x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Mubarak and ElBaradei: united by unrealistic ideas

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and rival Mohammed ElBaradei agree - and they rarely do - that Egypt does not need a saviour; the people are the sole heroes to achieve progress.

What do the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief and opposition contender for the 2011 Egyptian presidential elections, have in common? Both men agree - and they rarely do - that Egypt does not need a saviour; the people are the sole heroes to achieve economic, social and political progress. Mr Mubarak clearly expressed this belief when journalists asked him about the political role of Mr ElBaradei and potential competition between them. And Mr ElBaradei highlighted the same view in an attempt to lower the expectations of Egyptians, who now view him as a potential hero leading Egyptian society towards progress.

Instead, he encouraged opposition movements to contribute to realising the Mream of change, and not wait for an imagined saviour. Steering clear of the "superhero illusion" underlines the political maturity of the governing elite and the opposition. Mr Mubarak did not only question the importance of finding a saviour but deemed the people as the only hero, and denied possesing any special power.

Compared to the way former Egyptian presidents viewed themselves, Mr Mubarak's view is quite exceptional. On the other hand, Mr ElBaradei used the public demand for change to highlight the importance of collective action within the opposition to pave the way for a consensus on change. Although Mr Mubarak and Mr ElBaradei's rejection of heroism is positive in many ways, several pitfalls characterise their divergent views of the current problems in Egypt.

Mr Mubarak does not offer a real solution to the deteriorating economic and social conditions. Instead, in official declarations, gradual reform and calculated democratisation are recurrent themes. First among these is that Mr Mubarak has not appointed a vice president, which would amount to designating a political heir. Second, constitutional amendments were adopted recently to allow several candidates to run in the presidential elections. Third, opposition movements are increasingly represented in the People's Assembly, exceeding 20 per cent in the 2005-2010 term.

These examples have undoubtedly had a positive effect. But they lack credibility and provide little evidence of democratisation. In fact, the political scenery in Egypt is still characterised by a monopoly on power by the governing elite, and the encroachment of the security apparatus on civil affairs under the state of emergency in force since 1981. Despite speeches about political reform, this situation has not changed. Instead, the examples of democratisation have actually had adverse consequences. The constitutional amendments imposed restrictions on independent presidential candidates, the political rights of citizens and judiciary oversight of elections.

Yet, the Egyptian president says he still considers the people as the sole heroes capable of change. This view is regularly echoed by governing elites and expressed in different variations, like the slogans adopted by the governing party: "Citizens Come First" and "Together for Progress in Egypt". But in reality this is an unrealistic narrative where the hero, the people, are crippled by deteriorating social and economic conditions and restrictions on their political rights.

On the other hand, Mr ElBaradei's view of the current situation in Egypt, shared by opposition activists who have established the National Association for Change headed by Mr ElBaradei, is also questionable. The association aims to change the status quo without offering any organised vision to translate this noble cause into practice. Although enjoying intense media coverage, Mr ElBaradei and his associates pay no heed to important questions on how to solve Egypt's numerous problems. Instead, they substitute finger-pointing at the government for an organised vision about the deteriorating social and economic conditions.

Regardless of these realities, Mr ElBaradei's supporters establish an oversimplified link between changing the elite and changing conditions. They promise future progress in the same line as the governing elite, just in a different form. It is true that the adoption of legal and constitutional amendments allowing independent candidates and opposition parties to compete in the upcoming legislative and presidential elections are essential. For a legitimate electoral process, restrictions on candidates have to be lifted.

However, the demands for reform as proof of the governing elite's goodwill, and the threats of upheaval in the absence of reform expressed by Mr ElBaradei, are rather quixotic. Once again, this is an unrealistic vision masking the absence of real programmes that would enable citizens to lobby for change. They threaten the elite, which have managed for a long time to maintain stability despite deteriorating conditions, with a popular explosion of unknown origins. The people, also viewed by the opposition as the sole hero capable of achieving change by uniting under Mr ElBaradei's banner, are deemed a silent bloc ready to explode "on demand", a view which contradicts all aspects of democratisation.

Amr Hamzawy is research director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut