Egyptians believe that the head of state holds the reins and takes control of everything in the country. This belief is popular among the political and cultural elite, or the overwhelming majority, and among the rank and file as well.
Almost everyone considers the president as a “pharaoh whose role eclipses all other senior statesmen. They believe that the Constitution, as well as the legacy of the presidency after the 1952 Revolution, underpins this fact.
The current Egyptian Constitution, passed in 1971 and amended twice, is an extension of the 1956 Constitution, which established a political regime that revolves around the president.
Actual practice, however, is now to some degree different from those days when Egypt had a “pharaoh presidency.
Mubarak has recently started to relieve himself of certain burdens the President in Egypt had undertaken since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era.
Besides his long presidency (more than double the rule of Sadat and almost twofold the term of Abdel Nasser), he is not enamored with power by nature. The approaching end of the 1952 Revolution era creates signs of a new situation in society that impacts the political system.
And therefore, it seems that the prophecy of President Sadat started to come true. He predicted that he and Abdel Nasser would be the last Egyptian pharaohs.
In his latest speeches President Mubarak also appeared to approach what Karl Marx called the Bonapartism in political systems. The only substantial difference is that Marx’s version means a ruler reining over society and its classes, which is difficult to imagine now in Egypt, where Mubarak remains responsible for his regime’s bias toward the upper and the upper-middle classes.
Nevertheless, the common features between Marx’s version, which he explained in his superb book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte , and the current situation of Mubarak is that the ruler is above the center of political power to some degree.
This is reflected in the new pattern that distinguishes Mubarak’s recent speeches, in which he keeps a certain distance between himself and the government and the ruling party. He sometimes explains, advises, urges and warns, rather than taking a final decision. This was evident in his speech about the population problem at the opening of the National Conference on Population at the beginning of this month. At other times he does not interfere in the work of the government, although he once was forced to intervene at the 11th hour to revoke a decision taken by the government several months ago to find a capital other than Cairo.
This change, however, the main features of which began to emerge over the last three or four years, neither affected the Egyptian rank and file nor the majority of the elite. The prevailing political discourse among the opposition circles hasn’t changed in this area. The political-oriented cinema still portrays the president as the embodiment of Egypt, as reflected in films produced this year, namely the “President’s Chef and “President Omar Harb. The two films portray the president as the embodiment of the political regime, although their directions are not the same. The former paints a good picture of the president while the latter depicts him in a cruel way.
It is difficult for such nascent change to reach the people in Egypt because it is not accompanied by political reform. Thus, the president’s abdication of some of his prerogatives – enjoyed by the president since 1956 – did not lead to a shift from the totalitarian regime established by Abdel Nasser to the institutional one.
The fact is that influential tycoons are now jockeying for more power and wealth. This is reflected on the bodies and institutions of the political regime, widening the gap between them. This is attributable to the rivalry between those in charge of some of these institutions over maximizing their influence and gaining as much political sway as possible.
The phenomenon is not confined to government ministries – described by the Chairman of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics a few months ago as islands isolated from each other – leading to discrepancy, and sometimes contradiction, in the figures and data issued by these bodies.
The distance has become a feature of the political regime in general, not just the government, in the absence of coordination linking its institutions.
The president’s readiness to deal with the authority conferred upon him in a way different from the norm since 1956 has not resulted in a better re-arrangement of the political regime. The people, therefore, felt no change in the regime.
Dr Waheed Abdel Meguid is an expert at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.