up in the General Intelligence Services, which had an unprecedented role in the decision-making process, especially in the field of foreign policy. The General Intelligence Services was responsible for defining national security policies during the past two decades under the chairmanship of Omar Suleiman.

Through his work at the General Intelligence Services, Yazel transformed himself from a military figure into a businessman who heads the board of directors of a prestigious company in the field of security services and a local representative of one of the biggest security service companies in the world, as well as becoming a member in the Egyptian-British Business Association. During the revolution, Yazel presented himself to the media as “an expert on national security,” in other words, an ideological advocate of the military-security complex and someone expressing its concerns.

Nonetheless, the retreat of Yazal indicates that the endeavor to market such a character is not as easy as initially anticipated. The same can be said about promoting Mansour Hassan himself; the Brotherhood’s leadership may also fail to convince its constituency to endorse him, due to his history during Sadat’s rule and current collaboration with the military. Perhaps this may be the factor that pushed the Brotherhood to suggest other “consensus” figures, such as the Supreme Judicial Council head Hossam al-Gheriany.

In all cases, convincing the public of any “consensus” presidential candidate would require huge efforts in light of the fierce competition from candidates who have established a strong media presence over the past year, and especially so amid the steadfastness of the revolutionaries who are ready to confront any attempt to rig the elections.

As such, the situation seems critical for all the main players: It is very difficult to agree on a “consensus” president who transcends all and remains autonomous, as a result of an obvious defect in the balance of power in favor of one party — the Brotherhood. This situation may change in the future; however, this possibility depends on the Brotherhood’s failure to maintain its grip on power, a possibility difficult to predict at this early stage.

The outcome of this balance of power between the junta and the Brotherhood may not result in the renewal of authoritarianism under a new rubric, as a number of observers would contend (old wine in new bottles, as many have figuratively described the situation). The outcome can be a rather fragile and conservative democracy. Its fragility reflects the delicate balance between the Brotherhood and the security-military oligarchy. This rising democracy would also be conservative, because it will only concern itself with the rotation of power, maintenance of the multi-party system, and ensuring a minimum level of freedom of expression without extending beyond that to bring about, for example, trade union freedoms or the establishment of a broader concept to freedom of conscience, not to mention disregarding the question of women’s rights and ensuring the maintenance of the army and security apparatuses’ influence beyond any forms of monitoring and accountability.

As such, Egypt circa 2012 is currently witnessing a critical point in its transition to democracy. The presidential election is unlikely to be the successful conclusion of the process of building democratic institutions. Quite to the contrary, it will rather inaugurate a new phase of this troubled transition marked by instability and ongoing struggle over the boundaries of the new democracy.

The question remains as to whether the revolutionary camp, in the broad sense of the word, is able to forge an alternative to this consensus candidate scenario?

Amr Abdulrahman is a PhD candidate at Essex University in the UK.

Translated by Aisha El-Awady.

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