I am struck by Issandr’s column in al Masry al Youm today. He writes:

“What is one to make of the first round of elections that took place on Sunday?

“One could note, as every civil society monitor and every human rights group has, that fraud was widespread, from candidate registration to polling day itself, and that vote-buying has become so widespread that it has created a secondary market for vote-bundlers.

One could repeat the complaints of candidates–notably those from the Muslim Brotherhood–that security forces prevented campaigning, arrested hundreds of supporters, and generally obstructed the electoral process.

One could highlight the dismal performance of the High Elections Commission, which Hafez Abou Saeda, the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, recently called “the main threat to the electoral process.”

One could sift through the preliminary results and noticed that no Muslim Brother got through the first round, and that the secular opposition does not seem to have gained (as some had predicted) from the Islamists’ loss.

One could point out, if the trends of the first round are extrapolated to the second round, that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will probably find itself with a much larger majority in the next parliament–perhaps upwards of 90 percent, although this super-majority will continue to be one of opportunists rather than apparatchiks, since the party remains unable to impose discipline among its members.

One could wonder why it is that, even as voter interest in the elections appears to plummet, they are becoming more competitive, with businessman candidates spending millions to secure a seat and the access and parliamentary immunity it buys.

All of this is interesting, for sure, but it’s worth taking a step back from electoral processes and outcomes, and the political fate of individuals and parties, to the larger meaning of the elections and what they say about the kind of country that Egypt has become.

After 1952, Egypt ruled by a top-down, military regime with a command structure centered around a charismatic president and senior army officers with a shared esprit de corp. The Free Officers’ regime was corporatist, ideologically driven, and moved by desire for rapid modernization and a prominent, independent role for Egypt on the international scene.

Gradually, the regime became more institutionalized and began to change its priorities. The presidency, while remaining strong, became an ultimate arbiter of disputes within the regime rather than the source of the driving vision of the country. Egypt’s non-alliance was traded first for a balancing game between the two Cold War superpowers, and finally for a strong client relationship with the United States. The single-party state gave way to a superficially more pluralistic political landscape, but one that remained dominated by a party representing access to the state, while important decisions remained in the hands of the presidency. On a day-to-day basis, the mid-level management of the security apparatus became the real ruler of the country, arbitrating between citizens and state as well as the politicians. The army, once omnipresent in politics, retreated to the barracks but remained–mostly discreetly and from a distance–important in political and economic life.

Over time–the very long time of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule–this arrangement engendered its own logic. It settled into standard operating procedures, bureaucratic mechanisms and red lines that occasionally shifted. Unwritten rules of the game were largely understood, and even the opposition mostly adhered to them. The system reached a cruising speed and became more secure in the way it operated; it was self-perpetuating, particularly in the absence of new leadership that could create a genuine shift in vision. A combination of what I like to call “-crats”–a suffix that comes from the Greek word for ruler–ran the state’s daily affairs.

The autocrats–the security apparatus, from the armed forces to the Ministry of Interior–are the real decision-makers. They rule, but do not govern. Their role is not to devise policy but to ensure the status-quo is perpetuated, that the system in which they hold the most privileged position endures. Originally they had come to power by overthrowing the aristocrats that backed the monarchy, but they are not imaginative men. Their mission is to perpetuate the present, not prepare for the future.

In order to run a country, they needed managers. So they created a class of bureaucrats, the six million civil servants who enforce the vast edifice of rules that so often perplex citizens. The bureaucrats are not only, for most part, a loyal group, but they are also one whose capacity to generate inertia and opposition to change can be formidable. The bureaucrats process, they have no other aim, and hate novelty.

But a country cannot just stand still, it must also adapt. For this there are the technocrats, who govern but do not rule. They are the clever ministers who try to implement often necessary reforms, but always against the reluctance of the autocrats. If they have been on the ascendant lately, it’s only because economic conditions made their knowledge imperative. Their problem is that, not being politicians with popular support, the technocrats are never held accountable to anyone but the autocrats and their diktats.

Yet what the recent elections (and the previous ones in the last decade) have shown is the rise of a another class of -crats. The plutocrats have their fingers in every pie, they woo all sides, keep the machine turning with their enterprise and lust for profit. The plutocrats were the dominant group among the candidates. They belong overwhelmingly to the NDP, that privileged conduit to the state, which provides cheap land, solves bureaucratic hurdles and awards lucrative contracts. They are the much-derided “businessmen” that confound party leadership into running multiple official candidates for the same seats and injecting races with millions of pounds.

The risk with this state of affairs is that politics becomes entirely a wealth-creation mechanism. With these elections, the autocrats sent a message that whatever opening took place in 2005 is now closed. They will now no longer tolerate genuine political alternatives, particularly ahead of a still uncertain presidential transition. But they also sent a secondary message: that, as long as they operate within the rules, the plutocrats are invited to help themselves to a free-for-all in which court decisions will be routinely ignored, fraud tolerated and money will always trump the rule of law.

This arrangement between autocrats, technocrats and plutocrats is more than a clampdown on democrats and theocrats. It empties the very notions of politics and citizenship of any meaning.”

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net. His column appears every Tuesday.

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