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The internationalist

Now what?

The next version of Egypt could set an example for the Arab world. Inside the struggle to imagine a new state.

By Thanassis Cambanis
May 29, 2011

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CAIRO — Traffic stopped in Tahrir Square during the revolution, but four months later, the torrent of marching humans that briefly made Cairo a world symbol of the thirst for justice has been replaced by the familiar, endless stream of grumbling cars.

The tricolor paint on the city’s trees, applied with gusto in the immediate weeks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, has already begun to fade. As the wilting heat approaches its summertime averages in the 90s, vendors here do a brisk business selling “I [heart] Egypt” T-shirts, mock license plates commemorating the date of the uprising, and posters of the young martyrs to Mubarak’s security forces.

Schools have reopened; births and deaths are once again registered by Egypt’s ubiquitous bureaucracy; and the machinery of state continues to deliver the basic services that make this nation of 80 million function. The military junta that replaced Mubarak polices the streets and censors the media, though with a touch slightly lighter than Mubarak’s. There are still street demonstrations; on most Fridays, small factions chant in Tahrir Square and distribute leaflets demanding to put figures of the old regime on trial, fix the broken economy, or allow greater freedom to criticize the government.

Most of the nation’s energy, however, has shifted to a new debate: what should come next. Egyptians are realizing that they now face a challenge perhaps even more historic than its revolution. They need to design, nearly from scratch, a legitimate state to govern the most populous Arab nation in the world.

Egyptians are supposed to write a new constitution sometime this fall. And although no one is sure precisely how this will occur — the schedule is controlled by the military junta, which communicates chiefly through updates on its Facebook page — the public conversation has already metamorphosed into raging debate over what the government should look like. The outpouring of public frustration that reached a crescendo

in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11 has now moved onto a crowded lineup of television talk shows and the cafes. As youth activist Ahmed Maher put it over a demitasse at the Coffee Bean this week: “Before the revolution, everyone talked about soccer and drugs. Now they talk only about politics.”

Emboldened newspapers obstreperously editorialize about the path toward democratic elections. On TV, academics, activists, and cultural personalities wax about the best structure for a future Egyptian state. Once-submissive veteran politicians now rail in public meetings against “counter-revolutionary” officials sympathetic to the old regime.

The task they face is enormous. Like most of the Arab world, Egypt’s entire post-colonial experience of government has been authoritarian: first a monarchy, and then nearly 60 years of rule by three military dictators in a row. And there’s simply no road map available: no example of another government in the region that reflects the aspirations of its population and rules by consent rather than through a police state.

Over the last three months, the debate over Egypt’s future has taken shape as a tug-of-war among a few big visions. Should Egypt have a broad but weak state, one that touches people’s lives pervasively but with power diluted to prevent the rise of another strongman? Or should it deliberately rely on the country’s most powerful institution, the military, to guide the state, as Turkey did during its recent rise? A libertarian school seeks a minimalist constitution, more like America’s, and a vastly downsized state that rethinks the old corporatist model; and a cohort of nationalists want to start revitalizing Egypt by turning outward, forging partnerships with Turkey and Iran to give Egypt a foundation in a new regional power structure.

In the last century, Egypt led the rest of the Arab world in throwing off colonialism, in embracing the excesses of Arab nationalism, and then to a cold peace with Israel and a long spell of provincial stagnation. Today, as Egypt struggles to formulate a vision for what will come next, its people are well aware that at stake is not only their own future, but also a potential new model for what an Arab state can be.

The question of what a new Egypt should be might seem impossibly large, but Egyptians agree on a few broad principles: a sovereign state, not dependent on foreign largesse, and not ruled by cult of personality. Whatever comes next might borrow from Western models, but primarily will draw on Arab views of justice, popular sovereignty, social harmony, and consensus. That starting point still leaves gaping room for uncertainty.

“This is like reinventing the wheel,” groused an elderly lawyer at an early national brainstorming session for a new constitution.

“It’s exactly what we should be doing,” snapped back Tahani El Gebali, the first woman judge on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, and a prominent voice in the debate over Egypt’s future.

There aren’t many helpful examples. The modern Arab world has only seen glimmers of viable, democratically accountable states: Iraq, briefly in the 1970s before it became Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom; Egypt itself, in moments when its economy was growing and it could project military power in the region. For the most part, however, the region has been plagued by one-man misrule, historically propped up by Cold War-legacy superpower giveaways.

Most of the elites arguing over the smartest path to Egyptian democracy agree that first will come a parlous adjustment period. Gebali and other liberalizers talk a lot about “democratic literacy,” arguing that it will take years to teach the Egyptian public about its rights in a genuinely representative system. Authoritarians and others sympathetic to the status quo phrase it differently: They argue that Egyptians “aren’t ready” for an open political system and that representative democracy would yield only chaos.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Egypt’s recent history, the strongest group of democracy advocates is arguing for a system designed to have a weak president and multiple checks on state authority. By their logic, it’s less important to have a streamlined and highly effective state than it is to thwart the next aspiring Mubarak. Egypt, for all its problems, has the luxury of coherent, functional institutions — it’s neither a failed state nor a crumbling one. Therefore it can afford a transitional phase with a fractious government whose main purpose is to liberalize the state and instill the notion of popular sovereignty.

“We always have had one man ruling alone,” Gebali explained in an interview. “Now we need alternate centers of power.”

