Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What's the Point of Electing a President?

A friend of mine observed once that he was born while Hosni Mubarak was president, graduated from college and got his first job during his reign, met his wife-to-be, married her and fathered his children under Mubarak’s rule and fully expected to die, and perhaps even (he added only half-jokingly) to be resurrected while Hosni or some younger Mubarak sat in Egypt’s White House.

But that’s all changed and in a mere 16 weeks Egyptians will, for the first time ever, elect as their president Aboul Fotouh or Amr Moussa or Mohamed Selim el Awa or  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail or Ahmed Shafik or maybe even Hamdeen Sabahy. In the past, Egypt’s presidential choices were limited via referendum to “Mubarak” and “Not Mubarak.” This time around Egyptians have a reasonably broad spectrum of candidates to select from. This fact alone is enough to inspire hope.

But Egypt’s future  president will have to contend with and manage such a long and complex list of ailments, from the economy and security to poverty and corruption; he will have to deal with  a high level of expectations from revolutionaries, Islamists, liberals, local and international business communities as well as average Egyptians; and he(/she) will have to manage such a wide range of regional and international issues that it would be unreasonable to expect him(/her) to make much of an impact on any of them. I would probably be more realistic to hope that by the end of his(/her) term Egypt will have positioned itselffor success in the next presidential elections.

The truth, however, is that the issue of whoever becomes Egypt’s next president  represents, at best, just a quarter of the challenges the country is currently facing. At least three other variables will have an equal, if not greater, impact on whether and how Egypt’s revolutionary dreams of social justice, poverty eradication and ending the twin evils of military dictatorship and the police state are fulfilled. These three variables are:

·         The system of government – whether it should be presidential, parliamentary or somewhere in between.
·         Elements of the election process itself
·         The relationship between the president and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)

Since the collapse of the monarchy back in 1952, Egypt has operated under a presidential system, with practically all power concentrated in the hands of the state’s chief executive himself. The list of powers and titles held by the president is formidable. Many Egyptians, including perhaps, understandably, the Islamist majority in parliament, believe this should change and that the powers should be shared between the president and parliament to avoid over-concentration of power in a single branch of government. It is unclear at this stage whether that will be the case. This, along with the formation of acommittee charged with drafting a new constitution which may enshrine the new power-split, certainly represents one of the upcoming battles on the Egyptian political scene.

The specific powers of the president will be at least as important as his persona will be.  Or, as one political pundit put it: It’s is somewhat strange to be “hiring” a president before having a job description for him(/her). Will the president appoint the cabinet? Will he be the commander in chief of the Armed Forces? Will he have the right to dissolve parliament? These questions appear to be the subject of intense negotiations between SCAF and the parliament. The answers will have crucial impact on Egypt’s political future.
No less important is the process of electing the president. What Egyptians do and how they do it this time around is likely to set the future standard. Several elements in this process are neither regulated nor defined.
Currently there are no clear rules on how campaign money is raised, spent or capped. There’s never been a need for such rules. Mubarak spent what he wanted on advertising himself and, besides, there was never any competition. It is unclear whether such rules will be announced or whether candidates will be allowed to obtain and spend any amounts of money from any source and on any activity throughout their campaign.
Additionally, none of the existing candidates was fielded through an existing political party. In other words, voters will have no way of learning of a candidate’s platform and philosophy except from scripted TV talk shows. There is no mechanism for presidential debates between candidates as a way of allowing voters some insight into the their positions regarding various issues. In essence, Egyptians are expected to vote for candidates based on how well they do with this or that talk show host.

Media time is yet another unregulated electoral process. Whether state TV will offer equal air time and equal spots to all candidates remains to be seen. Given the lack of forums for candidate-voter interaction, State TV time is key.

These elements will all create biases for and against individual candidates, and some form of process needs to defined to ensure that the elections are indeed fair, free and transparent.
Finally, it is as yet unclear what exactly the position of the SCAF will be in a future Egypt. All the rhetoric points towards them removing themselves from the levers of power once the next president has been elected. But being in power officially is one thing and pulling strings is another. The SCAF’s multi-billion business empire and traditionally secret budgets, their historical role as the real power-brokers of the country, their close ties to the American military and the fact that every president Egypt has ever had has come from the military mean that it would be naive to expect the SCAF’s complete and immediate withdrawal from political life.

