When sports clubs in Arab countries lose local or international competitions, the easiest thing they do is sack the coach because they consider he is responsible for the loss. It is not of importance to look into the players’ situation or what the audience may have done during the game or if there is a lack of players or if the team requires training capabilities that are not available for the poor coach, who is always blamed for what happens.
Governments in Arab countries carry through the coach’s role. In Lebanon, for example, the government is always the victim whether political blocs agree or disagree. The government is always the victim as well in Jordan because life is always hard. No matter what happens there, the blame falls on the cabinet which changes every few months to please others who wish to be part of a new ministry. In other Arab countries, ministries played the role of that unlucky child who accompanied the emperor’s child in Japan to school. If the emperor’s child gets an answer wrong or if something was wrong with his homework, the other child (a government) would be punished since it is not acceptable to punish an important personality.
Similarly, governments in Arab countries, like in Egypt, took all the blame and the punishment while the president was safeguarded. Not only that but many times the Egyptian president played the “merciful” character who intervenes to defend the poor by giving them a “grant” for Labor Day or by raising the 15% increase in social aid of wages that the cabinet had approved to 30%. But how does that happen? How was it funded? This ministry is accused of resisting to grant happiness to the people!
Entrenched political crises
Speaking of ministries, there are the current events in Tunisia and Egypt revolving around the importance of changing the cabinet. There is an entrenched political crisis in both countries. Tunisia’s prime minister resigned and attempted to form another cabinet of technocrats. The cabinet did not resign in Egypt but the opposition and some members of the ruling party or individuals close to the ruling party call for its resignation. After agreeing on that, everyone gets engaged in a disagreement over the form of the new cabinet and whether it will be a coalition, national, or technocratic.
Amid this “boutique” of different political descriptions for future cabinets, you will find it extremely hard to understand them. If you resort to political dictionaries to understand the meaning, you will find executive formations that do not suit the current situation of the country. The coalition cabinet will always be under the threat of blackmail or resignation because a certain party considers that the suggested issues are always based on a “doctrine.” This forms an introduction to a civil war. If it is a “national” or “national salvation” cabinet, those who are not part of it will see that it either failed to be a savior or that the ministers are not patriotic or responsible enough.
What is more dangerous than all of this is that talks about changing the cabinet always come without achieving any political agreement over what the aims to be fulfilled are. Eventually, since there is no agreement over the aims, the cabinet, which its resignation is called for, will not be able to achieve them. Goals, in addition to achieving them, always have an expanse. The Arab political elite resorts to using the expression “consensus” instead of “agreement” because the former implies enough to retreat and evade while the latter carries a lot of painful commitment towards the public opinion.
Of course, there are currently several general and pleasant goals like achieving the “aims of the revolution” regarding living, freedom, social justice and human dignity. They are certainly noble aims, rather vital ones that are part of human civilization legacy. But the true meaning of these terms is always, as they say, a secret within the poet and beauty is also relative. But when it comes to politics, ideologies and interests shuffle words and their meanings.
In the end, agreeing on these aims seems like a starting point everyone is holding on to. Afterwards, however, they will disagree over details since it is where the devil lies.
The biggest of surprises occur when everyone not only ignores the aims that suit the revolution’s but when they never tell us how the cabinet will perform a different role than the previous one and what exactly will change if new ministers are assigned.
History’s home truths
Amr Moussa, head of the Conference Party and prominent member of the Egyptian Salvation Front, suggested that a national salvation headed by the president himself be formed. This is not a new precedent in Egypt’s history. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak headed the governments during critical circumstances. But this happened back then to send a clear message to everyone that there is a critical moment. But afterwards, it does not make a difference if the president heads the cabinet or not. The cabinet will still be blamed for everything that goes wrong although the one really controlling it is the president.
I think we have to learn from nations where governments run the executive authority either directly like the situation is in parliamentary systems or under the command of the president who heads the executive authority in presidential systems. That infatuation in the mixed system borrowed for the French one will always lead to the loss of responsibility between the cabinet and the president in our countries.
In transitional phases, like in Egypt and Tunisia, the political process will not be smooth unless there is an agreement and not a political and ideological consensus over a political program. The agreement must have a specific stance on the revolution and whether it is ongoing or must be put aside now to make it possible to establish a new system since it had overthrown the old regime. Establishing a new system is impossible if the revolution and protests continue because they open the door for sectarian and social classes’ struggles. Lastly, as we saw in some Arab countries, they open the door for regional struggles over different areas that marginalized or consider themselves as such.
Change is not requested for the mere purpose of change but for achieving aims towards building what has been demolished. It is a complicated and difficult process that is maybe worthy of another discussion.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 27, 2013
(Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.)