Egypt’s election: power, actors, and...“change”

The iron rule of Hosni Mubarak has dominated Egypt for three decades. The regime he heads is preparing for the succession and seeking to channel Egyptians’ hunger for change into a tool of retrenchment. The secular opposition is absorbed by the effort of staying in the political game; the Muslim Brotherhood has larger ambitions. What place does a parliamentary election have in this landscape? An assessment from Tarek Osman, in Cairo.

Egypt’s parliamentary election on 28 November 2010 is an event of limited significance by the normal standards of a democratic vote yet vital in helping to clarify the emerging shape of Egyptian politics. The result in itself is a foregone conclusion - a significant majority for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), in which President Hosni Mubarak’s son (and presumptive heir) Gamal Mubarak is a key figure. This is despite the fact that the longing for renewal in Egypt is widespread after almost thirty years of rule by Hosni Mubarak, who was elevated to the presidency following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981.

The popular frustration with the political immobility at the top is admixed with a rejection of the new capitalist elite that has rapidly arisen to dominate the ruling party. In the minds of millions of Egyptians, this elite is associated with more than corruption; it also represents a blurring of the lines between power and wealth at the pinnacle of society. There is a sense of fusion of political and economic power that makes the hunger for change more acute - yet its realisation as difficult as ever.

The contest

The intriguing thing here is that the regime is seeking to ensure its consolidation not merely by resisting an unstoppable demand for change, but precisely by incorporating and channelling it in its own direction. The regime is aware that an 82-year old president cannot remain in power indefinitely, and is preparing for the succession - and what it hopes will be the beginning of a new era with the same forces and institutions (albeit with a different face) in charge. In this respect a key task in the vote on of 28 November is to ensure a comfortable pro-government majority in the 454-seat parliament and to marginalise the regime’s more prominent rivals, thus setting the stage for the presidential election in autumn 2011.

An NDP victory may be guaranteed by the nature of Egypt’s authoritarian system and balance of political forces, but the regime cannot afford to ignore the various opposition parties (and the popular discontent they seek to voice). The latter include some traditionally liberal parties, such as al-Wafd, which are likely to gain more seats than in the past - though less because of any surge in popularity but than as because the regime’s systematic efforts to curb the power of the Islamist opposition simply makes al-Wafd a convenient alternative outlet for many discontented Egyptians.

A number of movements that have managed to build a a certain popular momentum and constituency for change will not be represented in the new parliament on account of the decision to boycott the election as a means of depriving the regime of the legitimacy that greater participation would give it. These include the Kifaya (Enough) network that arose in 2005 and organised lively and media-savvy protests on a range of issues; and the Front for Change group, associated with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The ElBaradei factor

In many respects the trajectory of Mohamed ElBaradei is a lesson in both the attractions and the limitations of this secular Egyptian opposition. ElBaradei returned to Egypt in February 2010 and arrived on the Egyptian political scene after a respected period as director-general of the IAEA, quickly becoming the repository of hopes among people of various age-groups and backgrounds that he might be the long-awaited agent of change. This authority and support quickly earned ElBaradei a reputation as a serious presidential contender - in contrast to every other challenger to President Mubarak in the past decade.

Perhaps the most important reason for the weight of expectation invested in him - and the fear he aroused in the establishment - is that ElBaradei is an untainted outsider: someone who had lived outside Egypt for almost thirty years, who has no evident links to the country’s murky business or decision-making circles, armed with the diplomatic refinement and sophisticated discourse acquired over his international career, and a standing rebuke to the regime’s claim that the only political alternative on offer is hardline political Islam.

But against these assets, ElBaradei has a colossal liability: he is a liberal who represents the classic Egyptianism that combines Islamism and Christianity in one identity. He is the product of Egypt’s 1950s-1960s, part of a generation shaped by traditions of cosmopolitanism, secularism and social leniency - when the heritage of the liberal constitutional experiment of Egypt’s 1920s-1940s shaped educated Egyptians’ understanding of their country’s political life, even during the Nasserite revolution begun in the 1950s. That liberalism still appeals to liberal intellectuals, the secular independent media, and to sections of the country’s upper-middle class. But it is at odds with the potent religious-conservative wave that has ridden over much of Egyptian society - and the middle class in particular - since the 1970-1980s (see Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak [Yale University Press, 2010]).

It is notable, for example, that when ElBaradei criticised the prevailing rule in Egypt that an individual’s religious affiliation was recorded on his/her identity-card, the comment was (shrewdly) ignored by the Islamic movement - but harshly condemned by hundreds of young bloggers and commentators.

The view of ElBaradei as a potential agent of change persists - and support for him can be found among Egypt’s religious, conservative majority as well as the aforementioned liberal sectors. His decision to boycott the parliamentary election is a wise one: his Front for Change might have found itself unprepared for the rigours of an election campaign, a low turnout (previous elections have seen fewer than 25% of Egyptians voting) could be interpreted as an endorsement of his stance, and remaining outside the fray allows ElBaradei to keep his options open in relation to the presidential election in 2011.

