State-society relations in Egypt: restructuring the political.

AuthorIsmail, Salwa

Egypt has undergone a number of transitional periods in its modern history, experiencing many fundamental structural shifts and transformations. Leafing through the pages of its Twentieth Century history, the reader moves from a "liberal" age to a "socialist" phase then a "guided capitalist" mode which leads to the "state of institutions" and ends with a "reform" phase. The latest of the transitional periods is named after the policy which defines much of what is currently taking place on the economic scene and what is hoped for in the political sphere in contemporary Egypt.

"Reform" is the name the government of Husni Mubarak has given to changes it has been effecting in the economic field, although it is not a term that it is keen on using in reference to the political sphere. However, the Mubarak regime has, from its inception, shown a predilection to sponsoring the terms of democratization and liberalization in public discourse: Al-dimuqratiya wa alhuriyat al-`ama (democracy and public freedoms) have been the declared political objectives, course of action and character of the regime. The combination of necessary rhetoric, as well as internal and external expectations, have made political reform a term of public discourse.

In this essay, I will discuss the terms of the regime's initiative in political reform in order to demonstrate the entrenchment of the politics of controlled liberalization. I will then show how, through the politicization of the professional syndicates, a new kind of restructuring is taking place in the polity. In a brief introductory section, I will outline the characteristics of the polity and discuss the general aspects of the crisis of the Egyptian state. In the second section, the analysis will zero in on the configuration of the political scene through a close look at the recently held national dialogue (al-Hiwar al-Watani). The Hiwar will serve to highlight the maneuvers and efforts carried out by the holders of power to maintain the existing structure. This will be juxtaposed to the analysis, in the third section, of the ongoing reconfiguration which newly emerging forces such as the professional syndicates are having in the political sphere. In the last section, the shape and nature of this restructuring will be assessed in light of the hoped-for democratization and in reference to the concept of civil society.


Egyptian politics is identified by a set of structural characteristics which shape and interact with a mode of functioning that has come to define the dynamics of interaction among the players on the political scene.(1) The structural features center around the extensive powers of the executive with the president at its summit, and a legal framework which provides the control keys of political action. Within this framework, laws governing the formation of political parties and associations, and setting restrictions on the exercise of political rights, are seen as indicators of the circumscribed nature of the democratization which the regime claims to be effecting. These limitations, which are inscribed in the legal order, have contributed to the rise of patterns of functioning which define the political in Egypt. Within the environment of controlled liberalization, and due to socio-historical factors, political parties have become increasingly ineffective. Part of this configuration is the low level of public participation, marked by low voter turn out at elections and low numbers of party adherents. Given this state of affairs - at a point of crisis, which, from the perspective of the participants, required a national engagement - the only available recourse was an ad hoc mechanism of democracy, which took the form of a national dialogue.

Regime politics operate in the context of the generalized crisis of the state. This crisis can be discerned as the inability of the state to enforce its own laws. A number of indicators support this contention. The extent of corruption has reached unprecedented levels and has become generalized to all social relations and transactions. The number of infractions within the bureaucracy brought before administrative courts reached 56,000 cases in 1993.(2)

Under emergency rule, the police's powers of arrest, interrogation and detention have expanded. The wide range of police discretionary powers has been put to use in the service of what O'Donnell calls privatized domination.(3) Police services are subcontracted to individuals and organized networks seeking to subvert the law. Police officers have subleased the powers invested in their offices just as feudal lords once did in their fiefdoms.

The state contends with virtually independent spheres of power which have territorial control, examples of which exist not only outside the large urban centers such as in the villages and towns of upper Egypt, but also in the urban slums of Cairo. The independent spheres of power that Imbaba and Ain Shams represent, predate their being conquered by the Islamists. The Jihadists appropriated spaces which already existed outside government control. Informal communities emerged spontaneously and came to form whole villages and towns in the heart of greater Cairo and in all of the other governorates. These communities have come into existence in defiance of all state regulations on housing, urban planning and security. The appropriation of public spaces that has come about with the emergence of informal communities has, in fact, challenged the authority of the state. In many instances, the state has found itself contending with the new spheres of power; calling on the coercive apparatus of the police in an attempt to enforce its edicts.

The regime's hold on power is concentrated in the political sphere through which the new "pluralism" of the organized networks of corruption and the independent spheres of power are managed. Political stabilization sums up the regime's approach in dealing with the problems of government inefficiency and state disintegration.


The Context

In October 1993, following his swearing in to a third term in office, President Mubarak called for a national dialogue.[4] In looking at the context of the call, at the events which unfolded in preparation for the dialogue and finally at the dialogue itself, this section will bring into focus the patterns of functioning of the existing political order as a prelude to the description and evaluation of the process of political restructuring.

Mubarak's call came at a time that local observers and analysts viewed as a crisis situation for the regime and the country. The crisis came to the fore with increased militant activities on the part of Islamist groups. By the end of 1992 and throughout 1993, Islamists had escalated their attacks on the regime, carrying out violent acts claiming the lives of many senior police officers, targeting tourist sites and culminating in assassination attempts on high profile government figures. The tourist crimes (jara'im al-siyaha) were destabilizing economically and politically, bringing to a halt the flow of tourists to the country and with it an important source of revenue was lost. The environment of instability was also seen as detrimental to the economic reform policies of privatization. Not only did Egypt risk loosing foreign investment but it also risked a flight of local capital. No doubt, the attacks lessened the respectability of the regime internally and did nothing to boost its image externally. A national conference was to serve as a show of unity in the face of extremism, and it was designed to muster behind the regime the support of all legitimate forces.

Although when the call was made, the subject of the dialogue was not spelled out, a stated general objective spoke of the need to discuss the direction the country was taking. This vague and all-encompassing purpose undoubtedly included the economic reform policies of privatization and restructuring. In fact, the idea of national dialogue figures in a study undertaken on behalf of the US Agency for International Development, one of the main international backers of the economic reform agenda. The study dealing with the social impact of the policies argued for the need to reach a new social contract through which the burden of reform could be assigned democratically to the various social forces.(6)

From the regime's perspective, the dialogue aimed at achieving stability, legitimizing its economic policy, but more importantly, regaining the political initiative. The Islamist threat had rendered the regime vulnerable to the opposition's pressures for political reform. The failure of the politics of security (al-siyasa al-amniya) to adequately respond to the islamist challenge had opened the regime to a number of charges which centered on the inadequacy of the existing political structure.

Regaining the political initiative was also necessary in light of the challenges the regime was facing from legitimate institutions such as the syndicates and the civil courts. In 1992, the powers of the executive, as concentrated in the hands of the President, were found to be limited in scope. The judiciary's assertion of its independence by acquitting most of the Islamist defendants in trials brought before the...

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