Friday, February 18, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: Political Realities and Power Brokers

The Problem With Egypt's Constitution

As I wrote here, the problem's with Egypt's constitution and attempting to pull together a truly representative government through any part of its lengthy laws and regulations is not only difficult, but dangerous for any group that will not have an immediate rise to majority power. In other words, minorities or minority parties will be in danger of suffering the same fate under any newly elected government that they did under the Mubarek/NDP regime because any party with enough power in the assembly (parliament) or who takes important posts like the presidency and prime minster and gets to appoint people to ministries and commissions will have the same power as the NDP once had to exclude rivals. Re-affirming many observers' fears that Egypt will be the same as before, but with some other despotic group in power.

The control over the electoral process is firmly in the hands of any majority party that comes to power. The Electoral Commission and over seeing voting is under the direct power of the Interior Ministry, not organized as a separate, independent commission focused on fair and accurate elections. The Interior Minister is appointed by the president.

Candidates and parties wishing to establish themselves as "official" to participate in the elections have to be vetted by the Interior Ministry's security directorate. They must also be vetted by a judicial panel appointed by the Ministry (ie, appointed by whoever is in power) and, finally, must be vetted by the People's Assembly.

In the past, all of those organizations were controlled by the NDP who notably suppressed anybody and any group they didn't like through these organizations and panels. Even though there were rules that allegedly governed the process and the constitution stated that every Egyptian had the right to free political association, to stand for elections and vote, everywhere within the subsequent "acts" passed were vague "loop holes" that allowed any of these organizations to disqualify candidates and parties on the least of reasons. The most egregious vagaries being "dismissed for disgraceful reasons" from a government post or having some criminal record above and beyond the few felonies outlined (fraud, murder, theft, etc). Since people who talked bad about Mubarek, the NDP or Egyptian government in general could be dismissed from their posts or arrested for crimes against the state, those rules equate to disenfranchising large swaths of society.

At the very least, for Egypt to even begin to have a free and fair election, the Electoral Commission would have to be stood up as a separate, non-partisan organization with directors chosen at the outset from some board consisting of representatives from each of the major groups involved in the "revolution" and then through a majority approval by any newly elected assembly. Acts numbered 38, 73 and 96 would have to be gutted or, for the best of free elections, repealed and thrown out all together for one new amendment that simplified the process, took the power to establish candidates out of the Interior Ministery's and People's Assembly's hands and outline the very few and specific reasons a person or party could be disqualified.

The rules governing funding would have to be examined and re-established through the EC as well as some form of oversight at the ballot box by selected members of each party participating in the election. Equal oversight may have to be enforced by the military to insure against any other party committing voter intimidation, fraud or other form of disenfranchisement.

Otherwise, any freedom the Egyptians believe they achieved through the Jan25 revolution will be immediately lost to whoever has the ability to control the process and achieves any real majority in the elections. Even if most of the necessary changes are achieved, liberal Egypt is still in danger politically, socially and economically since the parties most likely to win majorities are not particularly liberal and are in each others' pockets.

Muslim Brotherhood 25 -30%

In a previous post from an interview with the head of the MB in Egypt, the reporter noted that the Muslim Brotherhood only had 10% of the vote. The spokesman said that the elections were rigged and that, if they had a chance to run in fair elections he expected they would get a much wider swath of votes. Somewhere in the vicinity of 30-38%.

In the 2005 elections, when Mubarek was pressured to let off the political brakes, the MB "independent" candidates won 88 seats, or 20% of parliament. In 2010 there were severe election abuses, intimidation, fraud and restrictions with the MB only achieving one (1) seat. Neither of these seems to be an actual representation of the MB's potential power.

Sandmonkey, Mahmoud Salem, liberal Egyptian blogger, puts them more at 20%. He says that, out of 80 million Egyptians, the MB has maybe 4million members, supporters and sympathizers. The math is off. That puts them at only 5%. Where does the rest of these numbers come from?

The MB has lost direct membership largely to various splinter groups, towards more liberal movements and even, sadly, to more fundamentalist groups. These splinter groups consist of Muslim youth and women's organizations who have taken on the various issues pertaining to those groups. That does not mean that those organizations would not vote for an MB backed candidate when presented who say they are going to address those issues. Most importantly, these sub-organizations will likely fall in line on at least the first few election cycles in order to protect their over all interests. Muslim Youth and Women's groups will be more inclined to pressure their own established candidates than to look outside of the box.

