Egypt’s Elite and an End to a Call for Democracy

My mind is still bewildered as I try to explain why Egypt’s elite have ceased calling for democracy and adherence to its procedures.  I try to understand how they accept (sometimes silently) violations of human rights and freedoms and a renewal of the authoritarian, subjugating nature of the government’s relationship to society and citizens. Here, the elite to whom I am referring are the political, party, and intellectual elites and the forces with economic and financial influence, as well as those in the upper echelon of the state’s bureaucracy (the institutions and official bodies). They also include those who control the media and the production of the dominant religious pronouncements. Regarding the elite who no longer call for democracy, I am speaking in general, given the actions of the majority. However, I am not blind to the presence of some exceptions, certain individuals and groups that have not ceased to defend the ideas of the transition of power, the rule of law, rights, and freedoms.  Their actions have not been without cost.

I could hypothesize that the Egyptian elite abandoned their demands for democracy when they realized that there are great dangers threatening the state’s cohesion, civil peace, and coexistence. In this scenario, they felt that, in order to avert the specter of the ship of the state sinking we were in need of exceptional action and steps, such as the military institution’s intervention in politics and the likely candidacy of the Defense Minister for president of the republic. However, this reading is undermined by its inability to explain the reasons for their silence regarding security practices that cause a great deal of damage to the cohesion of the state and society, and to the dignity of citizens. Likewise, it cannot explain the intellectual and political basis for the confidence that the exceptional action and steps would remain short-term and that Egypt would transcend this stage and move towards building democracy after a period of time. Our experience in Egypt since the 1950’s, as well as the experiences of other countries both near to us and far, refute the idea of a “temporary departure from democracy” and suggest that this exception will last for a long time.

Another approach would be to reduce the issue to the traditional behavior of the political, party, intellectual, economic, financial, media, and religious elites that seek to protect their interests and roles. Here, the majority of the elite choose to go along with the “victor” or the “strongman” who controls the power and authority, and completely accept entering into a relationship with him based on the duality of “compliance in return for protection and benefits.” (During a discussion a few days ago, to lighten my sad mood, one of my friends expressed the concept in a manner that was simple in structure but profound in meaning: “None of us likes a weak person, our own human weakness is enough. That’s why, in politics, we run after the stronger person, the winner”). However, this kind of reduction strips the elite of any responsibility toward public interest, an ability to give priority to the nation’s interests, and an (even if incomplete) impartiality to special interests. On the other hand, this view also shows a blatant disregard for the histories of resistance and struggle of some of the members of the political, party, and intellectual Egyptian elite. Likewise, it disregards some of the economic, financial, and bureaucratic elites’ observed commitment to the values of the rule of law and good governance. Our experience in Egypt since the 1950’s proves that the duality of “compliance in return for protection and benefits” is frequently insufficient to compel some elements of the elite to go along with the “victor” or the “strongman” and to prevent these elements from resisting this rule and its undemocratic intentions, and from searching for paths to change.

Or I could adopt (as an exception) the Marxist reading, related to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony and manufactured consent, to illustrate that the political, party, and intellectual elites and those with economic and financial influence, as well as those in the upper echelons that control the bureaucracy, the media, and religious pronouncements are joined in undemocratic rule by an organic alliance. In this alliance, the elite complete the authoritarian-subjugating apparatus produced by the tools of security oppression and of political and economic control. Several (false) persuasive tools are employed that impose compliance on the society and the citizen to the state and tolerance (either through patience or hope) for oppression and terrible living conditions. If I adopted this reading, it would lead me away from the historical, societal approach to the Egyptian condition, away from this objective approach that indicates that the relationship between undemocratic rule and the different elements of the elite has often experienced struggles and tensions that limit the credibility of the theory of an “organic relationship.” More important is the fact that, with the exception of the period from 1956 to 1967, the regime relied on tools of oppression and direct control and ignored the tools of persuasion, which were left to society and the citizen. At times, these tools were used to support the regime and, at others, to oppose it and demand change. Our experience in Egypt since the 1950’s illustrates that some of the elite removed themselves from this organic relationship with undemocratic rule, thereby limiting the regime’s ability to penetrate society through means other than the use of oppression and control. This limited the competency of the regime in Egypt, along with the system and government that went along with it (again, with the exception of the period from 1956 to 1967), so they covered up their weakness with violence. They were not characterized by structural strength (the important distinction between the strong state and the violent state made by the deceased Egyptian political scholar Nazih al-Ayubi in his study of Egypt in the second half of the 20th century).

To explain why the elite stopped demanding democracy and are silent on violations of rights and freedoms, I could cite the phenomenon of “infatuation with power” that has dominated the political, intellectual, and bureaucratic elite since the beginning of the modern Egyptian state, especially in the 19th century, and which was revived during the period of Khedive Ismail and former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. This infatuation results in a romantic surrender to the fact that only power, as embodied in the state, the regime, the government, and sometimes the military apparatus, is able to achieve the public interest and national goals such as independence, liberation, progress, development, and justice. These sometimes included democracy, but as a deferred goal. However, due to the fact that the political, intellectual, and bureaucratic elite lost their existential identity as a gift of power and the modern state, the phenomenon of “infatuation with power” proved no obstacle for some of them to reject undemocratic rule in the absence of a clear “nationalist project” (during the 1970’s under Sadat and the decades under Mubarak) and openly resist this rule. Likewise, this meant that in periods of decline in economic, social, and political performance, the regime was unable to renew the romanticism of infatuation with power and the state, and convince society and a stable majority of the citizens to support it without the legitimacy that results from achievements. Our experience in Egypt since the 1950’s and a reading of the results of the changes and fluctuations that we’ve seen demonstrate that clearly.

These ideas and approaches have some objectivity and intellectual credibility to explain the reasons for the fact that the elite have, currently, ceased demanding democracy. 

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abd El-Fatah (Flickr)