Political Participation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A Comparison

Essay, 1996

18 Pages, Grade: 62/100 Punkte


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Extent of Political Participation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

III. Evaluating the Political / Economic Liberalisation Process in Egypt and Saudi Arabia


I. Introduction

Since the early 1970s, most of the Middle Eastern countries have decided to promote the political process of democratisation by permitting the political participation of various political and religious groups and associations within the political discourse. Political participation of which Egypt and Saudi Arabia provide two formidable examples, can be viewed as a decisive step to slowly challenge their elitarian regimes responsible for the maintenance of an inefficient political systems and has been reached in different ways in both countries. This essay intends to show how and to what extent political participation within the 'democratisation' process[1] has been achieved in both Middle Eastern countries. If democracy can be defined as the entailment of "the rule of law and the tolerance of diversity and minority groups"[2], then, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have achieved this stage of political development through different means on the political as well as on the economic level.

In this essay, I want to compare the extent of political[3] participation (including economic participation) between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Section I will refer to the question of how far quasi-democratic structures on the political as well as on the economic level have been established within the two countries. In addition, I will explore how Western Powers have influenced and contributed to the process of political and economic liberalisation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In section II, I will try to evaluate the process of political and economic liberalisation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia by emphasising the crucial factors which are responsible for the economic and political development in both countries. Finally, section III presents some concluding remarks.

II. The Extent of Political Participation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

The process of political participation in Egypt started with President Anwar Sadat in 1971. Sadat continued to maintain the presidential[4] system established under Nasser and expanded his dominant political authority with respect to the constitution which empowered him to appoint all the political and leading heads who carried out powerful political and religious functions within the Egyptian society[5]. However, he introduced some important political changes which provided the opportunity for a greater political participation and political debate.

Firstly, he abolished mail and press censorship, the seizure of property and established constitutional guarantees such as the freedom of expression[6]. Secondly, he weakened and decentralised the power of various political elite groups, such as the top members of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU)[7] which now came under the control of a civilian leadership[8]. Thirdly, since March 1976 Sadat made some steps towards a multiparty system by permitting the formation of parties[9]. He authorised the left-wing, Marxist- oriented National Progressive Union Organisation (NPUO) and the right-wing Socialist Liberal Organisation (SLO) to act on a political platform together with the ASU[10]. However, as the newly formed parties began to oppose some political measures seeking to retain control[11] over these parties[12] after the elections held in 1976, Sadat began to restrict his course of political liberalisation by prohibiting further political demonstration through emergency measures and holding the NPUO responsible for the riots occurred in January 1977[13].
On the religious level, Sadat also continued to rely on the Islamist movements to gain support from them. On succeeding Nasser, he released several religious adherents of the Muslim Brothers ("Ikhwan al-Muslimin" or the "Ikhwan" (Brothers)[14] ) and allowed them, as they had abandoned any use of violence, to re-appear on the religious scene by permitting them to publish their opinions in their religious newspaper ("al-Dawa"). However, Sadat tried to intervene in the increasing efforts made by some radical Islamist representatives of the Jamaat al-takfir wa-al-hijra ("Penitence and Withdrawal") and the Ikhwan[15]. They harshly criticised Sadat's separation of politics and religion as well as his open-door policy ("infitah"[16] ) which attempted to strengthen the private sector and foreign aid coming from the United States and international financial institutions (International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank)[17].

They also revolted against corruption and mismanagement of the regime that increasingly occurred within the country as well as against the adoption of Western culture. Both groups demanded a return to the shari'a (Islamic law), and, thus, to "a state of 'pure' Islam"[18]. Because of the increasing opposition movement, Sadat forbade any formation of a party based upon religious platform[19] and, instead, he stayed on his political course banning attempts of extremists’ religious associations to interfere politically[20].

After the assassination of Sadat by extreme members of the Jihad in October 1981[21]. president Hosni Mubarak took over office. The Mubarak government can be viewed as a continuing process with respect to the fostering of democracy. Firstly, he released hundreds of political opponents who had been detained under the Sadat regime[22]. Secondly, he pursued the establishment of a multiparty system under which five[23] other parties and one religious party, the Umma[24], can now participate in the parliamentary decision-making process[25]. Moreover, Mubarak established a system of proportional representation for the elections in 1984 which allowed parties to be represented within the National Assembly, when reaching 8 per cent of the total vote[26]. Although the main opposition parties are largely represented in the National Assembly, Mubarak has, however, restricted the legal status of the left-wing Egyptian Communist Party and the movement of the Islamic Muslim Brothers[27].

Thirdly, Mubarak has launched a fight against political corruption[28]. To prevent further corruption, Mubarak has limited the right to participate in the political process to those members of the National Assembly who were not engaged in political corruption[29]. Although these facts have contributed to the process of political liberalisation to foster democracy, the presidential government system remains unchanged.

