Plutocrats playing with fire

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 23 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The poor will always be with us. It’s more than an ageless sermon. It’s the reality of political change fuelling the world’s abomination of fat cats.

But what do we do with the wealthy? They’ll be around for eternity.

Sequestration doesn’t work. Nationalizing Egypt’s assets half a century ago didn’t reduce the numbers of the poor. Goons grabbed tycoons’ treasure. Morsels trickled down.

This week sees the reemergence of Egypt’s wealthy class in a familiar guise. According to the Supreme Electoral Commission a significant group of prominent former NDP cabinet ministers are among the 4,000 would-be parliamentary candidates in the forthcoming elections.

They include chairmen of parliamentary committees and prominent business people. In addition to the estimated 60 NDP-independents who have registered their candidacies thus far, several NDP-offshoot parties also intend to feature ex-NDP members on their electoral lists.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has not bowed to popular demand for former NDP politicians to be banned from running.

Most of them have registered to contest the one third of parliamentary seats reserved for independent candidates, which if precedence holds, means they’ll coalesce in a parliamentary bloc.

At the top of the list according to Al Ahram are prominent figures, such as business tycoon Tarek Talaat Mostafa, the former NDP chairman of parliament’s housing committee and brother of Hisham Talaat Mostafa, the former NDP-affiliated construction magnate sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for murder.

The list also includes Mostafa El-Said, a former economy minister and NDP-affiliated chairman of parliament’s economic affairs committee; and Abdel-Reheim El-Ghoul, former NDP-affiliated chairman of parliament’s agriculture committee.

The independents are competing for a third of the parliamentary seats. Two thirds are allocated for party-affiliated candidates. The NDP as such is disallowed from running.

They’ve set up their own party and infiltrated others. Several NDP-offshoot parties including the Hurreya (‘Freedom’) Party, founded by a business family whose godfather – Mohamed Mahmoud Ali Hassan – was a member of the old NDP elite, according to Al Ahram.

His two sons, Motaz and Mamdouh have established the Hurreya Party as an NDP bastion in Upper Egypt with at least 80 former NDP leaders in Upper Egypt on Hurreya’s candidate list.

Hurreya’s list for the Cairo governorate includes 12 former NDP parliamentarians and their Nile Delta list includes former NDP MPs.

Let’s turn now to what’s likely to be the largest group elected to parliament: the Islamists, whom Mostafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University says stand to be the largest grouping in the People’s Assembly.

Given their popular following and their financial resources, Sayed, says they are the most powerful candidates.

Ashraf Al-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University believes Islamists combined will get around 35 percent of the seats, 25 percent going to the Muslim Brotherhood and the remaining 10 percent to the rest of the Islamic groups.

Predictions of the Islamists have risen since the first opinion polls in early summer put their strength at around 15 percent. In the next couple of weeks, it will become clearer which candidate fits into which electoral slot. Punditry will become sounder.

What’s clear is that the spirit of the revolution is being doused. The small parties that reflect true democracy are being squashed. They’ve neither the funds, clout nor experience to dent the old timers’ prepotencies.

Take heart.

An article in the current edition of the New Statesman, which has a canny knack of foretelling political futures reflects on the outcomes of fallen dictators in Asia.

Autocrats ruled the Far East and South East Asia for decades after their post-independence history, One by one, however, nearly all the despots have fallen, or stepped down, or begun to open up their state’s political sphere and relinquish power.

In some countries, the change happened dramatically, as in Indonesia and in the Philippines’ People Power Revolution of 1986, which saw off Ferdinand Marcos. In others, soft authoritarians such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad voluntarily terminated long periods in office.

Democracy today may be limited, as it is in Singapore, shaky (Cambodia) or intermittent (Thailand). But principles of good governance, such as independence of the judiciary, took root so quickly in South Korea and Taiwan that both countries have tried and convicted democratically elected presidents.

Throughout the region, repression is on the wane. The cheers for democracy have been unstoppable, the New Statesman says.

There is one thing that has marked the transition towards democracy in East Asia: It has been an almost bewilderingly magnanimous accommodation with the past.

In Indonesia, several of Suharto’s top generals have been on the ticket in presidential elections; one, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the incumbent. Marcos’s widow is in the Philippines congress, and their son is a senator.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is a former member of the Khmer Rouge and was also premier of the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the 1980s. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime fell over 30 years ago, but only five senior Khmer Rouge cadres have faced trial so far, and one has been convicted.

The award-winning author Tash Aw, whose first two novels are set in Malaysia and Indonesia, said:I think it is a typically Asian way of dealing with the trauma of history: we have to ignore the ugly truth of what happened in the past in order to move forward.

The outcome of Egypt’s first democratic election is uncertain. It may dismay those who despair at the apparent slow progress.

Yet we have to hope that there will be no turning back; that the principles of justice are acknowledged.

All that Gadhafi and the Mubaraks accumulated couldn’t save them. They are vilified dead or incarcerated.

There are two types of poor people, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote. There are those who are poor together and those who are poor alone.

The first are the true poor, the others are rich people out of luck.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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