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The fight over democratic norms in Egypt

A relatively stable Egypt now has the challenge of establishing a legitimate democracy. This is a long journey, however, in a country where keeping the military and government honest has taken precedence over supporting a political party that might one day be in charge of government.
Kevin Russell
22 September 2011

As Iraq teeters back towards renewed violence and Libyan and Syrian uprisings seem destined to prolonged instability, Egypt is the most strategic and most likely Arab country in the Middle East to be a democracy ten years from now. No matter the irony that the movements of Tahrir have roots in the opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, Egypt is perhaps the one country that could prove an almost forgotten diagnosis of the events of 9/11 correct: freedom, especially given the demographics of the Middle East, is the only cure for radicalism.

However, the Tahrir revolution threatens to undo itself. While international and Egyptian media focus on the Mubarak trial and constitutional debate over Islam and the state, a much more important fact is overlooked: the first elected government will almost certainly fail. Unless viable governing alternatives are developed before the second election, Egyptians will have every reason to blame democracy itself. 

While the revolutionary movements have roots in opposition to western interference, the issues that brought out millions to topple Mubarak were resentment of the police and a sense of being robbed by state cronies. 'Politics as usual' divided Egypt between those with special privileges and those without. When mobs burned police stations in Suez and then all over Cairo, they sought to exercise the fundamental democratic right of changing the regime when the name of 'citizen' elicited no respect from the state. The challenge for Egyptians now is to build that right into their polity as a norm, rather than an exception. 

Revolutionary groups took this cause back to Tahrir Square on 8 July, leading to Islamist counter-demonstrations and a debate over, as Marc Lynch puts it, 'Who owns the revolution?' In short, that debate is over whether more constitutional guarantees are needed before power is thrown up for grabs in elections. However, the debate over constitutional process - at this point - is focused on the wrong question. Elections are highly likely, and when they are held, few of Egypt’s 85 million people are going to see the need for continued activism regarding liberal constitutional protections. More important than the wording of constitutional rights is creating the expectation among politicians and citizens alike that the first elected government will be held accountable through more elections that have a credible threat of unseating them.

Much of the debate on Egypt’s democratic prospects has focused on discerning the true intentions and power of the Muslim Brotherhood. In open elections, will the Brotherhood gain power and shift authority to religious rather than democratic institutions? On the one hand, after years underground with many leaders jailed, few groups are as thrilled by the prospect of democracy as the Brotherhood. As one Brotherhood member who fought in Tahrir, Mohamed Ali, said, “We are part of this country, and we will try to reveal our concept and our ideas which is that this country needs another way to live, another way close to God, not a religious country. We will try to show the people this idea. If the people of this country accept it, it will spread. If they don’t accept it we will respect their desire. We will not oblige them to do what they don’t want to do.” On the other hand, democracy should not rest on the intentions of any one group, and there is no inherent reason why democracy in Egypt cannot keep Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, true to their claims of support for human rights and political freedoms. Whether democracy will play this constraining role depends not only on the nature of the political parties, but on a wider political context that is largely beyond their control. 

The 800-pound gorilla in the room when considering the political context is the gap between sky-high political and economic expectations and reality. With uncertainty damaging tourism and investment, the economy has plunged. Indeed a June Gallup poll showed that 53% think that economic conditions where they live are deterioriating, compared to 25% the year before. Even more alarming, the poll showed people’s expectations for their lives in five years' time skyrocketing, while their assessment of the present continues to drop.

As important, the humiliated police cannot easily retake control of the streets using their authoritarian tools. As Gamal Al-Rawdy, an official in the Foreign Ministry, pointed out, “That there is security with no police is a miracle.” Reforming the police is the number one challenge, Al-Rawdy concluded, because it is the only way to solve a fundamental dilemma: “how to deliver security and a legitimate government. It sums up our problem: our people see government historically as an enemy. It is hard to advance a new morality in public issues.” 

Such trends will almost certainly continue - as Hannah Arendt pointed out, revolutions are defined as much by what they preserve as what they destroy, and habits as fundamental as policing can’t be changed merely by replacing key officials. If revolutionary and democratic politics fail to deliver where people feel it most, a crisis of legitimacy becomes far more likely. In that context, as Amr Bargisi has recently argued, the Brotherhood’s claim that authority should derive from religious law may attempt a break-away from the constraints of democratic politics. How might Egyptians prevent such a democratic erosion before it begins to take root?

Two somewhat contradictory conditions seem necessary for democracy to accommodate even the most fundamental divisions over the role of religion in the state. First, the Brotherhood must be strong enough in the next government to be perceived as at least partially responsible for the well-being of Egyptians over the first election cycle. Despite a major organizational head start, this condition cannot be taken for granted as they may see opposition as strategically advantageous for precisely the reason outlined above - the oppoprtunity for their message to gain strength, in part, due to its being perceived as an alternative.

