Egypt’s new politics: the democratic test

Egyptians managed by peaceful protest to force the removal of their president. With barely a pause, they are now engaged in building a constitutional democracy. Mansoor Mirza assesses the leading forces in the emerging political landscape.
Mansoor Mirza
11 March 2011

A month after the resignation of Egypt’s long-term president on 11 February 2011, the country is still in tumult. The intense seventeen days of protest that led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak may have subsided, but across the society there are passionate debates and arguments about the country’s political future. Many strikes and demonstrations continue, as do contests between old and new forces in many of the country’s institutions. In this transitional phase, the precise shape of Egypt’s emerging politics is yet to become clear.

But several core elements and dynamics are already apparent. In particular, two things are becoming clearer: the process intended to establish the Egyptian state on a new constitutional foundation, and the challenges facing the political forces (old and new) that are seeking to establish their place in and vision of Egypt's future.

The political dawn

The transformation of Egypt’s political reality has taken place in a very particular way. The mass popular protest forced the resignation of the president, but left a military council in charge of planning for the next stage. The constitutional committee established by the council has announced a very tight timetable for the introduction of formal democracy: a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments on 19 March 2011, followed by parliamentary elections in June and presidential elections in October.

This schedule presents an especial test to emerging opposition groups and figures, who must in the space of only a few months develop an ideological platform and formulate an vision for Egypt’s future. These tasks are made even more difficult by the legacy of Egypt’s past three decades of oppressive rule, when all meaningful political opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was outlawed. As in most cases of political transition, a sudden widening of political space after years of single-party domination is followed by new conflicts and divisions, some of which are accentuated by the fact that people are exploring and learning the new rules of the (democratic) political game.

In this new context, three broad clusters of opposition groups are already or becoming visible. The first is composed of the opposition parties that sustained a formal existence under the old regime, such as the Wafd Party (liberal) and the Tagammu Party (leftist). The second is an emerging coalition of secular youth movements (such as the April 6 Youth Movement) that were at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak uprising. The third is the Islamist parties, the most important of which is the Muslim Brotherhood.   

The test of opposition

The Muslim Brotherhood has been influential in Egypt since its foundation in 1928, despite operating in conditions of formal illegality. Through its social and charitable activities the Brotherhood has earned significant support across the country. It played a cautious role in the uprising, and has announced that it will not put forward a candidate for the presidential elections, but it will contest the parliamentary elections and can be expected to perform well.  

In previous elections, the Brotherhood has overcome its banned status by having candidates who stand as independents. In 2005, it won eighty-eight seats (around 20%) on this basis - more than any other opposition group. Even under difficult conditions of state intimidation and violence, therefore, the movement has proved remarkably adept at operating within the constraints of Egypt’s complex political system.

The Wafd and the Tagammu are also well established forces on the Egyptian political scene with (in some respects) distinguished histories, while lacking the Brotherhood’s taint of subversion and danger. The Wafd was Egypt’s dominant party during the 1920s and 1930s, largely as the result of its leading role in Egypt’s successful anti-colonial struggle against Britain (1919-23); the Tagammu has significant roots in Egypt’s strong trades-union and socialist movements.   

But the two parties became more closely associated with the Egyptian state in later years, and became in effect part of a licensed opposition - allowed to exist in order to give the impression of meaningful political competition. They have also long been paralysed by internal rivalries which the regime was able to exploit and exacerbate. They cannot be regarded as altogether spent political forces, but much of the population no longer regards them as credible and they will have a tough task to find renewed relevance in an unfamiliar political environment.

The youth movements have the advantages of novelty, energy, and the experience of working in coordinated anti-government campaigns waged on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. At the same time they lack the wide social reach and socio-historical attachments of the Muslim Brotherhood. The challenge now for this urban, educated yet frustrated generation is to gain substantial support beyond its core demographic.

The signals here are mixed. This “movement of movements” played a decisive role in the protests that led to Mubarak’s departure, using the new technologies to great effect in spreading information, urging participation, and coalescing around a simple demand (“Mubarak go”). But some of the broader demands have still not been met, and it remains to be seen whether the strong sentiment behind the mass protests can be translated into genuine electoral support.

The course of ideology

Many analysts argue (and worry) that the Muslim Brotherhood’s history and roots in Egypt’s population may mean that its particular vision resonates most widely amongst the people of Egypt in the country's new democratic era. After all, the argument runs, Islam has been the dominant national religion for many centuries; it has become an important part of Egyptian national consciousness, and is woven into the country’s national identity; many Egyptians are likely to vote for a party that moderately supports a place for Islam in the country’s political life.

Moreover, the close relationship between Egypt and Islam has been recognised in previous nationalist revolutions and military coups (in 1882, 1919 and 1952, for example). These great moments provided a platform for all Egypt’s confessional groups to rally around, but also appropriated a variety of Islamic symbols, narratives, and institutions which had nationwide Islamic appeal. It is only to be expected that the Brotherhood, aware of this intricate history, attempts to attract popular support by emphasising Egypt’s Islamic character.

At the same time, this religious factor can easily be exaggerated and misconceived. The Brotherhood’s leading figures have been careful to underline their commitment to a secular state, and the movement as a whole is ambivalent on key policy issues (such as the imposition of Shari’a law) that are regarded as being at the heart of its agenda. Some of its older, conservative elements insist on the central importance of the Shari’a, whereas an increasingly vocal and influential reformist faction sees it as politically toxic. 

This younger, pragmatic element of the Brotherhood recognises that everyday Egyptians now show little enthusiasm for a revival of Shari’a law, and are content with its limited relevance in Egypt’s legal sphere. These internal divisions within the Brotherhood will be important in shaping the movement’s next vision and ideology.

An early indication of the movement’s direction will be its new political platform, which its policy committee has been formulating since Mubarak’s departure. This document will both illustrate the organisation’s political vision and show how much influence the younger, reformist element now has.

The next mountain

Egypt has experienced extraordinary change in the first weeks of 2011. The great achievement of the youth opposition at the forefront of the demonstrations was to force Hosni Mubarak from office and open Egypt to the possibility of a democratic future. The political forces, new and old, now entering the public stage are in a sense a tribute to its success.

But great shifts in a country’s life often leave their main architects behind. It remains to be seen whether a movement of protest can go beyond its origins and establish itself as a central force, or whether Egypt’s governance will remain in the hands of some form of old-new guard. The future still lies open.

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