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Egypt and the presidential election: repeating Iranian mistakes?

Egyptians are now forced to choose the lesser of the two evils: Mohamed Morsy and Ahmad Shafiq. Which one? The question is a forcible reminder of the debates and discussions that took place in Iran during the fateful days of the 1979 revolution.

The triangular confrontations among the military, the Islamists, and the revolutionaries continue in Egypt. The revolutionaries who started the uprising are pushed into the background. The military survived because the revolution was aborted. Its declaration of ‘neutrality’ right at the beginning (the Iranian military kept theirs to the end of the 1979 revolution) prevented the system from total collapse. The Islamists opportunistically took advantage of the revolt, and using their massive organizational and ideological capabilities, won the majority of seats in the hastily arranged parliamentary elections. In order not to scare the Egyptians and the West, the Muslim Brotherhood,at first announced that they have no eye on the Presidency and the executive branch. They were hoping to gradually push forward their archaic polices through legislation. But while the revolutionaries were in disarray, and the military busy maintaining the status quo, the Brothers moved another step forward and nominated their candidate for Presidency. The military also put forward its favourite candidate. 

Egyptians now are forced to choose the lesser of the two evils: Mohamed Morsy and Ahmad Shafiq. Which one? The responses we had at a recent York University international conference on the Middle East, here in Toronto, reminded me forcibly of the debates and discussions that took place in Iran during the fateful days of the 1979 revolution. In Iran also the revolution against the Shah was started by intellectuals, professionals, students and workers, and there too, in the absence of a strong secular democratic leader, the Islamists took over, ironically supported by the revolutionaries. 

The choice for Egyptians is indeed a very difficult one. The first round of the election showed that the vast majority of the population is against the two leading candidates, each of them gaining less than 25% of the votes.  It is particularly noteworthy that the Muslim Brotherhood, despite all its claims, represents only a minority of the population. 

Voting for Ahmad Shafiq might mean the end of demands for major change. In a sense, it means the exoneration of the old regime. Voting for Morsy, on the other hand, means an endorsement for the backward policies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some people suggest a third option of boycotting the election altogether in order not to give credibility to the untimely election and the two undesirable choices.

No doubt, boycotting elections could be an effective strategy on certain occasions, setting the stage for future options. But a successful boycott requires the majority to join the campaign and discredit the elections.  Progressive Egyptian activists will know if indeed there is a chance of a successful boycott. But in that case, it would be even better if there is a chance that they could force the military establishment to nullify the hasty election altogether. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case in Egypt at present. One of these candidates will ride the tide and win the presidency. 

The main question now is under whose presidency the progressive forces have a better chance of working for change and for better choices in the future. Drawing from the experience of Iran, I argue (and it is very difficult for me to say this) that Morsy may be the dangerous option. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election, it will control the Parliament, the Presidency and the government, and soon will take over the judiciary. By having all branches of the state under their control, they will move Egypt towards their Sharia-based society. They will not be able to establish an Islamic state a-la Iran, partly because of the fact that the old regime has not totally collapsed. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a very pragmatic and opportunist organization and they can make deals with the military, among others, against the progressive forces. 

The west’s concerns (those of the US in particular) are mainly preoccupied with the new state’s foreign policy, and particularly its relations with Israel, as well as its economic policy. On these issues, they need not be worried for years to come. On relations with Israel, while the Muslim Brotherhood would not cultivate the cozy relations that existed during the time of the Mubarak and Sadat, they will not change the Camp David Accord and will not follow a confrontational policy, as they are well aware of the consequences.  As for economic policy, the Brothers are capitalists par excellence. Their first choice of presidential candidate, Khairat Al-Shater,  (who was rejected because of his recent prisoner status) is a millionaire and a staunch supporter of the market economy and privatization and may be chosen as Prime Minister. He will be a favourite for the IMF/World Bank, and the west’s neo-liberal establishments. 

Where the main danger lies, are in the internal politics of Egypt and issues of human rights, women’s status, democratic freedoms and minorities rights that will all be affected by the implementation of the religious laws. These are the issues about which the US administration and its allies will not care very much , despite all the hypocritical rhetoric. As a religious populist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood will manipulate people’s religious beliefs to mobilize them against the progressive forces. 

Some Egyptian friends, like our Palestinian and other Arab friends, maintain an  illusion that their Islamist fundamentalists are not as bad as Iranian fundamentalists. They are simply wrong. The Iranian fundamentalists were also capable of putting on a benign face when they had yet to consolidate their power and had not yet eliminated the progressive forces. Soon afterward, many of these unworldly people discovered the posh neighbourhoods of Tehran and other big cities with prosperous lifestyles. Through a long process the clerical oligarchy became clerical-military oligarchy, and then clerical-military-industrial oligarchy. Many among the poor, the uneducated foot soldiers of the Mahdi (Messiah) became millionaire industrialists with doctorate degrees! The elimination of the opposition did not stop with the progressive forces, the more honest religious figures were mercilessly hounded out and removed from the scene or sent to jail. 

Another illusion among some Arab progressive secular forces is that when Islamists come to power they will discredit themselves and show their true face to the public. This will no doubt happen, as has been the case with the present Islamic regime in Iran. But this will not make unseating them any the easier, as Iranians have learned the hard way to their great cost. 

Secular democratic forces in Egypt can prevent the full takeover of the Islamists in all branches of the state. They may have a better chance with Ahmad Shafiq as he is the weaker candidate. There is no way that Egypt would go back to the military dictatorship of the Free Officers, and the military is not as strong as before. Nor will the President’s power (despite the fact that this is not yet defined in the present constitutional mess) be the same as it was. Progressive forces could  at least work and push for the third alternative. It is not an easy decision, but the alternative is worse. 

About the author

Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at York University, Toronto

 


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