Another issue that might or might not be taken into account is that city/suburban dwellers of large populations tend to have blinders on when it comes to rural populations and their voting tendencies. As the liberal/democrats in the US have discovered on more than one occasion, those populations tend to be more conservative. Of particular interest would be the agricultural populations spread along the Nile and those populations in the Sinai or out in the "desert" (fly over country as we say in the US). Enough to give any "conservative" block in parliament an edge. Liberal and socialist voters/parties would do well to remember that in any calculation of potential power.

Even in the city, there are large swaths of conservatives among the young and old who are likely to be moved to vote based on those social and faith based values (in the United States they are referred to as Values Voters). These values are most prominent when a community is experiencing turbulent times. Crime, corruption and social ills they consider the fault of liberalization can push even moderate conservatives to swing to the "right".

The Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized, the best funded, has established media/communications (tv, newspapers, mosques), has out reach in the communities via charities and education programs and has the political experience of backing "independent" candidates. Not to mention an established political agenda. They are and will be the party to beat in any future elections.

Further, other parties such as a socialist labor party who gets their support from the ever pervasive labor unions, will not be able to count on all of their members voting in line with their union. Values sometimes over turn economic concerns in times of crisis. The Brotherhood will likely be able to peel off any number of voters from this organization and any other group or party who have enjoyed membership based on opposing the regime.

The MB says that it is not going to put any candidates up as "Muslim Brotherhood", but recent reports suggest that they are planning to create a separate political party that will have MB backing. This is very politically savvy of the MB. Whether "independents" or part of some new party with roots in the MB, having separate politicos would let them have their cake and eat it, too.

In short, independents or separate political party would allow them to present a less threatening face and divide political participation in any government, specifically democracy, from their religious/charter agenda. The first item on the agenda is the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. Their participation in secular politics has been one of the major divisions within their own organization as well as with other Islamic groups who see democracy and other forms of secular government as a form of idolatry. This will allow the MB to remain a religious organization with contact/support to other organizations while participating in elections.

Further, the establishment of independents or a separate political party will allow the MB to continue to collect funds from outside donors (donors outside of the country; specifically, Saudi Arabia or remittances from MB members in the US, Europe, etc) that might otherwise fall under scrutiny from any election board that would monitor funds. This would allow them to funnel those funds into any media or outreach programs they control, extolling whatever agenda the MB supported independent or other party candidate might be running on without providing direct material support. This gives them unprecedented power that the other parties are going to be hard pressed to match.

With one final note: there are at least three to four other "minor" Islamic parties such as Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Umma Party that may be swayed to support MB agenda or party members or who, if elected to a seat, could be added to any conservative, Islamic block in the parliament. The MB could lose some votes if their candidates fail to engage on agenda items related to women and the "youth" demand.

As to the MB's lack of presidential aspirations, Mahmoud Salem makes a point that they likely do not want to have any part of "leadership" when the country is in a mess and short of an all powerful "savior" figure who can pull out any miracles, the long and rugged road would be full of giant pot holes and veritable canyons that could weaken any party who takes that position as they will be blamed for anything that does not go right during this transition to representative government.

Second, as with other revolutions against governments where the power has been concentrated into a single executive's hands and the givens of mid-east parliaments, the new constitution is unlikely to give any president any real power. At most, the president will likely be the "lead negotiator" with executive power being concentrated in the hands of a prime minister and cabinet beholden to and selected by whatever political party holds the power in parliament.

It will be very surprising if the MB does not take at least 125 to 150 seats in the parliament through either directly supported "Independents" or other affiliates such as physicians or lawyers belonging to organizations with links to the MB such as the Arab Doctor's Union or similar Lawyer's Union.

Labor Unions/Socialists 25 - 30%

In the uprising of Jan 25, one of the most powerful and organized groups were the socialists and unions. In fact, it was the socialist April 6 Youth that provided the ground work for the revolution outside of facebook and twitter. These groups scouted protest areas, distributed fliers and generally went through neighborhoods calling down the poor en masse with slogans about food and pay. Of interest was a report that indicated this group had partnered with the MB including organizing in mosques friendly to the MB. As one MB youth group leader noted, it was not an unusual association. The MB youth had frequently called on the socialist groups like April 6 to stand with them in demonstrations for political freedom and human rights.

Further, it was the MB's Arab Doctors Union that helped set up the first clinics to treat protesters and other MB members who waded to the barricades to establish a defense system for the square. This should be a surprise to no one as the MB has had plenty of practice in violent clashes and demonstrations with the Egyptian authorities during previous elections.