Egypt has a well-developed liberal intelligentsia, and some of its most established legal scholars have embraced this approach. Their notion, broadly speaking, is to build on the ideas of revolutionary America and France, but to separate powers even further — by their reckoning, a US-style presidential system is also vulnerable to dictatorial impulses. Their proposals incorporate many ideas unique to Egypt and which speak to the Arab Spring’s particular blend of concerns — not just for democracy, but for social justice, transparency, and economic progress led by the state, rather than by free markets. So they don’t talk of abolishing the considerable and costly subsidies that keep food and fuel affordable to Egyptians, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line. The education and health care systems are rife with failure, but the consensus holds that the central government should be responsible for fixing them. And though the economy is moribund, virtually all Egyptian political players support a heavy state role in setting wages and employment terms.

Within the wider liberal community runs a small strain of what might be called libertarian minimalism: thinkers who share the same views about rights and civil authority, but who want to see Egypt’s vast state seriously downsized. Many economists and government technocrats see their bloated state policies as costly and unsustainable, but are loath to say so in public. (Understandably so: The vast majority of Egyptians like these state subsidies and entitlements.) They want to undo the philosophical and legal clutter caused by decades of inept governance.

“We need a very short constitution,” said Ibrahim Darwish, an American-trained expert in constitutional law. “The US Constitution has only seven articles and has lasted two and half centuries.” His position carries moral authority — Darwish helped draft Egypt’s 1971 constitution, and is currently advising the Turkish government on its new constitution — but he admits it is unlikely to get much of a hearing among Egyptians, even liberals, because of their deep attachment to complex state structures and legal regimes.

Another broad line of thinking in the debate, one associated with traditionalists rather than liberal modernizers, emphasizes Egypt’s existing strengths, its military establishment and historic regional clout.

A school that might be called neo-nationalists is pushing for Egypt to reform itself first by cultivating international power. In their view, Egypt has atrophied as a country because it has spent decades subserviently implementing the foreign policy agendas of the United States and Israel. The key to Egypt’s future, by this thinking, lies less in its form of government than in shoring up its position in the world.

The foreign policy school argues that Egypt can join Iran and Turkey to form a “triangle of power.” The Egyptian writer and analyst Fahmy Howeidy has even visited Tehran to promote the idea that a coordinated foreign policy by the three regional powers could change the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, and curtail American influence in the region.

For these thinkers, the past few months have been galvanizing: Egypt’s first post-revolution foreign minister, a career diplomat named Nabil Al-Araby, quickly shook up the Arab world’s arithmetic by brokering an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, signaling that Israel would get a more skeptical hearing in Cairo, and irritating the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf by vowing to “open a new page” of warm relations with Iran. Like many of the exponents of this school, Al-Araby comes from a ruling party background inspired by the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership and the ideology of Arab nationalism, which propelled Egypt onto the global stage from the 1950s until the 1970s.

The final important school of thought in Egypt’s state-building wars is the status quo militarists. In their view, Egypt has functioned as a security state for almost the entirety of its post-colonial history, and the military — as guardians of the state and of the people — is the only institution suited to transition Egypt into a new age. They point to the example of Turkey, where for most of the past 50 years the military has repeatedly checked what it saw as the excesses of elected governments by stepping in and temporarily taking power. Although it sounds like anathema in Western politics, Turkey has enjoyed a long-term stability rare in the region, culminating in a renaissance of civilian authority over the last decade.

In Egypt, it’s not only self-interested military officers who turn to the Turkish model. Many secular Egyptians, along with the country’s Christian minority, fear that electoral democracy would empower Islamic fundamentalists, and see the military as guarantor of a secular state. Even after the current junta yields to a new constitution, many of the military’s supporters would like to see a permanent role for it as a sort of trustee for the essence of Egypt.

Such trust in the military worries academics who’ve studied other nations making the transition from dictatorship to democracy; in places like Latin America and Asia, clear subordination of the military to civilian control has proved a necessary step to a stable modern state. But the popularity of this view in Egypt makes it a serious possibility.

For all the high philosophy at its heart, the constitutional debate in Egypt is unmistakably a proxy for the domestic power struggle afoot between the still-ruling military establishment and the liberals who want to build in Egypt, for the first time, a truly civilian state. Abstract terms like revolution and counter-revolution translate into very concrete positions — a military junta cut off at the knees, or a reconstituted deep state in which the military ultimately steers the government.

But in its sense of potential, the Egyptian conversation today also suggests a little bit of what it must have felt like in America in the age of the Federalist Papers. In revolutionary America, the founders self-consciously thought about the global implications of their effort to forge the first state built on Enlightenment ideals. Similarly, Egyptians are aware they have embarked on a project that could fashion a new social compact for the Arab world and beyond.

That ambition is evident in the small ideas also percolating through the society, as people reconsider issues from the role of religion in society and the philosophical origins of law, the rights of women and minorities, to uniquely Egyptian institutions like the half of all seats in parliament reserved for the peasantry.

On the current timetable, Egyptians are scheduled to vote for a new parliament in September, which will in turn choose the drafters of the next constitution. If all goes according to this plan, by the end of the year Egypt will have a new president and a new constitution. All this could change, of course, with a single pronouncement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

At the Coffee Bean last week, members of Maher’s April 6 movement — one of the pivotal activist groups that sparked the January uprising — strategized for the year ahead. They argued about the right mix of presidential and parliamentary authority for Egypt, and how to market political engagement through the bread-and-butter questions of economic survival that most concern the average Egyptian. Dozens of similar meetings of every conceivable stripe, from reactionary monarchists to anarcho-syndicalist, take place every night across a country that finds itself at the exact midpoint between the opening act of its revolution and what might be the first truly fair elections in its history.

“The situation in our country is critical,” Maher said quietly. “This transition will take at least two or three years. It will be a long time before we will have a stable form of government that we can trust.”

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.