EGF Researcher, Global Security
Egypt’s Islamic state on the horizon
Egypt is once again in the headlines. The results of the first, allegedly, free elections after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptian president are causing widespread concern, especially in the West, about the country’s process towards democratization. Many fear that the legacy of the former political establishment will haunt the country for many years to come. Egyptians have been denied any aspect of a wealthy social and political life and are now concerned about the fruits of their courageous actions and the new seeds last year’s events have implanted. What will Egypt look like a year from now? Will it end up embracing a hardline Islamist direction in the administration of political power?
Clearly, a new era has opened for Egyptians, hopeful but fearful that the results of recent elections will not be enough for their country to finally depart from a burdened past. For the first time in decades the population has voted with no restrictions whatsoever, but the fact that Islamists are set to draft a new constitution that might end up creating an Islamic state is causing high levels of apprehension. This is particularly true if we consider that the more secular parties have been marginalized by the Egyptian electorate.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political grouping of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 235 out of 503 seats (47.2%), followed by the 121 seats of the al-Nour Party (24.3%), the ultra-conservative Salafist party. The New Wafd Party and the Egyptian bloc, both representing more secular positions, were only able to get 38 and 34 seats respectively. The outstanding victory of Islamists has caused mixed feelings about these epochal elections, particularly among Western spectators, but especially in terms of wider implications for the Arab world. Indeed, Egypt has always been regarded as a leading Arab state and a potent cultural force with high resonance in the region. However, the country’s dominance began to subside in the 1970s, when then president Anwar Sadat refused in toto Arab nationalism and Nasserism and transformed Egypt into a largely pro-Western regime.
Are we ready for ‘alternative forms of democracy’?
Many commentators interpret the electoral results as a failure of Tahrir Square’s uprisings and the missed chance for a real democratic transition of Egyptian structures of power. These speculative considerations do not take into account that the notion of political Islam does not equate to the notion of radical Islamism. A political party whose background is anchored to an Islamic orientation cannot be considered a synonym for ‘antidemocratic’ or ‘retrograde’. In this regard, Tunisia and Morocco are concrete examples of how the adjectives ‘moderate’ and ‘Islamic’ are not antithetic. As some European parties are inspired to Christian values and beliefs, so parties in North Africa can be linked to Islamic ethics. Profound attachment to one’s faith and religion must not be confused with or misinterpreted as Islamism or radicalism. As Mr. Anas Altikriti, CEO of the Cordoba Foundation in London and expert on Arab, Middle-Eastern and Muslim affairs, has pointed out in an October 2011 article:
“[t]he very concept of the Arab Spring should serve as the perfect reassurance that Arab people are in no way inclined to follow nihilist, isolationist or violent path for the future let alone vote for one.”
After decades of expecting a sudden outburst of hatred from Islamic groups against the West, it is about time to become acquainted with the idea that movements like the Muslim Brotherhood are to be part (and some already are) of the political scenarios of many North African countries and should be given the chance to show what they are capable of. In Turkey, for example, the AKP has risen to power (2002) and has ever since been involved in the amelioration of Turkish society. Further, Tunisia should be seen as a role model in the transition towards democracy. The presence of a small but uniform society, of a modern educational structure, of a well-developed middle class and economy, together with a moderate interpretation of the percepts of Islam and a military kept out of politics are all dimensions that make one hope for success in the country.
Institutions of the ancien regime resilient
Supporting a revolution but subsequently refusing its results would be quite deceitful. What should be of more interest for the international community and especially for those young street men that strenuously fought for freedom last year is the real aim of the Egyptian uprisings: the construction of a truly democratic system in a country that has strived under a corrupt and exploitive regime for too much time, and especially the determination to initiate and be engaged in a very intricate nation-building process. Egypt’s problem today is not the unprecedented victory of the Muslim Brotherhood or of the al-Nour party or their Islamic morals, which in the case of the first have been largely exaggerated. The future of the country will depend on how the new ruling elite, whichever it is going to be, will handle the inheritance of the Mubarak regime which left Egypt profoundly weak in terms of institutional strength, rooted in corruption, and mired in economic depression and social inequalities.
