Liberal Autocracy in Egypt

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

June 24, 2008

What term can we use to describe the incumbent Egyptian political regime?

Is it a democratic or authoritarian regime, or is it hybrid mix of the two?

Indeed, for a quarter of a century the current regime has been closer to autocratic regimes where the ruler enjoys a central status, in a way that makes him manipulate political life.

Nevertheless, what has been happening in Egypt since 2005 is a shift from absolute totalitarianism to liberal autocracy, allowing a measure of liberties especially those that do not affect the survival of the regime, such as giving the media space to criticize the government, ministers and sometimes the president but in a timid way without taking real measures.

The most important characteristics of the liberal autocracy is to preserve the existing regime and not to allow any radical change in the pillars of governance. It also seeks to control political life indirectly to give a façade of democracy when the truth is quite the opposite, with everything under control through a blend of authoritarian laws that are not conducive to a healthy political climate. The unfettered economic openness is also a hallmark of this regime, which aims to maximize the gains of the ruling elite.

It seems that the new elite in the National Democratic Party (NDP) is seeking to transform Egypt into a liberal autocratic country, so that it can ensure the NDP’s dominance over political life without any real rotation of power. The elite have taken a number of steps to fulfill this pattern, deliberately or inadvertently.

The first of these steps was the amendment of the constitution to allow, in theory, multi-candidate presidential elections, as stipulated in Article 76 of the constitution, which was amended twice. No one is expected to compete with the NDP candidate in the forthcoming presidential vote slated for 2011, not because of the absence of eligible parties capable of contesting the election but because the NDP will not allow free and fair elections where all candidates have equal opportunities.

The second step was the NDP’s muted response to criticism directed at the government under the pretext of the freedom of criticism and expression.

Nonetheless, the party gives its backing to its men in case of increased criticism and accusations against them, as in the Hidelina case concerning faulty blood bags manufactured by a company owned by an NDP MP.

It is as if the NDP applies the rule: “Say what you want, I’ll do what I want.”

Despite the several disasters that have befallen Egyptian society over the past three years, such as bread and water crises and finally the Thanawiya Amma (General Secondary Certificate) catastrophe, we have not heard that a minister had resigned or was dismissed, at least to pull the wool over the people’s eyes and appease the masses.

Finally, the party has recently started to apply liberal economic policies to integrate into the global economy and generate substantial gains mainly for NDP men, whose large investments are paid for by more than 40 percent of the Egyptian people living below the poverty line.

Liberal autocracy could be an important stage in the transition to full liberal democracy, but the problem is that Egypt will remain at a standstill during this phase for a long time unless we find ourselves confronted with anpther totalitarian state with new faces along the lines of what happened in Syria after the death of former Syrian President Hafez Al Assad in 2000.