What Did the ‘National’ Party do to the Nation?
There is a huge difference between ruling a state and running a farm or a for-profit company. It is not clear if the ruling elite in the National Democratic party of Egypt heed such a distinction. It is increasingly clear that the major focus of the ruling elite is on economic growth while leaving most other issues and affairs to the security apparatus. However, they overlooked the fact that these important fields are not separated from the general context which includes at least equally important issues of national identity, public morals, and political development in Egypt.
Several scholars of political development propose that there are certain stages that societies go through four stages. Some of these stages may overlap, and even coincide. However, they are challenges that all societies have to face. A society’s chances of succeeding in achieving political development decrease when it faces all these challenges combined. It seems that the National Party is taking Egypt in this direction.
The first stage is achieving national unity by building a coherent society whose individuals want to coexist. This issue wasn’t a problem for the Egyptian society for a long time. The Egyptian national identity was not questionable. What was actually at stake is the relationship of this national identity to its broader milieu (the Arab or Islamic). There were no actual threats to this identity in our modern history except with the armed violence of Al-Jehad Group or the Islamic Jama’a. These organizations lately revised much of their views, or became interested in other issues. However, the relationship of Muslims and Christians is witnessing negative developments that cannot be denied or ignored. Sectarian frictions and verbal escalation are alarming. The latest of such escalation came from Pope Shenouda the Third in his last sermon concerning the clashes between a group of Christians and the police in Omraneya, Giza, including: “We will demand retribution for those who were killed,” and asked “Are those of us who died are cheap? No, their blood is not cheap.” These words are not separate from lots of other social indicators that suggest that the spirit of Egyptian citizenship is fading away.
Egypt was thought, in comparison with its neighbours, to successfully overcome challenge of the national identity and that it moved to the next stage which focuses on discussing the challenges of democratization and good governance. In this second stage, the discussion – or even the conflict – is about interests rather than identity. Confrontations should not take place between followers of one religion, speakers of a certain language, or people of the same race and their counterparts. It rather takes place between class groups or strata sharing economic and political interests or ideological affiliations and other groups sharing different interests or affiliations. It is a condition in this case that each side includes people of various religions, or races so that Muslims, for examples, are not opposing Christians and vice versa. In Europe for example, conflict broke out between feudal lords allied to the Catholic Church on one hand, and the middle class of traders and craftsmen starting from the 18th century. However, this conflict was not religious. The religious conflict was already settled two centuries earlier at the end of what became to be known as the Religious Wars, and with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. This Treaty established the secularization of politics as a cure for two severe maladies: religious wars and ecclesiastical despotism. What is worrisome in Egypt’s current political conditions is that there is an intensification of interest-based conflicts between groups or classes (sit-ins, strikes, and calls for civil disobedience) as well as an intensification of conflicts based on religious identity.
Identity-based tensions are exceptionally destabilizing because they might lead to extended violence or civil wars. These tensions are especially dangerous when they are not institutionalized or when most individuals do not respect existing governing institutions because they are seen as controlled by one group or class against the others. In such a case, institutions of the state turn into executive agency whose job is to defend the interests of the class in economic control, as Marxists call it. Unfortunately, this perception intensifies under the influence of the Policy Secretariat and the ruling elite of the “National” party. The “National” Party’s administration of the nation undermines Egyptians’ confidence in the institutions of the state one after the other. Citizens do not trust political parties because they are not allowed to have direct contact with their potential supporters especially workers and students. Bureaucratic institutions are known to be fragile entities controlled by corruption, favouritism, and bribery. “Elected” institutions of political representation (local councils, and the Shura and People’s Assemblies) are considered bureaucratic institutions that are ridiculed by citizens. Such destruction spreads out to the judiciary which issues hundreds of decisions that are completely ignored as if they never existed. The National party intensifies the challenges of identity, as well as the challenges of non-institutionalized conflicts. Individuals have an increasing tendency to take decisions or actions that are in harmony with their interests or desires with no regard to the legal or institutional structure governing the country, as if we are going back to a pre-state age.
Theoretically speaking, when citizens have already overcome the identity challenge (thus their conflicts cease to be religious or racial but rather concern the rules of administering the state), they move to the third stage which is democratic transformation. This is the stage in which the institutional structure of the rule of law is designed. Rule of law is what guarantees the representation of the society’s citizens, competition among its political forces in order to attain power via free and fair elections, along with basic guarantees for respecting civil and political rights of citizens. Egypt is totally remote from this situation because the National Democratic Party included the description “democratic” in its name but it is actually running the state as if it were the Nasserist Socialist Union or the Arab Ba’ath Party.
The dilemma is that under the rule of the “National” Party, the Egyptian nation cannot enter this third stage. Even worse, it is retreating to the first phase. Thus, the fourth stage is becoming a distant luxury that is too difficult for Egypt to attain under the ruling party. This fourth stage is the one related to democratic consolidation on the popular level so that it becomes a logic individuals live by at schools, factories, and civil society institutions.
In sum, the political capital of the National Democratic Party is severely deteriorating. In order to make sure it remains in power, it prevents all other actors from accumulating political capital. Consequently, there will come time when we are faced with one of two options: continuation of the status quo (which seems impossible in the long run) or all-inclusive chaos. The latter will be the case if the “National” Party did not recognize the consequences of what it does to the nation.
Moataz Abdel Fattah is an ISPU fellow and associate professor of Cairo University, Egypt and Central Michigan University, USA.
This article was originally published by Middle East Online.