Inheritance of Power, Fatwas, and Legitimacy in Egypt

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

July 29, 2008

We were not in need of the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta to issue a fatwa rendering illegitimate the inheritance of power in Egypt, simply because inheriting power itself is no longer a source of legitimacy in any mature society. Egypt needs a new type of legitimacy — that of achievement. The regime has to meet the requirements of this legitimacy by improving economic, political, and social performance.

I believe that one of the causes of people’s anger in Egypt now lies in the fact that the legitimacy of the current regime has eroded over time, due both to the decreasing rate of efficiency in the management of the country or to the absence of a historic achievement preserving a degree of legitimacy. What makes it worse is the declining living standards in Egypt that have reached a point where people are fighting over bread and the state institutions have failed to respond to the needs and aspirations of the citizens.

The new elite in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) — which lost much of its legitimacy for ruling the country without a political or legal basis — has a historic opportunity to rebuild its legitimacy, but only if there is a real desire for change and not just the replacement of an authoritarian regime through a mere change of faces.

The country is in a real transitional phase, where the social and economic structure and value systems are being stirred in an unprecedented manner in post-1952 revolution Egypt. A quarter-century of corruption and mismanagement has exhausted Egyptian society. Therefore, the new elite could begin to earn their legitimacy by opening serious dialogue about reforming these conditions and giving the people the right to judge its performance. This would be followed by the initiation of a unified vision of change and transition, taking the country from a phase of deterioration to one of rebuilding the state and society on a solid foundation.

I do not think that the situation in Egypt now is worse than it was in Turkey in the late 1990s when the World Bank pronounced Turkey bankrupt, as the country sank in an unprecedented economic collapse. Just eight years later, Turkey lifted itself from bankruptcy and now has a strongly rising economy, despite the fact that Turkey does not have many of the advantages enjoyed by Egypt, such as historic depth, tourism, the Suez Canal, and promising human resources.

The Turkish Justice and Development Party, a splinter from the Welfare Party founded by Necmettin Erbakan, has managed to turn Turkey from being a burden on the international community to a rising power in the Middle East, playing an unprecedented regional role, in contrast with the disappearance of Egypt’s regional role.

The new NDP young leadership can rebuild their legitimacy if they meet three conditions. First, they should realize the magnitude of the historical dilemma experienced by the country which led to the collapse of the people’s confidence in the government. They need to faithfully intend to end this exceptional situation. Second, they should develop a genuine and sincere vision of comprehensive change in Egypt, not just “beneficial” change. It should be a long-term vision to rebuild the country on a sound foundation. Third, they should get out of the state of deliberate retreat and isolation and communicate with people who are the primary source of legitimacy, not just an unknown number in the political game.

Without this, it would be difficult to bring about a “civil” transition in Egypt, even if the Dar Al-Ifta issues a fatwa allowing this.