But there is also a downside to his positioning as a putative “national” figure who seeks to incarnate Egyptians’ inchoate hopes for change. As long as he refrains from endorsing a more detailed and focused political agenda - as long, that is, that he shows himself reluctant to act as a “normal” politician - ElBaradei’s freedom to manoeuvre will be at the cost of his ability to build enduring political authority.

The absence of immediate obligations can be a tremendous advantage to any politician (think of Barack Obama’s campaign in the United States in 2008), allowing him or her the freedom to engage in sweeping generalisations that can sound compelling (ElBaradei’s reference to the “civilisational framework of Islam” is an example).

But when ElBaradei finds himself pressed to clarify his positions on issues of contention in Egyptian society and discourse (such as proposed amendments to the constitution that touch on issues of religious conversion, abortion, women’s rights, and proportional representation for Christians in parliament), it is harder for him to maintain the role of perpetual concerned citizen. 

In this ambiguous position, Mohamed ElBaradei - even as a new actor on the political scene - represents the wider dilemma of Egypt’s secular and liberal opposition. For it is capable of raising general hopes (not least among western observers and expatriates) for a progressive transition in Egypt to a more democratic order; but it still has an uncertain relationship to Egyptian society as it has developed, and to an extent remains trapped by the inheritance of the Egypt of half a century ago.

The Islamist calculation

But if Egypt’s liberal forces are far from presenting a strong challenge to the ruling elite, the significance of the country’s Islamic opposition is of a different order. The result of the contest between the regime and political Islam in general - and in particular its most organised force, the Muslim Brotherhood - will determine Egypt’s future.

Here lies perhaps the election’s most important and interesting aspect. Egypt’s political Islam, and again especially the Muslim Brotherhood, believe that Egypt’s future is theirs. The brotherhood, with a new cadre at its head - sees this period as a historic moment to make the leap from the status of a popular (if illegal and chronically marginalised) opposition group to becoming a key influence on Egypt’s future. Its immediate objective is to become the most vocal and structured opposition bloc in the new parliament (for which its candidates stand as independents to circumvent the movement's legal status).

Most of the brotherhood’s leaders are savvy enough to realise that their objective of politically Islamising Egypt is not feasible in the short or medium term. But they see a clear political opportunity. They have a solid presence on the ground - amongst poor Egyptians, and among many of the 45 million-plus Egyptians under the age of 30. They are preparing for a transition that they hope will be more fluid than the secure retrenchment the elite dreams of.

Their calculation is that the end of Presient Mubarak's reign would mean the departure of a towering leader, the only figure who commands the unrivalled loyalty of the country’s military establishment. His designated replacement - whether his son Gamal, or a more senior regime insider - would lack his authority, be more dependent than his predecessor on Egypt’s newer (and perhaps less reliable) economic power-centres, and would be more exposed to vigorous and irreverent popular sentiment emboldened by the change of leadership.

In these circumstances, the Muslim Brotherhood - with its unmatched organisational skills, its implantation in Egyptian society, its command of the religious and social vernacular, and the aura earned by its experience of persecution and resilience - sees the chance to make a decisive advance.

The arena

The Egyptian regime and political Islam are to a great extent locked in a perpetual fight. The security forces continue to detain the Muslim Brotherhood’s activists (especially in towns, villages, and poor urban neighbourhoods) and at times some of its leading members; drain some of its conspicuous financing sources; and restrict its ability to manoeuvre. The brotherhood retaliates by embarrassing the regime through its effective social-support network; mobilising its activists in unions and universities to discredit the regime’s foreign policy; and at times, displaying its sheer force by organising demonstrations that draw tens of thousands.

Yet in other ways the two sides are bonded by their rivalry - for both are utterly opposed to any prospect of the emergence of a strong liberal movement able to appeal to Egypt’s middle classes and represent a viable interlocutor with the west. Both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood relished the humiliating electoral failure in early 2000s of the group around the late Aziz Siddiqui, one of the country’s leading Nasserites and a respected liberal voice; the brotherhood was indifferent to the regime’s quashing of the liberal (if also ineffective) al-Ghad party; and it revealed its disinterest in cooperation by rejecting ElBaradei’s proposal in September 2010 to boycott the elections.

The two giants thus keep Egypt’s political arena “clean” of other players. The election is the beginning of a new phase of the fight between them. Both forces are attempting to exploit Egyptians’ longing for change, though with very different understandings of what this should entail. The character of the emerging political era in Egypt, as President Mubarak departs from the scene, will be defined by which sort of "change" wins the day.

About the author

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of the international bestseller, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010) and has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.

More On

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)