Second, the Brotherhood must face competition. They have to be sufficiently challenged on issues of governance from the outset to prevent them from turning to an appeal to divine right when economic and police reform - tasks that take longer than an election cycle - don’t happen fast enough to make people feel that the revolution paid off. Then, even if Islamists control the Egyptian parliament, 'politics as usual' will be about defending their record to the people before elections: “Islam is the Solution” becomes a lot less appealing if the people running on the slogan can’t stabilize the economy and stop the police from eliciting bribes at every traffic light.

The Brotherhood advantage

In June, the Brotherhood entered legal politics by registering a new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). As FJP Vice President Dr. Essam El-Eryan explained, “The Party’s founders are from the Muslim Brotherhood, carrying the same mission as the Muslim Brotherhood in the political sphere, but independent financially and organizationally.” Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the social organization of the Brotherhood gives them a huge advantage. As the FJP General Secretary for Giza Amr Darrag put it, “We paid a high price for our organization, it is natural that we would use that. We are very disciplined.”

Aware of their perceived organizational advantage and the lack of sufficient support in Egypt for a sudden shift to stricter Sharia law, Brotherhood members repeatedly assert their willingness to accommodate other political forces. In June they announced the formation of a coalition - up to 28 parties at its peak ranging from the Salafist al-Nour (Light) Party to the liberal Musryeun Hurriya (Free Egyptians) - to agree on principles for the constitutional process. The coalition, hwoever,  soon disintegrated in the wake of the competing July demonstrations.

The military, which acted as sovereign in the moment of exceptional emergency, seems intent on retaining a quiet veto over issues that would affect what they perceive as Egypt's economic and national security interests. Can they be expected to keep the Brotherhood in check?Unlike their Turkish counterparts, Egypt's army does not have a history of intervening to preserve a secular state. Even their role on the streets in the revolution showed a reluctance to act domestically where the Turkish military has been more comfortable. Whether the Brotherhood will be flexible in building coalitions and making legislative compromises is more likely to depend on whether the incipient democratic process itself forces them to do this. 

While parliamentary elections under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule proliferated irregularities, they established habits that are common to states where informal access to public institutions can provide personal benefits to constituents - habits that do not generally disappear after democratic transitions. In this model, dubbed "competitive clientelism” by scholar Ellen Lust, local persons of influence use networks in their districts to mobilize voters who expect targeted personal rewards such as government jobs, licenses, or even monetary gifts. Elections mean more now that parliamentarians presumably will be able to affect policy, but deeper changes are needed, argues American University of Cairo professor, Mustapha Al Sayyid:

“The most important thing in Egypt is changing the election system,” he says. “We need proportional representation which would force candidates to commit and declare a platform to distinguish from other candidates. The second problem is the nature of political parties. We have ideological parties, Islamists. Other parties must take a stand against Islamic ideology. We should not forget we have considerable Christians, for them the platform is important - what is the position of the party on places of worship, rights of Muslims and Christians, payment of interest by banks, personal freedom, education? Which ministries would the Muslim Brotherhood focus on? Education? Would the program in public schools, where 90% of kids go, change? So people need more interesting ideological questions to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood. Third, raise consciousness of politics, as the revolution did.”

With the possible exception of the voting system, such changes are unlikely to happen quickly. To date, there are few democracies in which patronage politics have been completely replaced. 

In this context, the Brotherhood’s organizational advantage allows them to play on two levels: they can, on the one hand, provide the local services that often sway voters who have many immediate needs and little attachment to national policy debates. Such advantages are particularly important in rural Egypt. On the other hand, with an ideology and reputation that many trust and believe in - especially middle class urban professionals - the Brotherhood can generate the organizational machinery that Mr. Darrag referred to confidently in his Giza office. 

For this reason, the significance of the Brotherhood’s social services can easily be misunderstood. At the Amraniya Islamic Medical Hospital run by the Brotherhood, for example, some patients may consciously connect the services they receive and the vote they cast months or years later, similar to the pattern of 'vote-buying' common in rural settings. More importantly, however, the network of trust among the doctors and wealthy patrons of the hospital deepens through the act of fulfilling their Islamic faith through the service they provide. This shared devotion channels the efforts of some of the most influential members of society toward a single organizational goal. 

In short, the political culture in Egypt is ideal for matching the Brotherhood’s spiritual and material supply with local (especially rural) demand for spiritual and material fulfilment. This is particularly true in Egypt where political organization is Cairo-centric, but its population is the second most rural in the Middle East and North Africa region after Yemen. As Brotherhood member Mohamed Ali explained, “Most Egyptians are below the line of poverty... and we administer zikat: people give us money and we give to those who need it. People really trust us. People voted for Muslim Brothers in 2005 because they knew [our candidates’] hands were clean. Not everyone knew them, but people trust this movement.” No other political force can count on this ideological loyalty across a broad portion of the elite and this operational reach among the masses.

