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Hichem Karoui: Debate: the art of waffling
May 13, 2012
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Anyway and whatever the opinion one bears about Egyptian politics and Egyptian electoral candidates in the post-Mubarak era, many Arabs — not only Egyptian citizens — were happy with the first ever presidential televised debate organised in Cairo, between Amr Musa, former foreign policy minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, and Abdul Moneim Abol Fotouh, former militant of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Indeed, after watching this debate, those who are still sceptical regarding the scope and the authenticity of change in Egypt, know today that something really important is happening in this country.

The difference in the answers of both candidates is a matter of opinion and sensitivity. Each of them has a political record that determines to a large extent his present attitudes. Somehow, each is right when reminding people of the fact that the recent past of his rival could not be dismissed or omitted. Really, Amr Musa was a statesman of the former order, and although we suspect that no minister in such an order could challenge the president or have his own policy, Musa, in the eyes of many Arabs, has certainly a more positive record as a Secretary General of the Arab League than as Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Minister. As he has himself reminded his rival, when he charged him of being the “symbol” of the Mubarak era, he had resigned 10 years ago. Yet, even if he did, he could hardly be described as a man of the opposition.

As to his rival, Abol Fotouh certainly represents the opposition to all the governments that ruled Egypt since the free officers established the republic, through his affiliation to the MB. Yet, that does not presuppose he is the ablest for the job of president. A good militant is not necessarily a good statesman. And although Abol Fotouh resigned from the Brotherhood one year ago, his mind and his attitudes have been shaped in those years of militancy, so that he could hardly be described as a man in complete rupture with their ideology and worldview.

True, he has managed to present himself as a man who could gather some moderate Islamists along with hardliners and maybe even some elements of the liberal trend. Yet, the post of president requires much more than the simple electoral tactics of the ongoing campaign. It requires merely to be even above those political tactics in order to unify all Egyptians for a great project of society.

On this level, so far, it is difficult to say that all the presidential candidates have succeeded in such a task. Actually, they did not have enough time to come out with a convincing project of society. For just a year ago, nobody was even imagining that the days of the regime were near the end.

The debate on domestic social and economic issues was disappointing for its lack of precision, and its populism. None of them provided clear answers about what they intended to do if they win the election, although both tried to “politicise” and “ideologise” the questions they were unable to answer, by lack of a social project.

So, on this level, we watched two men trying to “hypnotise” the eventual voter with old tricks, instead of giving facts and figures and arguing about them. And when they happen to talk about the hardship of an important part of the population, they gave promises that cast doubts about their ability to ever fulfil them, for they never said how they would do or where exactly they intend to find the funds.

As the debate shifted to foreign policy, it seems that both men wished to be closer to the average Egyptian citizen who, as it is known from the simple scanning of the newspapers, does not bear Israel and the Camp David accords in his heart. For most Arab observers watching the debate, it was not surprising to hear Abol Fotouh qualify Israel as “enemy” and argue that it is a dangerous state for the security of Egypt. Nor was it odd to hear Musa reminding the viewers of a clause in the accords providing for their review and assessment each five years by the parliament — a task that has never been performed so far.

Yet, Musa was more cautious about the consequences of any awkward treatment of the issue. In his eyes, international accords could not be abrogated for “electoral reasons.” There is ostensibly a demagogic and hypocritical attitude in making a promise that could be interpreted as downright belligerent, while Egypt is not ready to go to war, he contended. It is also dangerous to indulge in such a belligerent discourse just to obtain the voices of all those who feel the plight of the Palestinians as their own. Here, he revealed more tact and finesse in the art of diplomacy than the militant of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Conversely, Abol Fotouh was not convincing when he kept stressing that Israel is Egypt’s enemy and must be treated as it is. I was wondering: if this guy becomes Egypt’s president, how would he do to talk face to face with Netanyahu and the Israeli leaders after what he said? Should he reverse the tide then in order to stay diplomatic and describe them as “partners” in peace? If not, would he abrogate the Camp David and the peace treaty with Israel? Would Egypt be then better positioned to obtain from Israel what it would not obtain otherwise? Then, what about the Palestinians? If Egypt is no longer able to negotiate on their behalf with Israel and the US, in what consists the progress?

On the other hand, neither Amr Musa nor anybody can ignore that the Camp David accords and the peace treaty were born in a historical context. The present conjuncture is merely different as it emerged out of a popular revolution that would propel an elected government up to the political stage. That means that the Egyptian citizen has for the first time in contemporary history an opinion to voice which, whatever its consequences, has to be heard.

Diplomacy as an art of “blah blah” and void speeches and demagogic rant is over. This is another era, where diplomacy should not be confined to the spheres of a small elite of initiated, but be open to the scrutinising gaze of the elected representatives of the people. Legislators would have their opinion about how their country should deal with regional and international issues. Therefore, it is advised to avoid old waffling in political speeches.

Unfortunately, we are still there. As far as I can judge from this debate, waffling is still considered a good mean to dodge precise and rational answers to complicated issues. Let’s hope they’ll do better next time.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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