April 6 Movement does not count itself a political party. It is organized, has leadership and a distinct network, but it is open to anyone regardless of other political association, who supports their values for free expression and political participation. A cohort of this movement has centered its support around El Baradei who has yet to actually establish a "political party" in the generally accepted sense. However, this group may be able to assemble a party with a grass roots network and funding in quick order. It's problem will be members who break off and move towards the parties most likely to represent their other agenda concerns post departure of the NDP and Mubarek.

It is the labor unions that will represent the most power in this group. While the general Jan 25 protests were large and threatening to destabilize the regime, the real "tipping power" came when the labor unions around the country began to strike. Port technicians, mill workers, hospital workers, every union began to converge on the streets or stage sit ins. These unions did not join until the 16th day of the protest. When they did, they were quick to establish themselves as a separate power with a their own agenda for striking during the general protests.

They continue even now staging protests and general strikes. Their demands are higher wages, health care and housing among several. These continued strikes are to show that not only did they have the final power in the revolution, they are a powerful entity of their own and will be a force to reckon with in the political reality of New Egypt.

It is estimated there were 23 trade unions enrolling 27% of Egypt's 20 million plus work force. That does not include an estimated 1million in child labor. Nor does it include any groups of workers who might have been prohibited in organizing a union or participating in politics outside of the NDP such as police officers and other government workers.

There are several parties that might represent the labor unions. One such party that could find itself thrust back into a leadership role is the National Progressive Unionist Party or Taggamu. This group is largely affiliated with the labor unions in Egypt, but was previously considered the "loyal opposition" or the Mubarek regime. It is difficult to imagine how they can come out of that without the leadership drastically changing and a new reform agenda that takes its demands directly from the socialist unions.

They do have the advantage of already being in place, organized and having their own official newspaper as well as being an established "opposition." Further, they have a platform that is based on protecting laborers and workers in the service industry. Tourism being one of the drivers of Egypt's economy, service workers could have a more power in the sway of the union labor party by dent of economic impact alone. That is if any number of its members don't decide that they are better represented by the conservative MB candidates.

Other socialist/labor leaning parties may see a dramatic boost as members now see an opportunity to have their concerns better represented by someone other than the NPUP that still has its roots in the 1952 socialist revolution and some consider association with the ousted NDP regime. In any case, any labor party will have similar advantages as the MB in establishing a powerful political party. With a large membership that is "captive" based on requirements for people to join or be refused work, they are organized, have distinct leadership and access to funds or fund raising within its already established socio-political niche.

The labor unions also have an established news paper, magazines and a communication network through union "shop bosses" and meetings that will be able to easily transmit the party agenda and support for labor candidates.

The Future Muslim Brotherhood and Labor Power House in Parliament

What we are likely to see is that the cooperation of the Labor Unions and the MB will continue in the short run when they achieve the parliament. Social and economic equality with better health care are ideas easily supported through the MB's agenda. Likewise, the MB would use these agenda items as leverage to get the labor parties' support for any of their own specific concerns such as strengthening sharia laws, more support for Hamas or Gaza and more aggressive stance against Israel. At least wherever those conservative agenda items do not interfere with or support any labor issues.

With potential control of the parliament from 50 to 60% between these two parties, any liberal or other minority groups are going to find themselves in a corner, trying to come up with an amalgamation of their ideas that could be supported by their constituents and constantly compromising with each other and the major power brokers. Worse, they may find themselves forced in alliance with the new, reform NDP party (potentially under some new name or simply with the word "reform" added) in order to stave off the worst effects of MB/labor majority parliament. A possible necessity when voting in parliament or presenting bills, but a political nightmare that could be used against them in the next elections.

Real liberal Egyptians are going to find themselves pushed back for at least the short term unless they can pull off a veritable miracle in organization, funding, leadership and communication. They may already have parts of the organization and communication in place. At least among themselves. Getting a greater part of the non-internet Egyptian polity to hear about and buy into their ideas is going to be a different story. Their choices for funding are going to equate to business, business and business that will likely put them at odds with their labor union opponents and political base.

Without a doubt, any liberal party hoping to obtain some kind of political power is going to have to come up with their own leading agenda item that could rally any form of public support. For the liberals, that one agenda item, already co-oped by the labor unions, is going to be the economy. How they plan to improve that and whether anyone is buying it will another story.

Next: Communists, Coptics, Liberals and A Reformed NDP

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