Fostering political participation does not stand alone, but is also dependent on economic factors which can promote the liberalisation process[30]. Although most of the Arab countries have undergone externally sponsored economic liberalisation[31] through the aid of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF)[32], putting pressure[33] on the Egyptian regime to open its markets for foreign investors, Egypt has failed to realise economic privatisation and thus to strengthen the domestic economic market[34]. This failure of the stabilisation of its own domestic economic market is based on three reasons. Firstly, despite the large investment programmes carried out under the head of the IMF since 1974 until the late 1980s, the aim to reduce state control over the economic market has not yet taken place because economic power still lies in the hand of the elitarian bourgeoisie[35]. This privileged group still maintains control over the state apparatus and successfully prevented the channel of capital into the private sector and so has significantly paralysed the "transformation of the economy"[36]. Secondly, due to its political dependency upon the international financial institutions, the Egyptian government can no more exercise its original power in making economically-based decisions and, thus, to gain and regulate its economic internal market structures[37].


[1] One should be aware that the emergence of quasi-democratic structures as a decisive process of democratisation in most of the Middle Eastern regions is still to be regarded at a beginning stage, and therefore, is not comparable with Western democratic institutions, see further Pool, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), p. 42 and Leca, in: Salame (1994), pp. 53-59. Salame rightly describes the current development of democratisation as "the search for democracy (...) beginning with the state rather than the nation, going on to recognise communities, then to re-evaluating the individual", see Salame, in: Salame (1994), p. 10. However, quasi-democratic structures in the Middle East countries, as it will be shown in this essay, can be manifested through the emergence and formation of various political groupings and/or Islamic-oriented associations.

[2] Quoted from Kingdon (1991), p. 3.

[3] The term 'political participation' is used here in the sense that this essay focuses on how greater political freedom, or the freedom to form political groups and parties to participate in national elections has been achieved in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

[4] The presidential system was introduced by Gamal Abdel Nasser in January 1956 after the revolution

in 1952 launched by the Free Officers and the overthrow of King Farouk. Although Nasser permitted the creation of a National Assembly and had established his own National Union party, the political power remained in the hands of the military which made it impossible to let political groupings participate in the political discourse. Compare Hopwood (1991), pp. 86-89.

[5] As stated in Hopwood (1991), p. 112, and Baynard, in: Long/Reich (1995), p. 314. Sadat was entitled to appoint not only the prime ministers and his cabinet but also the Hight Court judges, university presidents and some religious leaders (Baynard, in: Long/Reich (1995), p. 314).

[6] See Baynard, in: Long/Reich (1995), p. 314.

[7] The ASU, a mass political organisation with about five million civilian members by 1968, was conducted under the leadership of Nasser. This political institution was created to pursue the reform of the Egypt society in the name of socialism. In addition, it was created to establish a separate power within Egyptian society and opposed the still dominating army, see Hopwood (1991), pp. 63, 66, 76, 91-95.

[8] Hopwood (1991), ibid.

[9] See Baynard, in: Long/Reich (1995), p. 315.

[10] Hopwood (1991), p. 114.

[11] Such measures were, for instance, carried out by the ASU as this political organisation controlled the press. In addition, a bill introduced in June 1977 strictly limited the political participation of political groups in parliament to those parties which had at least twenty parliamentary members. Finally, Sadat created his own party called the National Democratic Party (NDP). See Hopwood (1991), p. 114, who views this legal measure as an indicator for paralysing further political opposition against Sadat's leadership as the bill, introducing restrictions on parliamentary membership, thereby confirmed de facto that only the ASU were to be considered as a legally accepted party within the parliament.

[12] After the election in October 1976, where the ASU had won the majority of seats in the parliament, Sadat tightened control over the SLO and NPUO by putting them under the "financial control and supervision of the ASU" (Hopwood, p. 114).

[13] This led to the imprisonment of 105 members of the National Progressive Union Organisation because they were blamed by the government for the instigation of the outbreak riots in January 1977, see further Hopwood (1991), ibid.

[14] Prior to the Egyptian revolution in 1952, the Muslim Brothers, founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, sought to use at first radical and violent measures to overthrow the kingship. They were convinced that all Western elements brought into the country should be replaced through the return to the shari'a (Islamic law) and traditional principles. Being under British occupation since 1882 until 1954, the Muslim Brothers opposed the adoption of Western life style and values which had been brought into the country by the British occupants. However, after the revolution they became a more moderate religious group, refraining from using violence, since under the Nasser regime they have been much more tolerated (although their legal status has been denied under the Mubarak government). Compare further, e.g., Hopwood (1991), pp. 21-22, 29-36, 89, 91 and Sayyid-Marsot (1984), pp. 546-548.

