THE ARAB WORLD
Why Egypt is doomed to political turmoil
Egypt is in many ways the epicenter of the Arab world, so all eyes in the Middle East are on its uncertain future. Elsayed Amin Shalby looks at the factors that will determine developments there.
The prevalent feeling in Egypt after last November’s parliamentarian elections is that the revolution has been hijacked by the Islamists, and those people who originally launched the revolution have been marginalised.
Anyone following Egypt’s revolution from its beginnings will recall that the Islamists joined the revolution only when they realised that it was gaining momentum and had won the support of the majority of Egyptian people.
The feeling that the revolution has since been hijacked reflects the behaviour of the Muslim brotherhood itself. Contrary to the promises they originally gave that they aren’t out to monopolise power, and will be open in the way they co-operate with other political forces, their behaviour in the parliament has seen them intent on gaining a majority of the parliament committees. Then, the composition of the constituent assembly made it plain that the majority of its members were Islamists. A further contradiction of the Islamists’ earlier position came when they nominated their own candidate for the presidency.
The response that the Islamists’ behaviour has drawn from Egyptian civil society, the liberals and other political forces, is that they boycotted the constituent assembly. They then put the case to the judiciary, which has since ruled that the assembly is illegal.
Faced with this challenge, the Muslim Brotherhood retreated. They have accepted that the members of the constituent assembly will be drawn from outside the parliament and so will include representatives of all the political forces in the country.
All this has been a lesson for Egypt’s liberal forces, who have now realised that they must gather themselves together into a single political entity, composed mainly of youth representatives. The encouraging thing about this move is that it was initiated by Mohamed El Baradei along with a number of other highly respected intellectuals. El Baradei is regarded as the godfather of the revolution, because he openly opposed Mubarak’s regime and rallied the Egyptian people by saying that if they took to the streets in their millions, the regime would surely collapse.
Since those heady days, though, followers of the Egyptian political scene say that the Muslim Brotherhood’s lust for power has caused them to lose the confidence of large segments of Egyptian society.
The future of the political system in Egypt will largely depend on whether a consolidation of the country’s liberal forces can counter-balance the Islamists. They also warn that it will be the character and background of Egypt’s next president, once elected, that will determine the weight of the liberals. If the new president is from the Islamist camp, he will surely shift the balance towards Islamists. But among the presidential candidates with an Islamist background there are some who can point to a moderate and rational track record. Abo Fotoh is a former Muslim Brotherhood leading member who has been dismissed from it because he refused to accept the brotherhood’s decision not to compete in the presidential elections.
In the years ahead, the Egyptian political scene looks certain to be fluid and unsettled because of the continuing struggle for Egypt’s’ soul; the contest is between those who want Egypt to be governed by Islamic rule and those who want it to be a democratic and constitutional country based on citizenship, the rule of law and respect for public freedom.
No assessment of the political scene in Egypt is worthwhile without discussing the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power after Hosni Mubarak’s abdication. Its chairman is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, who for 20 years was Mubarak’s defence minister and confidant. The SCAF played an important part in the revolution because it declared that the military would not use force against the demonstrators, and in its first public statement it adopted revolutionary aspirations and saluted the uprising’s martyrs.
All of which was greatly appreciated by the revolutionaries, whose slogan became “The army and people are a single hand”. With its military background but little political experience, the SCAF tried to strike a balance between the country’s political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, while laying down a road map for concrete steps for holding parliamentary elections, drafting a constitution and electing a president.
And it’s true that the SCAF fulfilled its promises. The parliamentary elections proved to be the first free and fair elections in Egyptian history. When the parliament was elected, the SCAF then called for a constitutional assembly that will be drafted before the presidential elections.
But a number of developments have nevertheless come to tarnish the SCAF’s image in the eyes of revolutionaries and most of the political forces in the country. The council’s main mistake has been to ignore public demands for the constitution to be drafted in advance of the presidential elections.
The SCAF’s refusal to agree to this was followed by bloody incidents that have soured relations between the council and the revolutionaries, and have also created serious sectarian tensions.
History will judge whether the military were sincere in their attempts to lead Egypt towards a democratic future. But baring unexpected developments, the military so far seem committed to the transfer of power to an elected civilian president.
There are two other important facets of the post-revolutionary Egyptian political scene. First, everything that happens in Egypt always has an impact on the rest of the Arab world. The success of Egypt’s revolution has provided a model for other Arab countries. There are ruling regimes that found the overthrowing of Mubarak very unwelcome. But any Egyptian government, whether Islamist or not, will want to maintain positive and co-operative relations with other Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf.
Egypt’s own difficult economic situation makes this a vital necessity and Cairo will no doubt be looking to the Gulf countries in particular to lend their support to Egypt as it strives to overcome its economic difficulties.
As to relations with Israel, it’s doubtful whether even an Islamist government would cancel the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But that said, it’s clear that the Mubarak regime’s soft policies towards Israel won’t be repeated.
The second issue concerns the Egyptian revolution’s “twin” in Tunisia. The uprising there inevitably leads to comparisons of the way the two countries have handled post-revolutionary developments.
The major difference is that in Tunis the incoming regime started off by drafting a new constitution. Tunisia had the advantage of a comparatively smooth political development because the El-Nahda party, which won an outright majority in elections there, was wise enough to co-operate with other political parties to the extent that they appointed the Tunisian leftist leader El-Mrzoki as president. It was an approach that avoided the sort of political turmoil that Egypt is now undergoing.
Elsayed Amin Shalby is Executive Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org