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This initiative for change in Egypt is a non-starter

"The initiative includes general aims and slogans that are clearly romanticised, such as fighting poverty, ignorance and disease, and having justice, education and health..."

September 22, 2016 at 3:05 pm

An Egyptian man sells coal at a market in Cairo, Egypt ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival on Sept. 11, 2016 [Amr Sayed/ApaImages]

Authoritarian regimes need nothing more than fragmented and divided opposition to keep them in power. The continuation of such regimes, albeit based on repression and oppression more than anything else, gains momentum through the constant state of confusion and failure experienced by opposition groups. It’s a situation that gets worse every time the opposition puts forward, unknowingly, a lifeline that dictators can use to prolong their tyranny.

Something like this is taking place now amongst the Egyptian opposition, whose factions’ performance since the 2013 coup has included political adolescence, open rivalry, verbal arguments and division. Political adolescence is reflected in what has been proposed by Issam Hajji, who was the science advisor to interim president Adly Mansour; the role of the latter made possible the military coup. The proposal, under the so-called initiative of the 2018 presidential team, was announced by Hajji on a TV show, before he published an outline on Facebook. I will not talk about Hajji’s intentions, or the goals behind launching this initiative, but will focus on its contents, what it aims to achieve, and whether it deserves to be taken seriously or not.

The initiative includes general aims and slogans that are clearly romanticised, such as fighting poverty, ignorance and disease, and having justice, education and health as the basis for achieving Egyptians’ aspirations for a civil state with a strong economy that can save the dignity of everyone. To achieve these goals, Hajji proposes the formation of a presidential team to run for office in elections that are expected to take place in 2018. He points out that his initiative will coordinate with all existing civil parties, who will agree to have the above-mentioned areas as top priorities on the list of the agreed presidential team in two years’ time. Also, a ministerial grouping will be nominated to accompany the presidential team as part of the initiative.

Dr Hajji’s initiative has prompted a number of reactions; opinion is generally divided. One group is excited and believes that it is worth taking it seriously and not rejecting it out of hand, on the principle that it is not possible to find anything better. It believes that the initiative represents a realistic way for dealing with the authoritarian regime in Egypt, through using the same tools that it does. Others reject the initiative on the basis that its principles do not match its ambitions or look set to achieve its goals. Yet others reject it objectively as unrealistic and unable to change much; the current regime, say detractors, could actually exploit the initiative to gain some legitimacy.

There are a number of problems with the initiative, the first of which is related to the legitimacy of actually proposing it. What legitimacy is it based on? Who proposed it? If Hajji, as an Egyptian citizen, has the right to propose any idea or initiative to resolve the current issues, then as a political document his proposal lacks any support or acquiescence of political forces, most of which have expressed reservations and apprehension about it, as if it is a trap. They also refuse to accept an initiative from someone who, even symbolically, is linked by history to the coup regime, which has restricted political life for the general public and committed more massacres than the British occupation did over seven decades. This challenges the scientist’s political credibility and makes his initiative look like an attempt to remarket himself to the public at large.

Furthermore, the romanticised nature of the initiative and the shallowness of its contents is also a problem. The language in which it is couched suggests that its author does not realise the magnitude of the political and social tragedy prevailing in Egypt for over three years. It speaks as if Egyptians are still living in the Mubarak era, which witnessed numerous initiatives and activities during the final half-decade of his rule, up until the January 2011 revolution, which buried them all. Assuming that the current regime will not suppress those taking part in this initiative, it will be because it is certain that it will not accomplish anything due to its extreme generality and superficiality.

The third problem is the low expectations for Hajji’s initiative. It is clear that it does not aim to change the current regime or challenge it, but rather the opposite. It stays within the rules of the game established by the authoritarian government in Cairo, and plays according to its terms. Hence, it does not discuss many pressing issues; indeed, it skips over them, including the role of the military and its position in Egyptian politics; whether or not those responsible for the killing of hundreds of Egyptians will be held accountable; how social reconciliation will be achieved; and how to end the current tensions. More importantly, Egyptians need to know how such an initiative will aid the reintegration into public life of those who have been excluded for the past three years. These are portfolios that cannot be ignored if someone wants to make real change.

Finally, there is the dilemma of implementation. Hajji believes that implementing his initiative will be through a presidential team. In all honesty, I don’t really know what he means. Would this presidential team run for the elections as a group, or through an individual who represents it? If so, who is this person, and which faction is he affiliated with? How will he be selected? And which popular bloc will support him? Assuming that the current regime will allow this team to be formed, what will its background and political and ideological affiliations be? Moreover, could the members of such a team actually agree on one goal?

There are so many unanswered questions that Issam Hajji’s initiative is simply a dream that will be very difficult to realise. The current regime will use it to legitimise its own political practices, including the claim that Sisi has serious competition in the charade known as Egyptian elections, making it easier for him to appear triumphant with his predictable “victory”. That’s what happened last time; this initiative doesn’t promise anything different for the next time.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 20 September, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.