Egypt’s Political Transition: Purposive Dawdlism

February 17, 2011

Demands for political, social and economic reform have skyrocketed in the last couple of days since president Mubarak stepped-down. Many criticisms have been directed towards those asking for immediate social and economic reforms as public figures implore them to go home and give the government a chance to pull itself together. They implore them to put personal interests aside for now for the sake of the country.

Hardly any similar request has been directed towards the youth coalition and the number of political reforms that they demand be fulfilled in the next six months. Two points of clarification are in order.

One, the January 25th youth did not form one cohesive coalition, but according to today’s Shorouk, there are now some 9 different coalitions representing different currents within the broader youth movement. Moreover, according to al masry al youm, there are 13 different political agendas that came out of Tahrir’s womb each aspiring to create its own political party. At three of those thirteen carry names that suggest they belong to the youth group, although it is unclear at the moment if they actually belong to the original January 25th group or not.  If we count the 23 or 24 political parties that are already extant and add to them the 13 nascent ones, we reach a crippling number of options for a budding democracy.

Two, the emphasis here is on the large number of demands with respect to the short period of time desired and not in the number of demands in and of themselves. The question is not just can we fulfill all those demands in 6 months, it is do we want that to happen?

One of the most pertinent examples perhaps relates to their call for annulling the law regulating the establishment of political parties in an attempt to free the entry of new political parties. Obviously, no one in their right mind would oppose that reform in principle. But that comes later, not now.

We already have a vast number of stagnant and for the most part unscrupulous political parties. They existed in a corrupt system and inevitably at least some of that corruption soiled their attitudes and agendas. We all heard the stories about the many parties accused of cutting deals with the system, most of which were denied, but none were disproven. Not to mention that, during the revolution, almost everyone was wary of the role of old guard political parties and many warned of letting them inconspicuously ‘ride the tide’. Finally, as some author wrote (excuse my memory, I forgot who and what newspaper), even though the external problems facing these parties have been removed, the internal problems still exist. And they are now more serious than ever. The internal mutinies we are currently witnessing in many parties, asking for new party leadership and structural renovations, are proof of that. Under the past regime, these parties existed on paper with no chance of actually rising to power and putting their agendas to the test. So any problems they had within and amongst themselves were hypothetical and abstract. Now they have to rise up to the expectations of a new era. And this last problem includes even those parties that managed to avoid corruption.

Another side of the problem is those 13 new parties. It has been described, admirably it seems, as ‘an unprecedented surge of political activism’. But in reality, it could very well be a disaster for a country hoping to take its first stab at democracy in a couple of months. Bombarding citizens who are as of yet unfamiliar and uninitiated in the process of reading different political agenda and choosing among them with 36 different agenda is likely to overwhelm them and paralyze the decision-making process leading to participation dissuasion or unsound decisions. Both are clearly undesirable backlashes. It has been scientifically proven that the average person can effectively juggle around 7 different variable (plus or minus two). More than that and the brain function changes, tilting its calculative powers towards the emotional part of the brain at the expense of the rational part. (For more on that check http://www.radiolab.org/2008/nov/17/ and http://www.radiolab.org/2008/nov/17/how-much-is-too-much/).

That said, it is important to recognize that failure to partake in elections or ‘wrong’ decisions are likely outcomes anyways. And that’s acceptable. Erring is a natural part of decision-making, particularly in a budding democracy. Democracy is essentially a process of trial and error and it can only be honed by time. By experience.

Having 36 (and probably even more) different political parties, however, would greatly skew our chances at fully assimilating and assessing the different political agendas, particularly for the first couple of years. It will push the chances for erring from the realm of the ‘natural’ to that of the ‘unnatural’.

One possibility would be to dissolve all political parties and allow only a handful to function in the early years of our new era. Three or four or five. At the same time, the evident wide spectrum of opinions manifested in the copious number of political parties and coalitions, will need more than six months to reconcile differences in order to fit into a handful of parties.

We need more time for a successful and politically promising transition.

Ahmed el Sawy wrote today in al masry al youm an article titled ‘Six Months Only Is Not Enough!’ with which I agree in principle if not in details (http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=288173&IssueID=2049). He suggests that we divide the transitional process into two phases: military and civilian. After six months, the military would then relinquish power to another transitional civilian government. Under that government, a new constitution would be drafted, political parties would have time to refresh their internal structures and hone out their agendas, and the citizens would get a chance to increase their political awareness. Two years or possibly even one could be enough to jumpstart our dormant political minds.

I understand the consequences that come out of an extended state of limbo. But the consequences of a rushed phase of transition is equally, if not more, dire. It would not be featureless and desultory, it would be clear, responsive and purposive. We are building the foundation of a whole new system. How can we possibly justify risking a cursory transition? If there is any time where we need to ‘dawdle’ or take our time, it is now.

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