Ali Al-Din Hilal, a professor of political science and former dean of the Faculty of Politics and Economics at Cairo University, is one of the few people who have the ability to dissect the Egyptian political scene in depth and put forward visions of what must be done to avoid the accumulated mistakes that Egypt has been witnessing since the 25 January 2011 revolution.
Hilal, who served as a minister of youth and sports during the time of president Mubarak, says that Egypt is still in a political transition period that has not ended and it has not yetreached its final future form.
He called for activating the role of parliament to face the expansion of thepolitical Islamic current in the Egyptian street.
He furthermore stressed the importance of young people’s participation in parties in the future, not only in presidential meetings or in the presidential programmme.
Hilal also admitted that there is no opposition in Egypt, and there is no difference between the Egyptian parties in their orientations, programmes, and their absolute support for President Al-Sisi.
He said that the decline and rise of the popularity of presidents is a global phenomenon that happens to everyone. It goes up and down according to the performance of each president, which is normal to happen in a country facing the same conditions Egypt faces.
He called onPresident Al-Sisito manage expectations of the citizens and achieve an improvement of the situation. He also demanded for protection of the other runner in the presidential election to prevent a distortion of the democratic process.
He concluded that the president is still a “president of necessity”, and that he still feels more intimate in dealing with the military, therefore there is not a varied political kitchen.
He expected that after the second presidential term of Al-Sisi, some people will call for granting him another chance to complete what he started.
What is your take on the current political scene in Egypt?
All the phenomena that we see should be put in the context that Egypt is still in a period of political transition. We had a road map, but it has ended in the legal sense. There are many phenomena of which we cannot imagine that they will continue.
We have a president, but he has no political party. The number of independents in the parliament is greater than the number of parties; some of them are not partisan. There is no hint of parties, even in the major disagreements that took place in the parliament recently on the investment law and other topics. Even the supporting alliance of Egypt is not apparent. Powerful MPs are more visible than partisan entities.
We don’t understand the relations between the government and the parliament, and the government and the president. Laws should be issued through an initiative by the parliament, which is common all over the world.
After the Second World War—more than 70 years ago— 80% of the legislations were issued by the governments, so we are in a transitional period and these manifestations are evidence that the relations are in a period of formation, while relations between the main actors of power and governance in Egypt haven’t yet stabilised.
Do you think the form of the new parties is different from the historic parties in Egypt, and will they have an influential role in shaping the post-transition period?
There is no substitute for this because parties are the engine of democracy and the only authority that competes with the parliament and the governments in the democratic system is the parties. However, the indicators are not encouraging, as you see the largest political party in the country, the Free Egyptians Party (FEP), is suffering from internal strife and currently has two presidents. Most of the parties were dissolved and their newspapers are what is left of them.
Where is the problem?
Political parties of an urban nature are not existent outside of Cairo and there are no clear differences between their political programmes. They all will probably support President Al-Sisi in his candidacy for the presidency again. There is no party, for example, that says that it’s a party of capitalism and wants globalisation. All parties take a typically neutral position in everything.
Your words mean that parties won’t play a role for a long time?
Yes, it will take a long time. We hope to find groups of popular MPs who are elected properly and have a popular basis to emerge and form the nucleus of political parties. This nucleus has started to emerge but it will take a long time.
Do you see an entity or a party that can be classified as an opposition party?
At this moment the answer is no. Perhaps due to special interests and calculations with the state, but it does not mean that this will not change. A large percentage of political workers in Egypt have been excluded after the revolutions of 25 January and 30 June for various reasons, interests, and ideologies.
The National Democratic Party (NDP) was dealing with its representatives as representatives of the Egyptian state and it was the party of the state. For an intellectual reason or because there are those who see them as an obstacle in their way, the party has been eliminated. In the political analysis there are whims, alliances, and interests that are controlling the trends.
Those interests are harmful to the homeland?
I do not think that there is a politician in the world at any time that deliberately destroys public money, but the appreciation of the public interest is a matter of disagreement in vision, and not all that we see well can be applied.
Is that appropriate at the current stage?
Are the circumstances suitable for fiveministers to argue in the parliament on the investment law? And is it appropriate that members of the economic committee made amendments to the law without the knowledge of the government and the concerned ministers? Of course it is not appropriate, but it is reality.
Where is the head of state in all of this and where are the promises he made before his election?
Professor Heikal called Al-Sisithe “candidate of necessity” if you remember, which means that he is irreplaceable, so do not look at his pros and cons. There is no alternative to the president of necessity regardless of your assessment, and I feel that in 2018 he will continue to be the candidate of necessity in light of the issues of the political forces. There is no opposition or other political forces, and the closest one to that is Professor Hamdeen Sabahi.
Despite the decline in his popularity?
We are a people who criticise the authority but go along with it. Talk about the low popularity of the president is a phenomenon all of the world, even in the strongest republics. It goes up and down according to the events, but I think that the president will nominate himself and will win regardless of the competitor. This is not a call for him to run alone. It is very important to have more than one competitor.It is not in the best interest of the president that competing political figures get their image distorted. He would become even more respected and appreciated if we have leaders and political parties respected by people inside and out of Egypt, regardless of their criticism of the president and the government.
Who is worthy of competing for the presidency of Egypt?
It is important to have alternatives, electoral battles, alternative proposals, and discussions on basic issues. I will not mention names, but would rather like to focus on specifications. Candidates must have a political history known to the public. Secondly, a candidate’s history should not include links to foreign countries in order to emphasisepatriotism. When things turn over, they should not leave the country and flee. A candidate cannot have sought foreign intervention. Western countries provide a service to the president through criticising him. When people talk about his days approaching an end, more people gather around him against the criticising West. Egyptians forgive many mistakes for rulers, but not stealing and relying on foreign countries.
