Electoral politics as an instrument of authoritarian rule in Egypt

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Rajab 24, 1423 2002-10-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 15, Rajab, 1423)

In the Guise of Democracy: Governance in Contemporary Egypt by May Kassem. Pub: Ithaca Press, Reading, UK, 1999. Pp: 210. Hbk: £35.00.

In the half-century since the Free Officers coup brought Gamal Abdul Nasser to power in Egypt, the country has become a by-word for personal, authoritarian rule. Nasser was succeeded by his personally-appointed successor, Anwar Sadat, in 1971, and Sadat by his personally-appointed vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, in 1981. In each case, the death of the president was sudden and unexpected, but the transfer of power was relatively smooth and uncontroversial. To this day, as May Kassem reminds us in this book, the Egyptian president’s position as the "ultimate source of power and authority in contemporary Egypt" remains unchallenged. This is despite the fact that Egypt has developed in the last two decades a sophisticated and well-established system of electoral politics that Western journalists and commentators routinely describe as a model and an example for other Middle Eastern countries.

In this book, based on a doctoral thesis presented at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Kassem, who is now a lecturer of political science at the American University in Cairo, seeks to explain this apparent paradox. She begins by pointing out that "elections... constitute the foundation of any democratic system of rule... in general democracy denotes a system of government whereby the principal office holders of the political system are chosen by competitive elections in which the largest part of the population can participate." However, the existence of elections does not in itself indicate the presence of democracy. Kassem, admitting that she is taking just one of several different understandings of the bases of democracy, lists three broad preconditions for democracy: "meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups... for all effective positions of government power"; "a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies"; and "a level of civil and political liberties... sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation."

Of course, the mere fact of elections does not indicate the presence of these conditions: "The technical regularities of the vote evidently do not guarantee [an election’s] competitive character... Pluralist regimes are known in which coercion plays hardly any role in the conduct of electoral consultations but nonetheless have elections that are to all appearances non-competitive... elections of this nature are sometimes classified as "exclusionary elections" and characterised by the fact that the governments that hold them do not depend upon them for their continuance in office."

This, then, is the nature of the elections and the so-called democracy we see in Egypt. Having acknowledged from the beginning that there is nothing democratic about Egyptian elections, Kassem then sets out to examine the structure of governance in Egypt, and the role that elections and elected bodies play in it. She points out that "non-competitive, democratic-style elections are mostly established by authoritarian regimes... which have taken power, creating from above a government or privileged party rather than coming to power with the support of a movement-type party". In such polities, "while formal political institutions exist, these institutions are usually devices manipulated to maximise the personal power of the rulers rather than to define and impose universally accepted rules of political conduct and constraint."

Examining broadly the phenomenon of "patronage in controlled democracies", she lists a number of reasons why authoritarian rulers establish electoral institutions. Foremost among these reasons is their desire to enhance their standing in the West as leaders of regimes that respect civil and political rights. Egypt’s elections, she tells us, "make it easier for the president and the US congress to provide aid, while very much reducing the possibility that Egypt will be criticised for human rights abuses", even though "a regime’s international position, especially with regard to Western democratic nations, is determined on the basis of other, more important factors than the nature of its political system."

There are also, of course, important internal political imperatives that can be served by the establishment of controlled electoral systems. One is that "at the national level... the whole concept of proclaiming democracy as a central political goal may help to provide some form of legitimacy for the rulers." More importantly, however, pseudo-democratic elections can become essential parts of authoritarian rulers’ systems and strategies for maintaining control over political activity, to ensure that some political aspirations and needs can be met within the system, and that unwanted and unwelcome political activities can be marginalised and delegitimised. This is precisely how Kassem sees Egypt’s electoral system: "In such a context, non-competitive multiparty elections in Mubarak’s Egypt can best be viewed as an additional mechanism for hindering the development of organised political participation and thus contributing to the consolidation of presidential power and the preservation of the political status quo."

Having established the nature of electoral politics in Egypt, the greater part of Kassem’s book consists of a detailed analysis of the processes of electoral politics and the roles of different actors within it. This begins with a detailed examination of the institution of Egypt’s presidency in order to place electoral politics in the context of Egypt’s established clientelism and co-option-based politics. Kassem begins by tracing the evolution of the role of the president from 1952 onwards, focusing on the successive presidents’ development of a network of co-opted allies and institutions to support his position, through which he can enforce his will. It is notable that it has been under Mubarak that the electoral system, which was embryonic under Sadat, has been developed to its current extent. Kassem argues that this represents no movement towards political liberalization, but an expansion and institutionalization in the established clientelist networks in a new form, with the same basic objective: to "safeguard [Mubarak’s] system of personal authoritarian rule".

She then moves on to discuss the nature and role of political parties in Egypt. She starts with the National Democratic Party (NDP), which is the president’s own party, established by Anwar Sadat to replace the Arab Socialist Union, which she reveals to be totally controlled by the president, totally lacking any independent ideology, charismatic leadership or autonomous access to resources. Despite this, it attracts and succeeds in co-opting prominent individuals with personal support networks on the promise of being able to contribute to society by working through the established system rather than opposing it. At the same time, there are a number of ‘opposition’ political parties, including the Liberal Party (al-Ahrar), the National Progressive Unionist Party (al-Tagammu), the Labour Party and of course the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not officially permitted. Kassem discusses the ways in which these parties operate within the system, demonstrating throughout that they are tolerated and encouraged only to the extent that their existence serves the purposes of the established authoritarian system, rather than challenging them.

Interestingly, she has met and interviewed a number of party members, and explains not only how the system appears to the establishment, but also how it is perceived by members of the parties and the public. In the last chapter of her book, Kassem discusses both attitudes of parties and candidates towards voter recruitment and attitudes of ordinary Egyptians towards politicians, parties and the system as a whole.

Kassem’s conclusion is absolutely blunt: that the existing electoral system in Egypt, with its closely controlled political parties operating as part of a clientelist system designed to keep an authoritarian regime in power, represents absolutely no movement towards democratization whatsoever. Nor does she consider that there is any prospect of genuine political liberalization in the foreseeable future, considering how successfully the Egyptian establishment has consolidated the Egyptian system. Despite being presented in abstract, academic language, partly reflecting its origins as a political science PhD thesis, and possibly partly also to minimise any possible official reaction against an academic working in Cairo, this book presents an excellent answer to all those who imagine that there is any movement towards democracy — however understood — in Egypt, or indeed anywhere else in the Arab world.

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