What protesters have called for is a clear and transparent pathway towards democracy, against the superficial and fake façade of military regimes that have ruled Egypt for sixty years. What the demonstrations of January 25 have led to is the end of the diffused public political apathy which has enslaved Egyptians for decades. The people now feel that their vote counts and they are coming to the conclusion that the real challenge is not tearing down an authoritarian regime, rather building a new political machinery from scratch. Citizens’ participation in political life and the subsiding of the military establishment should foster the rise of new politically relevant actors prepared to engage in the reconstruction of a nation and refusing any type of marginalization.
The structures characteristic of the old regime, however, are still intact. In order to guarantee Egypt’s successful exodus from its past, the traditional bureaucratic edifice and the military elite need to be eradicated once for all. Codifying and creating new laws will not be enough: what Egypt needs is to reinvent itself from the beginning and to distance itself from those unwritten norms which are rooted in longstanding illegal or silenced practices.
It seems unlikely that the country will rely on a single-party system; instead a coalition of different political groups would be expected to rule the country to guarantee an efficient system of check and balances that would avoid the return of an authoritarian figure. The risk obviously comes from the different interpretations of how the country should be ruled, what the relationship between the citizen and its representatives should be, and especially how relevant and significant Islam will be in Egyptian society.
The veterans of Egypt’s political scene I: the Muslim Brothers
The Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Nour Party and the army (which is nominally ruling the country until the presidential elections take place in May-June) are the actors causing a great matter of concern for Western spectators and Egyptian secular groups in the context of a renewed state.
Founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 and later inspired by the preaching of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood has been since its inception a model to be emulated by many other groups in the Arab world with Islamic backgrounds and roots. While initially fighting against colonial rule and Western imperialism, in the 1980s the movement consolidated its role in domestic Egyptian politics by searching for alliances with mainstream political parties. Between 2000 and 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to achieve electoral success (almost 20% of the seats in the People’s Assembly), at least until recently, forcing former president Mubarak to suppress any sort of political group or political opposition having religious backgrounds.
While living clandestinely, the movement has worked on its hierarchy, its reach and has emphasized its choice to abandon the use of violence to achieve political aims. As of today, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the best structured and organized political force in Egypt. The reasons for this ‘success’ are simple: because it was banished from the public scene by the Mubarak regime, the movement focused on the grassroots of Egyptian society, that is, it addressed those grievances which were blatantly ignored by the ruling elite. Especially during the 1980s and 1990s, the movement focused on the recruitment of young sections of Egyptian society that were neglected and unrepresented by the central government. It follows that in the eyes of many Egyptians the Brotherhood is a bright option, a progressive force that has worked underground to offer Egypt an alternative to military rule or to the appetite of yet another authoritarian leader.
In the context of last year’s uprisings, the Muslim Brothers have smartly chosen to back the protesters but not to take any active role in the demonstrations. They have tried to abstain from fomenting the activists in order to portray themselves as a moderate political force, and in order to enhance their credibility as a group refraining from violence and ready to engage into the reconstruction of the nation. The choice of keeping a low-profile during last year’s demonstrations was based on the unwillingness to instrumentalize people’s demands for political gain or to inscribe the uprisings in religious demagogies. The FJP has, indeed, presented a truly audacious electoral campaign, founded on the principles of liberty and equality, which every Muslim should respect. Further, it proposed policies to ameliorate public security and address the high-priority economic problems of the country. It promised to handle the disastrous social situation of Egyptians, to remove once and for all the imbalance in the structures of wages, and many other relevant issues.
The Brotherhood is thus displaying a moderate outlook by putting the religious agenda aside in favor of public policy and by trying to translate protesters’ demands into viable reforms for the country. The risk is, however, that once a government is formed, the Muslim Brotherhood will forgo the role of a reforming and moderate force and instead establish a hostile theocracy. However, whichever the future of Egypt will be, it is essential to engage in dialogue with the FJP, which, as already mentioned, is at the moment the most structured political party in the country. Further, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would risk losing its hard-earned position in Egyptian politics by enforcing a hardline interpretation of Sharia. Having worked on its moderation for more than 30 years and having guaranteed a stable and strong base of support, it is improbable that the group will endanger its position.
