Which way ahead?

Al-Ahram Weekly

May 27 2011

Doaa El-Bey

Discourse marked a recent Cairo seminar on the post-revolutionary challenges facing Egypt, reflecting controversies in society as a whole.

Participants at a seminar entitled the “25 January Revolution and Changing the Political System in Egypt — Ambitions and Challenges” organised by the International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies on Monday became engulfed in controversy, particularly over issues such as whether parliamentary elections should be held before the drafting of a new constitution and whether there had yet been genuine change in the country.

While some participants were concerned that there had not been time to lay the foundations of a mature political system, manager of the centre Adel Suleiman said that Egypt was a mature country that had many distinguished minds able to contribute to serious and productive discussion.

The questions raised at the seminar mirror controversies in the society at large, particularly regarding the constitutional amendments that give the task of drafting a new constitution to a commission to be selected by the People’s Assembly following the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The amendments were approved in the 19 March referendum, but symposium participants differed on whether or not this sequence was desirable. Nour Farahat, a law professor at Zagazig University, wondered whether the elections should take place before the laws governing them had been put in place.

What would the result be for the newly elected People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, if the yet- to-be-written constitution annulled the old constitution’s 50 per cent quota for farmers and workers, Farahat asked.

Rules should be drawn up before elections for the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and presidency take place, he said.

“Changing the order indicates a desire among some parties to give the task of drafting the constitution to those who are likely to win the most seats in parliament. How can the People’s Assembly, supposedly governed by the constitution, be itself responsible for drafting that constitution,” he asked.

However, Amr El-Shobki of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that a decision taken via a democratic mechanism, in this case a referendum, could not easily be reversed.

Nevertheless, El-Shobki expressed concern about the nature of the commission to be selected by the new parliament. This would contain representatives of parties represented in the parliament, but it should also contain representatives of all trends in Egyptian society and be the result of a national consensus, he said.

Emad Gad, also at the Al-Ahram Centre, agreed, asking whether the drafting of the constitution should be considered a prize given to the parties that win the parliamentary elections, or whether it should be considered the result of a consensual process on which all can agree.

Writer Samir Morcos did not see drafting the constitution after the parliamentary elections to be a problem. However, there was a need to discuss principles on which all Egyptians could agree, among them the relationship between the executive branch of government and the population, the question of modernising the country’s institutions, the concept of citizenship, formulas for development, and the question of national identity, he said.

Morcos suggested that a national dialogue be held in order to reach agreement on such principles.

Present and future challenges facing Egypt were also discussed at the seminar, with Kamal El-Menoufi, a professor of political science at Cairo University, regarding the persistence of the mentality of the old regime as the main challenge facing Egypt.

While the 25 January Revolution had toppled the head and symbols of the former regime, its social base was still present, El-Menoufi said, along with its mentality.

“That mentality is reflected in the quick decisions that are now being taken on important matters without consultation taking place, as well as the generally slow pace of decision making, the absence of change in the leadership of the universities, and the reluctance to change some ministers,” he said.

El-Menoufi was optimistic that such problems could be overcome if democracy could be introduced, the drafting of a new constitution being the first step towards democracy.

El-Shobki agreed that the state was still being run in the old way, as had been made clear in the recent selection of provincial governors. He also pointed to the absence of genuine change in the media or police.

In the media, El-Shobki said, the change had been in persons, leaving the mechanisms governing the institutions unchanged. The police had also neither been purged nor reconciled with the public, he said.

“We have only succeeded in changing persons and positions. We haven’t taken any steps towards reforming or rebuilding institutions,” he said.

For his part, Gad also talked about the challenge of external parties including Israel, which could be biding its time waiting for an opportunity to interfere in Egypt. Saudi Arabia, too, he said, did not necessarily favour revolution.

Regarding future ambitions, Nabil Fahmi, former ambassador to the US, named five principles that should guide national efforts.

The first of these was working towards achieving genuine democracy, he said, with the second being setting up a political system that encourages participation.

“The fact that more than 40 per cent of the population participated in the 19 March referendum is a positive sign. However, we should aim to reach at least 60 to 65 per cent participation in following elections,” Fahmi said.

A third principle was to guarantee that officials convicted of not doing their jobs properly should be appropriately sanctioned, while a fourth would be to ensure the rotation of power and term limits.

A fifth principle, Fahmi said, was to ensure fair competition within the system, meaning that those having merit would reach the top positions and that those in office would not remain there forever.

Ahmed Shokri, a member of the newly founded Justice Party and a representative of the young people who had brought about the revolution, said that certain things should be looked forward to in the future.

These included finding agreement on basic principles, the swift building or rebuilding of institutions, syndicates and political parties, assistance to the new political parties, encouraging political participation via the media and civil- society organisations, and a swift move to genuine democracy.

This would mean holding parliamentary elections by the end of the year at the latest, Shokri said, expressing his optimism that the country’s young people would enthusiastically participate in rebuilding the country.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly.

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