If there is an ideological competitor to Islamism in Egyptian politics, it is Nasserism. Though a somewhat nebulous concept for generations born after Nasser’s rule in the 1950s and 1960s, Nasserism still captures the idea of Egyptian independence and Arab nationalism that Sadat, but especially Mubarak, lost in the eyes of many Egyptians. Though the Nasserist ideals of a strong distributive state are widespread, backed by some mobilizing assets in labour movements, Nasserist political parties are either worn down holdovers from before the revolution, such as the Nasserist Party and Tagammu Party, or upstart revolutionary parties that do not have significant name recognition or resources. Their strongest political force may be in the revolutionary movements themselves, but as a Deputy Coordinator for the Egyptian Movement for Change (known as Kafeya) explained, keeping the military and government honest has taken precedence over supporting a political party that might one day be in charge of government. 

At the other end of the economic policy spectrum, the Musreyeen al-Ahrar party of telecom billionaire Nagib Sawiris has the resources to attempt  to offer a credible voice on economic growth through the private sector. Outside a conference to put forward the party’s platform in June, 23-year old Samir Ramses Salah ad-Din, an organizer of the decentralized demonstrations that converged on Tahrir Square in January, explained why he was attracted to this party:

“A civil state means a state that doesn’t differentiate between its people in its application of the law. We have many parties that believe in that, but what differentiates ours is that it was established after the revolution and works in a scientific way, conscious of the historical moment. We have a real project to reach power. We can face the Muslim Brotherhood. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is totally different. They say sometimes that they are with the civil state, but we all know that isn’t true.”

Samir travels several times a week to rural Upper Egypt to campaign, but described an exhausting process of working through local contacts to generate support through personal networks. It will take a shift in political culture before a dedicated cadre of Cairo youth can sell a message calling for solutions from the private sector, even a party with the resources of Mr. Sawiris.

Democratic uncertainties

What will come of the Muslim Brotherhood organizational advantage? Reflecting on the fate of its progeny in Palestine and Iraq, the Brotherhood may conclude that governing in a democracy when times are tough is a strategic mistake: Hamas in 2006 was the beneficiary of Fatah’s failure, and the Iraqi Islamic Party was punished in elections in 2009 and 2010 for joining the government of Iraq in 2005. Even the Egyptian Brotherhood’s own popularity has traditionally been strongest when they offered an alternative public morality and few specific details. That the Brotherhood might position itself as the opposition despite a lack of ideological competitors is therefore not unrealistic; indeed, locally influential figures - even those with connections to Mubarak’s NDP - may take advantage of their patronage networks to fill many seats and make an FJP majority difficult anyway.

Finally, it has to be taken into account that the Brotherhood’s internal debates and tensions are now public, with conservative forces inside and outside the organization pulling one way, and those generally younger elements who were closer to the political issues driving the revolution pulling the other. 

No one therefore doubts that there is immense uncertainty in the democratic future of the Brotherhood and Egyptian politics. The more important question concerning Egypt’s democratic transition is what kind of uncertainty will predominate. In the more optimistic scenario, uncertainty from one election to the next will make politics as usual acceptable to everyone - if you lose, you live to fight another day. Indeed, this uncertainty is the basis of democratic stability according to scholar Adam Przeworski. For this to happen, policy debates must focus on everyday issues like police, education, healthcare, and jobs, and give voters and parties alike the sense that there are always alternatives. Egypt has an important advantage in this sense, because these debates can focus on (admittedly deep) reform of its institutions, but they are not starting from scratch. Compared to a post-conflict country, Egypt’s institutions continue to function reliably, offering hope for a stability that is lacking in the cases of Libya and Syria, even if their authoritarian leaders are successfully displaced.

Indeed, for all the criticism of the military trials of demonstrators that have taken place in Egypt, on the one hand, and sluggishness in prosecuting former regime officials on the other, the judiciary has shown a remarkable ability to exercise discretion in circumstances more favourable to a witch hunt. For those who watched politics unravel in Iraq’s gutted state, such institutional inertia is more important than rights written on paper. Nonetheless, for institutional reform to take centre stage rather than fundamental debates about religious identity, political parties must force a competition to take place on those issues. Any observer who is deeply concerned for the prospects of stable democracy in the Middle East over the coming decade must therefore pay as much attention to tracking the nature of political debate and competition that Egypt manages to create, as they do to the disintegration of the political order in Syria, Libya, and perhaps Iraq. 

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