Whoever the next president is, he(/she) will have to deal with the army and its role in running Egypt, if not at the steering wheel then certainly from the back seat yelling instructions.  
The size and complexity of the tasks at hand, the split of power between the presidential palace and legislative chambers, the way Egypt’s elections  are regulated and the relationship between president and the SCAF  – aren’t these the issues that would need to be resolved before Egyptians head to the ballot box?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Social Orwell

In all fairness, neither Orwell, nor Huxley, the other great English disutopian could have seen this global stupidity coming. Both assumed, quite reasonably, that the police state would evolve and start clawing its way into our lives, violently, forcibly, prying away at our privacy, until all was revealed. Two-way TV sets would be mandatory and would  reveal our daily motions even from within our very homes minute-by-minute. Thought police would invent creative tools of mind-infiltration to read our ideas just as they formed inside our stubborn heads. We, the wise, prudent citizens, would resist this invasive state, this wish-to-be-omniscient fraternal overseer. We would hide our actions and thoughts and protect our wheres as jealously as we defend our whys.  

How could they have imagined that a short score and a half years after 1984, we would willingly (nay happily, gleefully, sheep-among-the-wolfishly) give the world access to our daily routines, activities, pictures, friends, relatives, religious and political views and even our very thoughts, wishes, hopes and fears? How could they have foreseen that a day would come when so many would so agreeably peel off the remaining fig leaf of privacy and four-sqaurely announce to the world their whereabouts in real time?

No. In all fairness, they could not have known or guessed that what was once quite naturally considered private would become so public as to be the property of Facebook or Twitter, Google or FourSquare. So much so, that one privacy policy says any information given may be handed over without consent to third parties. 

Instead of the feared two-way TV, we now click a button, unforced and under no threat of rats running around on the inside of a face mask, which allows some obscure application developed by someone, somewhere complete, unadulterated access to so much personal data. Data so personal, that if a close acquaintance were to ask for it, we would likely consider them quite lacking in basic etiquette, gauche, tactless or simply rude and nosy. And you need to know where I am right this minute why exactly?

The question is now removed but used to be "What's on your mind?", now it's just called status update. What's on my mind? WHAT'S ON MY MIND?? Is it not enough for you to know who is in the photo with me and where and when and on what occasion it was taken? 

Yet, we, who have become so cynical in so many areas of our lives it's scary, are so naive when it comes to privacy, accepting the promises of the social media overlords, gulping down the lies that our data is safe with them. Even after credit card numbers are stolen and passwords revealed we still believe. Even when not a day passes without a formal half-serious apology is made from one or more of the new landlords of my data and yours, about this or that breach, hack or back door, we forgive. We're sorry, these pathetic apologies start, we made a mistake, and now every little detail about you is out in the open, immortalized on the web (in case you were hoping it would disappear into some virtual black hole soon) and of course searchable too (in case you were dreaming it might be lost in the deluge of over people's data).

But let's stop at search for a moment. Watch this please and dread your future. Of course it's scary that all our data is out there, but it's equally scary that the data coming in to our perceptive field is being filtered and "personalised" so that if you and I were to right this second punch in the exact same search term into google, we would get completely different results. Why? Well because as you just saw "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be relevant to your interests than people dying in Africa." Ouch! That hurt! Almost physically. No. Not almost. Actually physically.

One more example and I will move on. Have you noticed how Facebook chooses for you whose friends updates you get in your feed? Of course you could spend the next three years customizing your settings and get exactly what you want, but the nice guys in Palo Alto have created a little algorithm which goes something like this: yesterday and the day before Hatem didn't read the status updates of X, Y and Z, hmmm...that must mean Hatem is no longer interested in them, so I will no longer show him their updates. That is scary and pretty uncool too.I don't want some engineered algorithm deciding for me what I want. I want to decide what I want!

We are not only being revealed, but in a sickly self-feeding loop, all that is revealed about us, is being used to further deepen us into ourselves and far from the Internet being the wonderful, open, no-limit world it promised to be, it is becoming a self-perpetuating, narrowing down tool which is limiting our horizon, filtering, without our consent or input, what we get to see, in effect, editing our future selves as it were.