Reflecting the public will in Egypt: between rhetoric and institutionalism

Despite the success of the January 25 Revolution, Tahrir Square at best offers a powerful platform for monologue on some of the most profound democratic challenges the new Egypt faces.
Heba Abou Shnief
7 January 2012

As the first anniversary of Egypt's January 25 Revolution approaches, the nation remains mired in a seemingly endless impasse over a range of issues, including the potential composition and mandate of the Constitutional Drafting Committee tasked with developing Egypt's next constitution, the modalities by which a presidential election will occur and the timeline and mechanics of the eventual transfer of executive power from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to an elected government.  Despite the myriad of stakeholders and issues, one common thread is discernible:  there is a lack of permanent, functionally-reliable and directly accessible institutional channels that can link the governed to the governor, let alone constructively organize their interaction.

In addition to the media, the primary forum where much of this debate has been playing out is, once again, Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, where young activists have been engaged in on-again, off-again protests against the SCAF and its appointed interim cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri.  Although the symbolism of Tahrir Square remains powerful in the Egyptian context and it therefore continues to attract protestors with legitimate views, it offers, at best, a platform for monologue. The reality is that it cannot ultimately serve as a go-to substitute for a functional institutional framework where dialogue between the governed and the governor may occur, even in Egypt's transitional political context.

It is a fallacy, therefore, to assume that protests will wither away with a newly-elected president and parliament and that protests are simply a phenomenon strongly associated with the transition phase. Tickled by the success of January 25, 2011, protests are a manifestation of deep-seated demographic inequalities whether across regions, gender or access to policymakers.  The growing poverty rates of the last decade, the lack of redress mechanisms for citizens facing injustice and the widening gap between citizens and government (and lack of trust of the former in political processes) will all still exist on the first day that the ‘transition’ is over.  Whatever the policy domain, the momentum of such exclusion will most likely continue, fuelling anger and even new revolt, if the business-as-usual scenario (of the perception of government paying lip-service to participatory democracy) continues.

Overcoming the impasse

Two basic underlying premises need to be fulfilled for those who govern to overcome the current impasse and help pre-empt any future ones.  The first is that those who govern need to recognize that a new social contract is in the making, where citizens consider themselves as equal partners in the development process, both economically and politically.  It is plausible that the achievement of the objectives of the January 25 Revolution might indeed have been derailed due to the dynamics of counter–revolutionary forces, the lack of political will or the perceived ineptness of consecutive transition governments.  Nevertheless, the growing cognizance of citizens of their rights to participate and their resolve to be considered full and equal partners in the new social contract is something that has now caught fire and protest will not easily abate unless it is properly addressed.  At the same time, citizens need to rise to the challenge of any new social contract, where being equal partners necessitates accepting both obligations and accountability for fulfilling those obligations.

Second, reducing the gap between perceived government policy responses, on the one hand, and citizens' needs and expectations on the other, is going to be key to achieving stability, especially during and immediately after the transition phase.  If adequate inclusive participatory channels and systems are not quickly established so as to allow for a two-way dialogue between the governor and the governed, including redress mechanisms, then we are likely to witness a long period of social unrest.  It is no longer sustainable for the government to view citizens simply as passive recipients of public goods; it is certainly not enough for government to listen to citizens' complaints without creating effective redress mechanisms. 

Accordingly, it has proven counter-productive to stability when political forces claim that current political processes, discussions or even initiatives, should reflect the 'public will' when the reality is that the mechanisms to achieve that, even electorally, do not necessarily exist in the first place.  At a minimum, how these voices define the 'public will' or gauge it need serious clarification, because if the 'public will' is indeed being reflected, the public certainly does not seem to perceive that.

What previously existed in the Mubarak-era was, at best, a potential for representative democracy which was perpetually co-opted by ruling elites whether through fraud or the (legal but unethical) manipulation of election laws that were heavily tilted in favour of the incumbents.  Upon closer scrutiny, the slightly modified electoral system in use since the Revolution is not necessarily much better.  Even if it does work properly, the ballot box does not guarantee that all citizens will have an equally-weighted voice. 

Take, for instance, the specific type of party-list system currently in place:  although in theory it is a form of representative democracy and other nations have used it with relative success, the reality is that the actual 'selection process' of individuals who will be occupying most of the seats won (in the name of the 'people') is essentially not carried out by voters at all, and instead, decided upon by a small circle of elites within each political party.  This potentially means another form of much less accountable elitist representation where the Egyptian voter is disconnected from those representing them in parliament:  discontented voters in the next election cycle may decide to vote for fewer seats for a given party, but those who will hold those seats are more likely to be incumbents with political clout within their own respective parties.  The concept of accountability at the individual level, is, therefore, simply diluted away into the 'party', essentially a non-linear relationship system with the voter that may yet create oligarchic effects, since the centre of gravity of political power to elect shifts further away from the citizen constituent and closer to the 'constituency of elites' within each party.

Going beyond the rhetoric

The matter, therefore, of how to represent the public's will in the most equitable and representative manner is an issue that warrants attention now, not later, if Egypt wants to go beyond the rhetoric of instituting participatory democracy.  Not only does opening such a discussion have implications for the composition and openness of the Constitutional Drafting Committee that will be writing a new constitution for Egypt, but it will have a serious impact on how open and participatory Egypt's new political system will ultimately be, including any emerging rules and modalities on both the right to participate and the right to hold any elected official directly accountable (as opposed to indirectly accountable) for their policy positions, as well as what kind of institutional mechanisms will exist to guarantee any constitutional outcomes.

The acute lack of inclusive and participatory channels has been one of the greatest weaknesses in Egypt’s institutional framework; it is arguably one of the major reasons that led to the demise of the previous regime.  It is hoped for that in Egypt's next constitution, the same mistake will not be repeated, and that instead, a genuine debate may precede the drafting process so as to arrive at a model which best reflects Egypt's specific context, recent history and aspirations for its future.  The composition of the Constitutional Drafting Committee will be a crucial first test, since there is a risk of bias in favour of those benefitting from the existing electoral system.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cairo’s Social Contract Center or any of its partners.

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