[15] Hopwood (1991), p. 117, points out that the Ikhwan critically argued that the separation of politics and religion would infringe the traditional Islamic principles favouring the unity of a political rule of law based on the shari'a (Islamic law) and religious life.

[16] The infitah was clearly an economic issue which should revitalise the private economic sector by attracting foreign investors to bring their capital into the country, see Hopwood (1991), pp. 131-132. The change of Egyptian legislature and law in 1974, which allowed the public-sector companies to invest money into joint ventures, boosted the economic process of privatisation, compare Springborg, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), pp. 147-148.

[17] Springborg, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), pp. 152-154, points out that US financial support only played an insignificant role concerning the economic liberalisation in Egypt under the Sadat era. Because foreign investment in the private sector efforts only led to one per cent of the gross domestic production (GDP) by the end of 1970 which implies that "the promised flow of private Western capital and technology did not develop." (Springborg, p. 152).

[18] Quoted from Hopwood (1991), p. 118.

[19] Hopwood (1991), p. 119.

[20] Although he carefully permitted the conservative al-Azhar ulama, known as a non-radical religious association, to deal with political matters when they were involved in the peace treaty with Israel in May 1979. Compare, for instance, Hopwood (1991), p. 119, who states that the ulama ' s involvement in foreign policy affairs "showed that

the tradition of religious leaders supporting state policy was very much alive".

[21] See, e.g., Hopwood (1991), p. 183, and Baynard, in: Long/ Reich (1995), pp. 315, 318.

[22] Hopwood (1991), p. 185.

[23] See, for instance, Hopwood (1991), p. 185, and Kingdon (1991), p. 11, both speaking of six opposition parties which are now represented in the National Assembly, namely the National Democratic Party, the Liberal Socialist Party, the National Progressive Unionist Party, the New Wafd Party, the Party of Social and Democratic Construction, the Socialist Labour Party and the Umma (People's Party).

[24] Hopwood (1991), p. 185, emphasises that the Umma is the only legally accepted and officially represented religious party under the Mubarak regime because other extremist groups are neither permitted nor they enjoy any legal status, as it is the case of the Muslim Brothers.

[25] Mubarak also encouraged the secular opposition (left wing National Progressive Union) to participate in the 1987 elections and allowed the moderate Muslim Brothers to form a political alliance with the socialists and liberals, cf. Hopwood (1991), p. 183ff. However, the establishment of a multiparty system could not prevent the political victory of the National Democratic Party (NDP) winning the 1984 and 1987 parliamentary elections, see further Baynard, in: Long/ Reich (1995), pp. 315, 318.

[26] Hopwood (1991), ibid.

[27] Compare, e.g., Kingdon (1991), ibid. The Muslim Brotherhood was originally founded in 1928 by Shaikh Hasan al-Banna, see Sayyid-Marsot (1984), p. 546.

[28] Baynard, in: Long/Reich (1995), p. 319.

[29] See Kingdon (1991), p. 11. Furthermore, Mubarak had brought Sadat's brother Ismat, being charged with making corrupt deals, before the court and was sentenced to imprisonment, see Hopwood (1991), p. 191.

[30] Compare Pool, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), p. 50, stating that economic liberalisation has "resulted in greater political freedoms, accompanied by attendant political controls". Stevens expresses a similar view, in Niblock/ Murphy (1993), p. 129.

[31] See Niblock, p. 207, who defines 'economic liberalisation' as "any measure which strengthens the role of the market in the economy" by means of, for example, the privatisation of the "formerly state-owned industry", "the opening of stock markets" or "the cutting of state expenditure".

[32] See, for instance, Springborg, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), p. 153.

[33] Although the main interests of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank focus of the structural adjustments, economic liberalisation, and the emergence of a private sector, it can be observed that since 1988 the IMF has further put enormous pressure against the Egypt government which can be described as a " 'shock treatment' to open Egyptian economy" (quoted from Niblock, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), p. 61). See further Springborg, ibid., pp. 152-154.

[34] Compare, e.g., Niblock, p. 210.

[35] Niblock, p. 210.

[36] Niblock, p. 210, and Niblock, in: Niblock/Murphy (1993), p. 57.

[37] As stated in Niblock, p. 214, who believes that the "state bureaucrats lose the ability to favour merchants or social groupings, because the relevant decisions no longer lie within their prerogative".

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Political Participation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A Comparison
Lancaster University  (Department of Politics and International Relations)
MA16: Politics and International Relations of the Middle East
62/100 Punkte
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Comments of the course tutor: Very wide-ranging and extremely researched.
Democratisation, Political Participation, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Political Development, Extent of Political Participation, Political and Economic Liberalisation
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Andreas-Michael Blum (Author), 1996, Political Participation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353370


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