A president, but not for all
When religious groups field candidates for the presidency they cannot pretend that their aim is to furnish Egypt with a head of state that represents all Egyptians, writes Azmi Ashour*
There is no denying that the post-independence Arab state was dictatorial, but it did succeed to a large extent in elevating citizen identity and the sense of affiliation to an entity that transcends religious, tribal or ethnic usages. This sense had not appeared out of the blue. It was forged by hundreds of years of the various forms and adversities of colonialism, which worked to make the connection to national identity passionately felt by all.
We should bear this in mind today, as Egypt is on the threshold of the first presidential elections since the 25 January Revolution. These are tense and exciting times, as the media focuses on the candidates as they compete to present their outlooks, outline their platforms, and make pledges with regard to what they will achieve during their terms of office, if elected. There are many healthy signs in this process, especially now that developments over the preceding months have exposed many of the politicians and their parties for what they are. The people are now in the process of assessing the candidates and making up their minds who to vote for. Some are predisposed to vote for a candidate such as Amr Moussa because of his fame; others will be swayed by a candidate's religious affiliation, as with Hazem Abu Ismail before he was disqualified by the Presidential Elections Commission on the grounds that his mother held American citizenship.
When we take a closer look at prospective voting trends, we find a considerable proportion of public opinion that is not religiously or ideologically indoctrinated and that will, therefore, assess the candidates on their respective personal strengths or weaknesses. Among these people, opinion will vary from those who feel that none of the candidates have what it takes to fill the office of the presidency to those who are looking for a strongman to restore security and stability to the country. For another large segment of the public, however, the way they vote will be determined by the party or political force they support. In this post-revolutionary period, these parties and forces are not merely vying over political interests, they are locking horns over religious issues and religio-political ideologies. This applies in particular to the Islamist camp, where we find a candidate for the Salafis and two candidates connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. But it also applies to the Sufi orders, which will certainly put their weight behind a candidate even if it is not yet clear who that might be and even if, contrary to expectations, they did not declare a stance or make their influence felt in the People's Assembly election. Naturally, it will also apply to Copts who will understandably back a secularist candidate.
In short, when it comes to polling day, some people will cast their ballots on the basis of their personal convictions as shaped by the free and independent exercise of their critical faculties. However, there will also be a large segment of the electorate whose vote will not be determined this way, but rather by the dictate of the party or organisation to which they belong and which, like the Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood organisation in particular, has the power to drum up large numbers of voters through its line-of-command systems.
This naturally begs the question as to whether the presidential elections will be no different from the parliamentary elections. In other words, will the outcome of the presidential elections be determined more by the dynamics of the herd than by the free and independent will of voters as individual citizens? If the Muslim Brothers have their way, the former will prevail. What confirms this is the nature of their organisation and the way they have handled the electoral process all along. Suffice it to say that for months they had pledged that they would nominate no candidate of their own and that they would not back a particular candidate. Then, suddenly, there was Khairat El-Shater, and no sooner was he disqualified than another Muslim Brotherhood member appeared to take his place. If it had not been Mohamed Mursi, it would have been someone else. The Muslim Brotherhood has made it amply clear that it is not the person that counts but the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
Why does this matter? Because a candidate supported by a voting bloc that marches to the tune of an ideological group or organisation cannot possibly be a president for all the Egyptian people. This applies in particular to candidates that represent rigidly hierarchical and dogmatic groups and organisations that have their own agendas and whose followers' sole criterion for how to cast their ballot is the directive from their leaders. The Salafis, for example, want to field a Salafi candidate who, if elected to office, will apply Sharia law as they interpret it. Such a candidate could never represent Egyptian identity. He would become the president of the republic of Salafis, in which all secular forces and religious moderates, let alone affiliates of other religions, would have no place.
The same applies to Mursi, who represents a religio- political organisation that scorns the concepts of the nation-state and national identity and seeks to realise universalist ideological aims that may or may not conflict with the interests of the nation. The behaviour of this organisation over the past 80 years testifies to this deviance from the framework of national society in the interests of creating a frame of reference of its own that it seeks to impose on society, culture and social values, with itself sitting at the top of the institutions that govern and shape these.
Unfortunately, the current circumstances appear to be conspiring for the victory of a president who represents a religio-political movement rather than all the Egyptian people. The Islamist arrivistes have their own agendas that have very little in common with the platforms of a normal political party. Their sights are set on the total reorganisation and restructuring of society and its culture and institutions in accordance with their religious ideology. Their aim is not to reform but to destroy the existing institutions of the state. Working in their favour is the fact that they now control the legislative assemblies. If they cannot entirely dominate the process of drafting the new constitution, they can leave a powerful imprint. Also, they are in a position to alter many existing laws, not so much because the originals were unjust but because they did not serve or coincide with their aims and interests. They are also helped by the fact that Egyptians are particularly credulous when it comes to religion and those who speak in its name, especially those who are best at projecting outward appearances of piety and mouthing religiously coated formulas for solving all the problems connected with their lives of poverty and ignorance.
Given all these factors combined, it is doubtful that Egyptians can look forward to a president for all Egyptians. There is a strong likelihood that the next president will be the president for a religious organisation that, over the course of many decades, has succeeded in occupying the nation through the dissemination of ideas that conflict with the concept of citizenship.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.