The Salafist dream of theocracy sparks fear
The unprecedented results garnered by the ultraconservative al-Nour party, which was established in the wake of last year’s protests, have raised eyebrows. Shock came especially from Coptic Christians, the liberals, and young protesters, who criticized the group for trying to boycott the uprisings since the beginning.
In its electoral programme, the group has called for the return to the original precepts of the Koran and Islamic ethics, through a strict interpretation of Sharia. The result would be the creation of a theocratic state in Egypt. This eventuality overshadows fear about the Muslim Brothers ascending to power. Compared to the FJP, the al-Nour party lacks an internal solid structure and is taking a chance in hopes of transforming the country to a theocracy.
Indeed, the issue of the role of Islam in the Egyptian constitution is bound to cause collision between the two political parties, and divisions on the matter might favor a third party: the military establishment. Clashes over who is to write the constitution have been already reported this month. At the center of intense debate was the extent of how religiously conservative the new Egypt should be and who will be part of the 100-member commission drafting the document. The al-Nour party would opt for a constitution based solely on Islamic precepts and, according to a party representative, it should not allow any Christians or women to run for presidency.
The veterans of Egypt’s political scene II: the military
On 11 February 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control of the country while promising to relinquish power when a civilian government is elected between May and June this year. During the mass street protests in Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the Egyptian generals initially backed the president but appeared to reduce their support by the time demonstrations confronted the presidential guard. In reality, the honeymoon between the military and Mubarak was over long before the protests. A divide was created years ago when the president decided to nurture ‘strategic friendships’ with Egyptian business tycoons and favor them economically over the military. Some experts have argued that the Egyptian generals used last year’s insurrection not as an attempt to oust the regime itself, but rather to re-establish their dominance in Egyptian society. Evidence to support these assertions is provided by the fact that the SCAF has only recently set a date for presidential elections and that the head of the Council, Mr. Mansour Hassan, has announced he will join the presidential race. The possibility of a strong presidency in Egypt represents a chance for the military to perpetuate its privileges.
The reluctance of the military to relinquish power has convinced Mr. El Baradei, who came back to the country when protests began last year, to retract his candidature for forthcoming presidential elections. El Baradei has sought to refashion himself as a liberal and democratic crusader. The reasons for his decision are to be found in his opposition to the SCAF, which, according to him, has not yet provided effective tools for a transition to democracy. It seems, however, that his withdrawal has gone unnoticed since El Baradei has become more associated with the West during his many years of absence from Egypt. The SCAF, for its part, may be actually more interested in preserving its economic interests in the country rather than simply holding on to power for power’s sake. While it is likely that the generals would demand impunity from any civilian government which they helped to power, it is unlikely that they have ever had a penchant for the burden of day-to-day political life.
Egypt’s new plurality: towards more inclusive politics
The army and the Brotherhood are linked through an unofficial relationship which has nothing to do with the shared desire for democracy or a truthful ideological affiliation. Contrarily, the military would like to exploit the Brotherhood’s base of public support and its ability to reassure the masses. In the long-term, however, the Muslim Brotherhood could endanger the generals’ position and influence over Egyptian politics by gaining full political credibility. On the other hand, the generals would try to discredit the Brotherhood by playing the Islamist or terrorist card, should it try to marginalize the army from the political scene.
Despite skepticism about a smooth transition of power, the SCAF is expected to end its interim role in July. Recent tensions during a football match in Port Said have highlighted the heightened security situation of the country, though this and other events have not influenced voters’ turnout for the elections of the lower house of the parliament (almost 62%). However, electoral results for the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, have been enthusiastic (7.2%).
The outcomes of both the legislative and presidential elections, together with the army’s expected withdrawal from power, will thus begin to provide us with a clearer image of what Egypt will look like in the near future. The result might be a country sunk in Islamism or a power-sharing coalition. In any case, the FJP will probably try to reinforce its position and be increasingly active on the decision-making scene. Whichever the result, it is important to highlight the augmented level of political participation of Egyptians who are not willing to give up what they have so forcefully achieved with last year’s demonstrations.
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