National Interest Versus Plural Interests in a Successful Democracy

February 16, 2011

By Roger Owen

Revolutions are always made by people in the name of the people, with the latter imagined as a single entity with a single set of interests. So too in Midan Tahrir, where the anthems sang of the need for Egyptian unity and an end to the "I, I, I" of a leader like Mubarak. This was echoed in the army’s talk of the national interest and the speeches of many politicians young and old.

But if you want to work towards a plural democracy, you also have to develop genuine political parties with different programs that represent the interests of different sections of the population. And here Egypt faces a real problem. Unlike Tunisia where the Bourguiba, and then the Ben Ali, regime practiced some sort of corporatism based on unions and civil society associations, the leaders of the series of Egyptian revolutions and corrective revolutions from 1952 onwards deeply distrusted pluralism in the belief that it led to factionalism and harmful division.

It is true, of course, that President Sadat fathered a political system with a right (the Wafd), a center (the Hizb al-Watani), and a left (the Tagamu). But at the same time he used the Parties Law of 1977 to make quite sure that neither right nor left inside the People’s Assembly could have access to any real popular constituency with real popular interests, banning, as we know, any organization with a class, regional, or sectarian basis.

Many other Arab leaders anxious to experiment with systems of managed elections were quick to follow. The result was inevitably a huge government party facing a fragmented opposition based on tiny organizations created by opportunist, and usually elderly, politicians with small constituencies and no incentive to do more than go through the motions of producing real alternatives to regime policy without any identifiable popular support. No rallies, no pressure groups, no single-issue campaigns.

So what could an Egyptian system of interest-based parties possibly look like if neither history nor recent revolutionary practice provides a useful guide?

One initial notion which might be of some help is that of a National Charter in which any new party wishing to participate in an election is first required to agree to a common set of best practices, at least for an initial period. Perhaps the soon-to-be-amended Egyptian provisional constitution, or its permanent successor, could establish the rules for an arrangement of this kind.

But much more important in the medium to long run is the creation of parties with competitive programs which offer voters a real choice based on real issues concerned with taxes, welfare, distribution, and the balance between public and private spending, all of which affect real lives. This, in turn, requires some investigation of what these new constituencies could possibly be, a difficult matter in a country where genuine social science research has been virtually impossible for a very long time.

To take just one example, to what extent are the sons ands grandsons of the workers and peasants of the Arab Socialist era still workers in factory industry or landless laborers in the fields as originally conceived? Some, perhaps a majority, are now more likely to be engaged in some kind of service-oriented activity. And are not the vast majority of what used to be called peasants either better described as farmers or else removed from the countryside entirely?

Another suggestion is to consider the existence of three possible types of constituencies. One is the ideological, represented most obviously by the Muslim Brotherhood. And a second, the virtual, involving all those whose interests are represented by organizations which both recruit and shape opinions via Facebook and Twitter, the most salient of these being that of under-thirty youth.

Third, in an Egypt going through the rapid socioeconomic transition promoted by globalization and privatization, on the one hand, and disorderly urbanization, on the other, material interests can be conceptualized in a number of possible ways. One is simply rich versus poor, the haves and the have-nots, or, in another form, the winners and the losers, a view which would yield a largely two-party system of the traditional European kind, that is of left against right. Another posits a basic division inside the middle class, between the importers and the exporters, the one protectionist, the other made up of the believers in openness and markets. Or, again in old European terms, conservatives versus liberals.

How this might work out in an age of rapid communications and the appeal of charismatic, media-savvy leaders remains to seen. But I cannot see how the pluralism that democracy requires can be established and sustained without some system of institutionalized difference of the type I have just tried to map out. It is also worth noting that the country has been through a roughly similar moment before, in the early 1920s, when the electoral process of that period yielded a nationalist/populist party, the Wafd, and a number of smaller parties representing different sections of landowner interest.

Another, perhaps more salient, example comes from Turkey, when the 1950 election not only produced a victory for the newly-created Democrat Party over the long-established Republican People’s Party of Kemal Ataturk, but also one in which the losers left office without demur. In my own reading of this historical event, the Democrats managed to wrest most of their rural constituency from the Republicans by an appeal to a strictly agricultural interest, including promises of better roads, subsidized, input and a respect for its traditional ways. It helped too that the United States, Turkey’s major post-war ally and protector against the Soviet Union, was firmly on the side of a rotation of governmental power. But what really mattered was the existence of a population of small farmers with a very clear idea about what was good for them and which political party might best provide it.

Finally, a few words about what might best be termed the military interest. Traditionally, that is since 1952, this has been both represented and protected by a military president and a military minister of defense. Now the time has certainly come for a civilian president. But the present situation is still much too fragile to demand a civilian minister of defense as well. We can only hope that, for the sake of a plural and sustainable democracy, full civilian control over the military will, at some stage, be put firmly on the political agenda.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in February 2011. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.