By Ronald Meinardus
An apt definition of politics is the discussion and implementation of decisions related to the future of society. The political decision making process is influenced by myriad factors, conflicting interests and inconsistent perspectives thereby frequently impeding clear strategic choices.
Predicting the political and economic future is the realm of analysts. As these usually well trained specialists are not prophets they rely for the projections of the future on their readings of the past. One will not understand the future without knowing the past.
While I abhor stereotypes I feel safe to say that Egyptians tend to be optimistic people. Rarely discussions here about the future do not include the phrase that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Considering what most people have been through – Egypt’s collective experience – I find this hopefulness astonishing. Obviously, optimism is an ingredient of the Egyptian national psyche; it is nurtured by the belief in the Almighty who – so God will – sees to it that all things come to a good end. In many highly secular societies of the West, there is no such basic optimism simply because far less people believe in God.
Debates about the political future of Egypt tend to focus on the short-term. The horizon of the discussants is days, weeks, months, but rarely years or decades. Politically, Egypt is an instant world, a place of the here and now. This is very different from the political debates in Germany, where I come from and where today’s generation of politicians deal seriously with the challenges of the next generations: This generational perspective, or solidarity, is reflected in political decisions regarding health and pension policies, the environment or measures to curtail ballooning budget deficits, to name just few of the long term and future oriented policy priorities over which elections are fought – and won or lost.
None of this in Egypt, here the focus of the political perspective is near-term. Today, the overriding issue is the amendment of the constitution. The politicians are defining behind closed doors the legal framework of the nation; at the same time, the folks in the coffee shops are more concerned who will be the next leader. This prioritisation reflects the experience of many that the text of the constitution may not be that important after all, and that in the end it is the person at the top who counts much more. It would be arrogant to blame the people for not paying too much attention to the constitutional talk about freedom, social justice and equality – their life experience has been very different from the well sounding political phraseology.
Don’t get me wrong. The dealings of the constitutional committee are of great relevance. The results will have considerable impact on also the short term future of Egypt’s political landscape. The basics of the election law will determine not only the future of the party system but to a certain extent also the composition of the next parliament. The layout of the governmental system – and with it the extent of the dominance of the president – will determine whether the present Defence Secretary (and very many people’s favorite) will throw his hat into the ring or not. Analysts do not expect general Al-Sissi to contend for the top job should the new constitution not give him sweeping powers.
We stated earlier that good predictions of the future depend on knowledge of the past. This link of past and future holds true for governments, societies, even nations also. Collectively, they will not succeed in mastering the future if it they don’t come to terms with their past.
Egypt’s more recent political past is riveted with turbulences, painful and bloody struggles. As always, there haven been winners and losers. National unity can only be built on the basis of an inclusive political system. For this to materialise political compromise is an essential condition. One component of this process of collective national healing is to get to terms with the past also in a legal way. Transitional justice and other efforts to overcome the injuries of the past have successfully been applied in conflict stricken societies in many parts of the world.
The lack of a political culture of compromise may well be among the most serious challenges Egypt is facing to confront her future. Everybody seems to agree that the country must find solutions for colossal problems. But beyond that little is visible. A united effort, a national vision and, on top of it all, a declared political will are in demand. What should the country look like in ten, twenty or fifty years? I am missing such debates. The only seemingly reliable projection I have heard repeatedly is that by 2050 – a horizon the big mass of young Egyptians will be around to experience – Egypt’s population will have exploded to 150 million. This projection is material for foreign doomsday prophets who fear Egypt’s problems have reached dimensions and complexities beyond control and management. They predict more impoverishment, hunger revolts, chaos and as a political answer to all this harsh dictatorial rule. Arguably, this is the bleakest of all the bleak scenarios available in the market place of opinions. As an optimist by nature, I stay away from this school of thought. However, for the bleak scenario to remain what it is (a dark projection of the future), radical and structural political adjustments need to be taken now. The problem for Egypt is that such drastic steps are no where to be seen.
Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. Twitter @Meinardus