The cat’s out of the bag

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

April 18 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The presidential election hangs on a thread. America had its chads, those niggly punch cards counted and recounted to give Bush his win in 2000. Egypt has its SPEC, the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission adjudicating candidates’ credentials.

On the positive side, the judges appear to be asserting their independence and impartiality. The negative impact is that two large blocks of voters might be denied their champions.

Either way, we were given a fascinating peep into the minds of Egypt’s voters a couple of hours before SPEC dashed the hopes of 10 contenders.

On Saturday evening Al-Masry al-Youm published online an opinion poll that showed Omar Suileman leading the field with 20 percent. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh was neck-and-neck with the Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail on 12 percent and the Brotherhood’s Khairat Al-Shater registered a meager 3 percent.

Amr Mussa’s charge had run out of gas with 6.4 percent.

If opinion polls are a fair indication of the nation’s mood, it could be showing the former regime being rehabilitated in the minds of many, preferring a firm hand on the tiller.

If the candidates’ appeals fail, the strongman won’t be Suileman, just as Ismail will be denied an opportunity to give Egypt a Salafi ultra-conservative president.

Is anything being missed? Probably lots.

For a start between dictatorship and democracy lies a hybrid regime, according to an eminent Middle East expert who forecast correctly in Egypt after Mubarak (Princeton University Press) — essential reading as the chips fall into place. Bruce Rutherford, Associate Professor of Political Science and Middle Eastern & Islamic Civilization Studies at Colgate University published his thesis in 2007.

What seems abstruse is explained as a perfidious political ploy used by crumbling regimes all over the world. Rutherford cites a study by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism) that shows only 14 out of 37 hybrid democracies transitioned to democracy.

Hybrid regimes survive by adopting three strategies. They release some political prisoners and allow some competition (a.k.a. parliamentary and presidential elections). They adjust the power of the state’s institutions, security (e.g. returning soldiers to their barracks) and by fiddling around with the public sector, subsidies and the media (i.e. end privatization, increase bureaucrats’ wages and subsidies and kick out truculent editors).

Given their backgrounds, neither Suileman nor Moussa would likely challenge the hybrid status quo, which gives SCAF ample space to practice authoritarianism.

Neither could we have expected much democratic reform from El-Shater or Ismail. Both subordinate common law to shari’a, which holds the Qur’an as the unchallengeable guide and the sunnah, the sayings and actions of the Prophets. Interpreting these in the changed circumstances of today is the challenge. Both side with reactionaries.

That opens the door for the remaining candidates to draw up election platforms that respect the will of the people, as they see it. According to the latest opinion poll, the people appear to want a president that responds to everyday needs rather than dogma. It’s a fine point and one that requires careful articulation.

Let’s return to Dr. Rutherford’s book. The game changer was 9-11. The Middle East’s autocrats could no longer guarantee America’s security and strategic and economic interests. Suffocating conditions produced a large pool of frustrated, hopeless and angry young men yearning for greater dignity and purpose in their lives.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said pursuing stability and security at the expense of democracy in the Middle East had achieved neither. The new course was to support the democratic aspirations of all.

The US pumped $400 million into the Middle East Partnership Initiative to make elections fairer, support civil society groups, strengthen judiciaries and improve women’s rights. USAID for the region went from $27 million to $105 million.

The initiative didn’t work. Plan A helped young people to mobilize and bring down Mubarak. The unforeseen consequences were the Muslim Brotherhood’s belated arrival in Tahrir Square, the rise of the Salafis and the resilience of the regime’s holdovers.

When it became clear Mohamed El Baradei’s effort to lead the democrats was going nowhere, Plan B was dusted off: return to a hybrid with a different bloom. Hybrid’s mix of autocratic and democratic institutions is a gray zone of semi-democratization. Free elections take place, but seldom transfer power.

You might be wondering why SCAF allowed the economy to be reduced to rubble and foreign reserves to dwindle to almost nothing? The answer lies in the hybrid model, according to Rutherford and a raft of academic sources he cites. In similar straits, hybrid dictators get away with murder once people are conditioned to think it’s unpatriotic to demand workers’ and women’s rights. Human rights fall by the wayside.

In Africa, Asia and Latin America dictators pile on their people citing the need for rebuilding fragile economies bequeathed by their predecessors. Not only dictators. It’s the argument used by David Cameron and his Conservatives in Britain and the Germans lording over the economies of Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Egypt has other options. First up are the neighbors: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Guess what? They’re not going to lend much to a democratic Egypt. That would encourage their dissidents to rebel.

Egypt is cozying up to the biggest hybrid of them all. China is busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest in Africa these days. Trade between China and Egypt reached nearly $9 billion last year, 26 percent up on the year before.

China craves access to the Eastern Mediterranean’s huge natural gas fields off Egypt’s coastline. Last week the US aid pooper Fayza Aboul Naga signed up for $19 million aid from China and $5 million to build a park in Luxor.

They want an Egyptian president who’ll kick sand in the eyes of Brits and Americans. It’s only a matter of time before China nixes the West. Where better than half way — up the junction of the Suez Canal and the Med?

Beware the presidential candidate that adapts Vladimir Putin’s United Russia slogan to United Egypt.

Aesop the fable maker coined the phrase united we stand divided we fall. His fate after slipping the slave’s yoke? To be thrown off a cliff, sentenced to death on trumped-up charges.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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