News of the Egyptian revolution has certainly fallen to a far-back-burner in light of ongoing developments in Syria, Libya, the Trump Tower and now Abbottabad, and life seemingly has returned to normal on the streets of Cairo. The central roundabout of Midan Tahrir hasn’t been occupied for at least three weeks, tanks and military police are gone, and traffic is only as bad as usual.
However, political scientist Ellis Goldberg has reminded me that this is a function of my (and the media’s) Cairo-centricity. In the most interesting essay on the ongoing political transition I read this week, Goldberg analyzes the ongoing struggle over the governorship of Qena, an administrative unit of southern Egypt at the bend in the Nile surrounding Luxor, the famous Pharaonic capital and tourist destination. Under the influence of French and Belgian constitutional law, Egypt’s government has been highly centralized since such governorates were created. All governors are appointed by the president and answerable to/incorporated in the Ministry of Interior (aka the state police). Protestors from the Muslim-majority province are unhappy that the recently appointed governor is both a former General and a Coptic Christian. Their protest for the right to choose their own governor raises a much large issue of federal decentralization across the country.
Centralization probably helped focus protest on Cairo and the forces of the Ministry of Interior (though it was widespread and even more violent in regional cities), aiding the success of the revolution. Although the upper ranks of the central government has been replaced and the majority of protesters are awaiting results the presidential and parliamentary elections of later this year to decide further tactics, revolutionary discontent is continuing to challenge basic structures of government even in far away places like Qena. (Upper Egypt is the traditional backwater of the country). Goldberg is right to warn that if these basic structural problems — whether the new constitution mandates a presidential or a parliamentary republic, whether parliament will change to proportional representation, and how representation on the state level will work — are ignored, Egypt could be headed for another era of crippled democracy, like the French Third Republic (1870-1940).