It has been but a few hours since Sarah Palin took the stage to have a conversation with Joe Biden, and of course the Nation has a ton of questions.
What will happen now?
How will we view all this in a few days?
How will it affect McCain and Obama?
I don’t know…and I’m not even going to try to figure it out right this minute.
Instead, we’re going to take a trip halfway across the world to a country that has been essential to understanding the Middle Eastern story, has been at the center of international conflicts time and time again…and has lessons to teach us that, if we learn them well, could make us a much smarter “Foreign Policy Nation” than we are today.
The country? Egypt.
So grab your virtual passport…and after we arrive, there are a few people I want you to meet.
This is part one of a bigger story, and over the next few days I’m going to try to give you some recent history (well, recent for a country with a history that goes back 7,000 years…), along with an explanation of how political factions are aligned today…how some political factions aren’t even allowed to align…and a few words about the hazards of having an opinion in Egypt—even if it’s online.
Included will be a critical lesson: Democracy and Freedom, which we say we support, can lead to the election of people we don’t like…and that the true measure of a democracy is accepting—and sometimes even encouraging–those outcomes, even if we don’t like them.
So before we can talk about Egyptian politics, we have to talk about…Egyptian Politics.
The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt has provisions that pretty much guarantee that there will be no meaningful political opposition. We’ll go right to the Constitution itself for an explanation of how it’s done (where it appears, emphasis was added by me):
The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution (Political parties are regulated by law).
BASIC CONSTITUENTS OF THE SOCIETY
Social and Moral Constituents
Social solidarity is the basis of the society.
PUBLIC FREEDOMS, RIGHTS AND DUTIES
Freedom of opinion is guaranteed.
Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.
Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure.
Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed.
Censorship on newspapers is forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or cancelling them by administrative methods.
In a state of emergency or in time of war a limited censorship may be imposed on the newspapers, publications and mass media in matters related to public safety or purposes of national security in accordance with the law.
The “State of Emergency” provision was invoked in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat—and it has been faithfully renewed by his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, every two years since, most recently in May of this year.
You may have noticed that political parties are regulated by law. Specifically, it’s Law 177/2005. Below is the important language (emphasis will again be added where I think it is needed):
For a political party to be established or maintained, it shall satisfy the following conditions:
ii: The party’s principles, goals, platforms, policies or modalities of exercising its activities shall not contradict the Constitution or requirements of maintaining national unity, social peace and the democratic system.
iii: The party’s platform shall constitute an addition to the political life according to specific methods and goals.
iv: In its principles or platforms or in practicing its activities or selecting its leaderships or members the party shall not be based on religious, class, sectarian, categorical, geographical grounds or on manipulating religious feelings or discrimination on account of origin or creed.
VI: The party shall not pose as a branch of a foreign party or political organization.
A notice in writing shall be submitted to the chairman of Political Parties Affairs Committee stipulated in Article 8 hereof as regards the establishment of the party signed by at least 1000 constituent members whose signatures shall be officially authenticated. The members shall be drawn from at least ten governorates with no less than fifty members from each….
The Political Parties Affairs Committee shall be composed as follows:
1- the Speaker of the Shura Council, as chairman;
2- Minister of Interior;
3- Minister for the People’s Assembly Affairs;
4- three former heads or deputy heads of the judiciary bodies who are not affiliated to any political party; and
5-three public figures who are not affiliated to any political party, as members.
The selection of the members stipulated in Items 4&5 shall be made by a Presidential decree for three years renewable.
The Committee shall have the competence to examine and consider notices of the establishments of the parties according to the provisions of this law, let alone the other competencies stipulated therein…
We will continue with the text of Article 8 in a moment, but before we do, some explanations are in order.
The Shura Council is one of the two halves of Egypt’s Legislative Branch; and it serves a function somewhat similar to that of the United States Senate.
Because Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) controls Parliament and the Presidency, the Political Parties Affairs Committee (PPAC), who grants the license you need to form a political party (and can revoke it as well…) consists of the Speaker of the Shura Council, (obviously, an NDP member), two members of the President’s Cabinet, and six people appointed by the President.
The obvious conflicts between this arrangement and what we would think of as a true multiparty system will be the focus of part two of this story…but for now, we return you to Article 8, already in progress:
…To exercise its competencies, the Committee may demand much documents, papers, data and clarifications at it deems as necessary, from the concerned parties as much time as it determines. It may also demand any documents, papers, data or information from any official or public body and it may conduct on its own or through a sub-committee of its own such research as it may deem appropriate. It may also commision [sic] any such official bodies as it may deem appropriate to conduct or study necessary to reach the truth about matters submitted thereto…
The party shall be a private judicial person…
The resources of the party shall consist in subscriptions of its members, financial support received from the State and the donations by Egyptian natural persons…
The party may not accept any contribution, privilege or benefit from any foreigner, any foreign or international body or from any judicial person type even if it enjoys Egyptian citizenship.
These clauses tell us that the Government’s PPAC can start it’s own investigations of any party—and that Parties are not allowed, by law, to align themselves together in coalitions.
I am often guilty of going too long in these stories…so let’s get to the end of part one.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the NDP have created an ongoing quarter-century “emergency situation” that allows them to decide who can be a political party, that allows them to revoke the license of a party that they feel violates the rules they create…and because of the Constitutional mandate to protect “National Unity”, any political party that says the NDP is doing anything wrong is potentially in violation of the law.
These rules create conditions that are impossible to satisfy, and as a result politicians, protesters…and even bloggers…are at risk for arrest and imprisonment. But that’s a story for another day—and to make the story better, when we get together next time we’ll be meeting one of those politicians in a very close-up and personal way.