We described Abdel Nasser as clean handed, despite our criticism of him.
About 12 intelligence services could not find lands, wealth, or bank accounts owned by him in Egypt or abroad. This is one of the major battles in Egyptian history—integrity of governance. This is an everlasting battle in Egyptian history, which makes it very important.
But you do not see the need for a specific political backingfor the president?
We are all in trouble, so there must be a political backing for political stability. But it is impossible to achieve this because this man is supported by the people. You cannot ask him to pick some of his supporters and have them set up a party. You can’t also take all of them, or it will repeat the experience of the Socialist Union. When Sadat thought about the establishment of the National Democratic Party, he had to select a number of MPs at the time, but he was surprised to see all MPs traveling to him in Alexandria and telling him they want to join.
What is the solution?
Time can find solutions. Through movement and political activity, new elite will be formed. The president’s meetings with youth create a niche of elites among them. The entry of a number of officers into political life creates a special form of elite. Within a few years, he may have the opportunity to choose between them. He may have more opportunity to do so in the second phase than he does in the first.
Time passes and people are tired of the economic pressures and the decline of all indicators, but are still required to endure. How long will this last?
People do not eat numbers and do not care about the macroeconomic indicators. People only think of their purchasing power. We must be aware that this power declined by 100%. Talk in the media about the people having to endure more is not correct. More than half of the population is already very pressured. The president understands that and may use the help of the army. People walk on their bellies. So talk on social media must be considered seriously by the government before things get out of hand.
Does the president have a professional political staff?
Clearly, without diminishing anyone, there is no political staff in the conventional sense. The president has national security and terrorism advisers, but it is difficult to show their role.
There are no political figures in the show. The only place with political figures is the parliament, because some MPs have been engaged in politics forsome 40 years. In the government, with the exception of Ali Meselhy, there are no politicians.
A politician must have had engaged with reality at some point and formed his personality through public work.
Therefore, the political force active on the ground in Egypt is the Islamic political trend, which is supported by the Salafists. The army cannot reach down to their level and compete with them socially as they do. Political parties cannot also do so. If I can give advice, I think MPs must spearhead the movement against extremism. This is a possible solution now. If we do not prepare, the local council elections can come with many surprises, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood is lined up in rows for leadership and many of them are unknown to the security. The elections in 2005 are proof of that.
Who sets these policies and directives?
There are supreme policies, related to the activity of the president, the parliament, and the government. There are also people’s impressions, their conversations, what they think, and what their problems are.
In the most democratic countries, there are surveys. But here, there is no reliable centre, except for Baseera.
Does the president not realise that he needs professional politicians to help him?
He is very aware of that, but it seems he still finds it more comfortable to deal with the military. They are the closest to them and are from the same culture. This could be part of the transition.
What about five years later?
We first have to stop putting timetables for things we cannot control. The president should move away from putting schedules and timeframes. If things change, an explanation for breaking pledges must be made. For example, there was talk about large fish-farms. It must be explained why the prices of fish did not go down. If I ask you to stand with me, I have to explain to you why you stand with me and what I will do.
Do you believe we were deceived by promises that did not bear fruit?
It is well understood that the president had to raise the level of dreams of the Egyptians. The New Suez Canal, the New Administrative Capital, and the 1.5-million-feddan projects are all long-term projects. I must not ignore telling people an explanation. Managing expectations is very important.
But it is necessary to manage the expectations of citizens, because if they went too high, it would turn negatively on the state.
I would ask again:what about five years from now?
I confirm that in 2021, some people will call to change the constitution to give the president a third tenure to complete what he started.
Then we are not talking about a democratic shift in Egypt?
We cannot claim that Egypt is a fully democratic state, but it is at the stage of democratic development. General Omar Suleiman, former head of the General Intelligence Service, said in 2011 that Egypt is not ready for democracy. The president hinted the same during the Ismailia youth conference when talking about the Egyptian experience.
When can we say we are en route to democracy?
What is the indicator for this? Maybe see whether freedom is increasing or declining.We want a community consensus on a set of indicators to bring us closer to the democratic society we want. We want to respect the law and for it to be like death that applies to everyone. We want a minimum of political and economic rights for all people
Are you talking about the basics?
You have to start with modest goals to reach major dreams.Everyone must be held accountable, including the head of state. All officials should be liable to questioning.
Why don’t we move in this direction?
Because we did not agree on those goals, and because there is debate about Egypt’s priorities. Unfortunately, it is also because of the endless discussions that bear no fruits.
What do you think of youth conferences?
Youth conferences are a unique experience. There were similar conferences during the last year in Sadat’s regime. Dr. Ahmed Morsi, youth secretary of the Socialist Union, and president Sadat used to sit down with the youth and talk to them. This is good for democracy and encourages the youth to participate in developing their country. But I think that the president has to meet with the youth of political parties, as those have already worked in politics, which has given them political awareness. At some point, the Ministry of Youth used to meet with these youth. I suggest to the president to meet them and host them during his conferences. This would also convey a message that the president supports political parties and believes in making them more active and engage them into participating more.
What about the youth of the presidential programme to prepare them to become leaders of the future?
The youth of the presidential programme have been placed in different jobs. But they should not be discriminated against by their counterparts, so they do not become opponents of the employees in the various agencies. It is neither their right nor their role to monitor the government. Otherwise, the programme will be doomed, because that is the role of the parliament and regulatory bodies. Encouraging them should not raise expectations.
In 2017, the Local Council Elections Law will come out. These elections are the true school for politics in the west. If 25% of elected officials are youth and women, they will become important future leaders.