The irrelevance of the political class

The recent protest wave that started with the second anniversary of the 25 January revolution displays the early death signs of the nascent political regime in Egypt. It seems that neither electoral legitimacy nor the invocation of religion is sufficient to secure a smooth path toward a post-Hosni Mubarak order.

The country has witnessed hitherto two referenda and three elections, and is preparing for a fourth shortly. It has officially finished the transitional period with a ratified Constitution and an elected president. However, the result is a conservative kind of democracy, which is by and large procedural, with virtually no guarantees for civil liberties — not to mention social and economic rights.

Such an order seems to be challenged from its very moment of inception. Many young Egyptians are frustrated and disappointed with the products of the transitional period. And there is a strong sense of injustice as many grievances go unheeded, atrocities by the police and army ensue, and once-high expectations are hardly met.

If any lessons can be drawn from the ongoing turmoil, it is that politics is not autonomous from the broader socioeconomic context. As a matter of fact, Mubarak was not ousted by any of his traditional opponents or rivals. Rather, the old regime seems to have collapsed under the weight of the growing social and economic crisis.

Mubarak’s regime offered no prospect of addressing such problems. Egypt’s development model was economically successful in its own terms, with high growth rates, large capital inflows and an export boom. Yet it was utterly challenged on the ground of politics and brought down.

The new regime that has been forming ever since is the fruit of long, tension-ridden negotiations between the old interests represented by the military, the intelligence and old business networks on the one hand, and the newly elected elites, namely the Brotherhood, on the other. Such a setting promised little actual reform in the state bureaucracy; no economic redirection, with the International Monetary Fund loan looming ahead; and definitely no better human rights record, with constitutionally established military trials for civilians and increasing police violations.

All in all, the new regime appears to be just a more legitimate — that is to say, freely elected — form of the old one. The revolution proved to be a vaccination, rather than a lethal blow, to the old power and wealth settings, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s current strategy is how to employ the electoral legitimacy they have to sustain the old wealth and power relations.

However, there is a huge challenge to the re-establishment of authority, not to mention authoritarianism. The notions of authority, binding rules and law enforcement are being widely challenged, as trust in state institutions fades at an alarming rate.

Not only are the people less appreciative of, and less confident in, old institutions such as the military, the police, the bureaucracy and the judiciary, but they also have started quite early on to doubt the new ones, such as the elected president, Parliament and even the opposition. The whole political scene seems to be bled to death by an unceasing, compact crisis with no clear political proposals or alternatives.

The vibrant protest movement, be it political or socioeconomic, is becoming similar to Schopenhauer’s aimless blind will. However, it possesses all the powers of creation and destruction at will.

What is alarming with all that is happening is that the new protest movement seems to be ambivalent to the newly established political sphere that the earlier wave of revolution created. There is a general air of ennui of the petty politics that Egypt has been witnessing following Mubarak’s ouster.

Many tend to see that the political opening just led to some elite circulation, bringing the Brotherhood to replace the National Democratic Party, with no prospect of changing the daily lives of people for the better. Moreover, the current protest movement is neither led nor even remotely controlled by the secular elites, who appear to be engaged in a battle with the Brothers about the controversial Constitution, and quite disengaged from many other questions raised by the protesters.

Thus far, the protests have no clear political alternatives to the extant order but the deposing of the newly elected president, without any clear ability, or even willingness, to instate another. Hence, no agreement reached between rival political parties guarantees the certain containment of potential protest explosions in the near future.

Ironically enough, the new wave of protest shows unconscious adherence to a 19th century doctrine in Europe, especially Russia, known as political nihilism. Such doctrine held that the social and political institutions can be extremely corrupt and unjust to the extent that just destroying them becomes justifiable, without necessarily calling for an alternative.

The Egyptian political class, including those who are in power as well as the opposition, is running the risk of becoming irrelevant. Unless some immediate changes happen and the deep social and economic grievances find some political expression, the newly formed setting is likely to collapse altogether, paving the way for a failed state or some form of military rule, be it direct or indirect.

Amr Adly is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Social Sciences Cluster at Stanford University in the US.

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