In March and April 2005, the secretariat of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party in Egypt since the reestablishment of political parties in the country in the mid-1970s, was busy sending its new agenda for reform to a large number of selected individuals in Egyptian society. The agenda was printed on rich, thick paper, enclosed between dark, luxuriant covers.
Those not deemed important enough by the secretariat to be recipients of the document had to rely on the state-controlled media to learn about the new reform agenda. In either case, the message was the same: its a new era, with new dynamics, new faces. And the key face is that of Gamal Mubarak: representative figure of Egyptian youth, being groomed to take over from the ageing ruling class led by his father, President Hosni Mubarak. Nothing new; this is a recurring theme.
Also on Egypt, its civil society and reform politics, in openDemocracy:
Daniel Swift, Saad Eddin Ibrahim: through the Arab looking-glass (April 2003)
Gilles Kepel, Tightrope-walks and chessboards: an interview (April 2003)
Heba Ezzat, Islam and democracy: an interview (May 2005)
Khalil Al-Anany, Egypts democratisation: reality or mirage? (May 2005)
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On 28 January 2005, CNN International broadcast live from the World Economic Forum in Davos a discussion on political reform in the middle east. The panel included only two young Arabs: Gamal Mubarak from Egypt and Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi from Libya; both were speaking as examples of the youthful forces driving political reform in the Arab world.
Yet, it seems to me that if according to the NDPs agenda, the Davos discussions, and numerous media messages Arab reform is exemplified by two young gentlemen who are poised to inherit the presidency in two countries that supposedly have a republican system, then that reform is (to put it mildly) lacking.
The weakness of the sons
The critical deficiency in most Arab countries is lack of legitimacy. Other vices such as corruption, concentration of power, and silencing opponents exist in the most advanced democracies. The lack of legitimacy, however, is a fatal political disease; it results in a sense of alienation among the people; it discredits regimes and governments; achievements become justifications for the existence of the political elite, rather than a collective triumph for the nation; and most crucially, the ordinary people, who are supposed to be the referee in the political game, become marginalised to the role of grudged audience.
Legitimacy, in the classic definition of democracy, is based upon representation of the forces that have the right to rule. In ancient Egypt, these forces were the different deities, perceived to be the guardians of life and growth; and the Pharaoh was the earthly representation of the most senior of these deities. In the modern world democracy, the force possessing the right to rule, is the will of the people. That is why free elections, with respectable turnout, are the pillar of modern democracy; they bring to power the true representatives of the people and thus instal legitimacy. And with legitimacy comes the assent of the people.
The question is whether Gamal Mubarak or Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi has the peoples assent in representing them when talking about reform. Neither of the two young gentlemen has stood up in a proven, fair election in which the masses of ordinary people in Egypt or Libya have voted. So, how come they are currently symbols of reform?
The answer is based on a fundamental factor: the current situation of Arab young people who are the most crucial factor dictating the need for reform. We can roughly divide these Arab young people into four broad categories: (a) a minority who have rejected their societies, resorted to violence and forsaken the earthly world for a religion-based dream of a better afterworld; (b) an embittered majority who read the morning newspapers and watch the evening TV news bulletins with muted and impotent wrath; (c) a group of very well-educated young men and women who have the passion to spearhead a radical reform, and who have the qualifications to lead; and (d) a few individuals who, by the chance of birth, happen to be the young faces within the ruling regimes such as Gamal Mubarak and Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.
The active forces within the first group have entered into an armed struggle with the regimes; and judging by the last decade, seem to have lost it.
The second group (the majority) is crushed under the economic burden of daily life; they perhaps have the greatest stake in the sought after reform, yet they cannot afford to take their eye off their daily struggle for survival; politics, for them, is a luxury.
The third the well-educated, intellectual elite, perhaps the most interesting group, and with the greatest potential seems to be composed largely of quitters: people whose efforts are devoted to their professional careers (usually business or academia) and who avoid any serious direct involvement in the political situations of their countries.
The fourth group comprises fewer than half a dozen individuals across the Arab world who because of the chance of birth, have the economic luxury, the closeness to the decision-making circle, the clout and the personal-safety guarantee, to be able to fill the void of more than 150 million Arab youths.
It is a disastrous situation. And it seems inconceivable that the future of a nation of 250 million persons, 50% of whom are under 30 years old, is being decided by a few individuals whose existence at the top of the political system is the result of accident of birth. Welcome to absolute monarchical rule the one abolished in England in the 16th century.
The sins of the fathers
But should we blame those few individuals who are well educated, perhaps talented, and who have the passion and desire to affect change such as Gamal Mubarak and Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi? No. The blame should in fact be placed on the systems founded or sustained by their parents that have intentionally created a monopoly over power; the systems that have secured, through policing, decision-making for a tiny minority.
Yet what the current regimes are failing to realise is that any reform led by the young leaders such as Gamal Mubarak and Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi is doomed. The fundamental reform that the Arab world needs is one that acknowledges the needs and demands of the masses of young men and women with crushed aspirations; a reform that brings back decision-making and the right to question and change the authority and the regimes back to the people.
The problem is that the millions of young men and women, who are very aware of the fact of their exclusion from the political game, will not accept at least psychologically a solution from Gamal Mubarak or Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi who are said to be representing them, yet in fact, are substituting for them. It is, again, a fundamental problem of representation and of legitimacy.
Gamal Mubarak at Davos 2005, warned about the dire consequences if the Arab world fails to embrace reform. The dilemma is that those who are allowed to champion the reform are the very ones whose existence at the apex of the political system is the most conspicuous symptom of its sickness.
National Democratic Party:
Call for Political Reform in Egypt: