Egypt, Islamist state
The election of Mohamed Mursi as the country's new president and the recent scenes in Tahrir Square show that Egypt is heading for an Islamist model, writes Galal Nassar
During the opening days of the Egyptian revolution, I managed to keep a good part of my attention focussed on the international reaction to the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab region. I was particularly interested in Western reactions and those of the US in particular, in view of the tremors that the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Iran had sent through Western political and security establishments. The irony is that as the events of the Egyptian revolution unfolded, signals from the White House confirmed that the US administration, as well as its predecessors and various governmental and independent think tanks and research centres in the US, had long since determined that the alternative to the dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and the other countries of the Arab Spring would be Islamist to the core.
If the Arab dictatorships succeeded in anything it was in suppressing and eliminating all other possible secular alternatives, whether from the political right or the left, leaving the field open to the Islamist movements. Over recent decades, these movements have continued to work assiduously both below and above ground in mosques and on university campuses, steadily increasing their influence until they had built up a "society within a society" and readying themselves for the outbreak of revolution against regimes under which they were officially banned and for the opportunity to rise to power.
Various US agencies had apparently reached the conclusion that the only way that the Islamists could reach power would be through revolution against the existing regimes, these being determined never to allow political Islam a margin for open and legitimate manoeuvre. Therefore, the contest between the regimes and the Islamists was one that would have to end with a debilitating blow, and the likelihood was that the regimes would be on the receiving end because the rampant poverty, unemployment and corruption in place in the Arab countries strengthened the hand of the Islamist forces, which built their power on mounting popular wrath and the growing numbers of disaffected young people and other discontented segments of society.
Washington and other Western capitals had also realised that the Islamists were the only available alternative to assume power in the Arab countries following the fall of the regimes. None of the other political parties or forces had a grassroots base extensive enough to compete and leverage them into power through free-and-fair elections. Moreover, the same Western analysts also believed that the cycle of history had determined that Islamist rule was likely to continue for many years before the political balance of power shifted and the people succeeded in producing a political option that was strong enough to compel the Islamists to share power with them, or that would become a viable alternative in the event that the Islamists lost cohesion.
The course that the Egyptian revolution has taken over the past year and a half offers clear proof that events are developing in accordance with the American prognosis for the region. The scenes in Tahrir Square over the past few weeks offer sufficient indication that Egypt is on its way to an Islamist government. The culmination occurred on Friday, the "Friday of the Handover of Power" as that day's "million-man" demonstration was dubbed, when all the non-Islamist political forces withdrew from the square, giving the president-elect the opportunity to address a crowd packed almost exclusively with Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Salafis.
It was a crowning moment for the Islamists, and this was driven home by the president-elect's determination to reconstruct the history of the Egyptian people's struggle for independence and freedom in such a way as to intrinsically link it with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. The 1920s thus became the "period of the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood" and the 1960s was the "period of the Brotherhood's struggle with the government of president Abdel-Nasser," Mursi said by way of demarcating his chronology. He then took pains to ensure that the majority of the audience in Cairo University's main hall the following day was made up of representatives of the Islamist movement and of prominent families of Muslim Brotherhood background.
One would have to be divorced from reality to contend that Egypt is not now on the threshold of a period of Islamist rule, regardless of the assurances of Islamist spokesmen and parliamentary representatives to the effect that they will not seek to alter the identity of the Egyptian state. Moreover, excluding extraordinary events, such as a military coup, an insurrectionist movement or a civil war, the country is heading towards some sort of Islamist government now that Mohamed Mursi has been declared the victor over his competitor Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister from the Mubarak era.
Regardless of which model is now in store, it is obvious that the over 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, banned since 1952, felt that its time had come with the 25 January Revolution. Here was an opportunity that the group was determined to seize with all its might and not let go. It was encouraged by the fact that the Islamist tide had also virtually overwhelmed the entire Arab region and beyond, from Pakistan and Afghanistan, through Iran, Turkey and Iran, and into Africa from Sudan to Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. Egypt is at the hub of all this, and the Islamists here would have some strong potential allies in Lebanon in Hizbullah and Palestine in Hamas.
Yet, what Islamist model will Egypt opt for, and what model will be suited to Egypt? Will it be a model inspired by the Pakistani one, or by the Turkish or Iranian ones? Will it look westward to the Tunisian or Moroccan models, or to the Levant and the Palestinian or Lebanese versions? Or will it develop a model of its own?
Under former president Hosni Mubarak, virtually all the intellectual, political and cultural activities and influences of the liberal, Nasserist or socialist left were systematically eliminated, while any semblance of public life was crushed through repression, corruption and co-optation. That is a legacy that could not be overcome in the mere 16 months since the revolution, despite the remarkable rise in the level of freedom, notably in the freedoms of opinion and expression and the right to form political parties, civil society associations and syndicates. There has also been a revival in the Egyptian spirit, which for decades had been tamed into submission or had been diverted by secondary issues in order to distract the people from the struggle for rights and freedoms.
During this period, the Muslim Brotherhood may also have been marginalised, but it also had the advantage of holding the religious card, which it capitalised on at every turn. In addition to its well-known internal discipline, this helps to explain why it suddenly emerged as the strongest and most cohesive popular force after the revolution. From the moment that it seemed that the regime would finally topple, the Brotherhood leadership was able fully to appreciate the role of the army, and it was quick to court the generals making up the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who had persuaded Mubarak to step down.
For its part, the SCAF also soon began to realise that it might be possible to work out a power-sharing accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether made public or concluded secretly, the purpose of this would be to keep the situation from sliding further in the direction of the revolutionary forces for change. The Brothers would keep the streets calm if they could be given the opportunity to create an Islamist government in which they would have a large share of control while the army would be able to retain the reins of power.
As was suggested in this newspaper in May 2011 in an article entitled "Who's at the chessboard?" the army had in mind the so-called "Turkish model", albeit the Turkish model as it stood before the Justice and Development Party took power in Turkey just over a decade ago.
In this model, the army would have the final say on crucial issues, especially those related to military affairs and foreign policy, while the Muslim Brothers, together with their Salafi allies, would have a comfortable majority in parliament. The Brothers would have nothing to lose from this arrangement. Even as a junior partner to the army, they would acquire considerable privileges and be able to expand their influence. The Brothers would also have believed that they would be able to use their political, organisational and proselytising capacities to gradually Islamise the army, or, at least, to Islamise a sufficiently influential portion of it. Perhaps the same idea occurred to some members of the army leadership, especially the more conservative or traditional elements, who may have gone so far as to entertain the possibility of militarising the Brotherhood, which would have made the partnership more balanced.
At all events, from March through to the autumn of 2011 there were definite indications of an explicit or tacit agreement between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, once the Muslim Brothers had won a parliamentary majority in that autumn's elections their hunger for power grew. They no longer wanted a share of the pie, or even a large chunk of it. They wanted the whole thing, and they began to flex their demagogic muscles, which began to be increasingly apparent as the presidential elections drew near. However, by this point many Egyptians had begun to fear that the principles of the revolution were at risk and that their aspirations for democracy were about to be sacrificed. This gave rise to a new burst of energy among the pro-democratic civil forces that was strong enough to compel the Muslim Brothers to rethink their strategy.
The results of the first round of the presidential elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) candidate did not do nearly as well as it had anticipated and in which the non-Islamist candidates combined fared better than the Islamist candidates combined, delivered a powerful message. With Mursi and Shafik heading to the run-off, the Brotherhood realised that there was another constituency that it had to appeal to, and it now began to reformulate part of its project. At this point, the Brothers made some astute moves. They signalled their willingness to work consensually with the other political forces as part of a presidential council, announced plans to "depersonalise" the presidency by transforming it into an institution, and even declared that they would be ready to appoint a Coptic vice-president. In short, they were moving towards the second Turkish model, in other words the Justice and Development Party model of the past decade.
Meanwhile, the army had begun to sense the threat that the Muslim Brothers posed. More precisely, it had begun to realise that it had made a grave mistake last year. With the Muslim Brothers poised to take control of the executive as well as the parliament, the SCAF feared that the country was staring the spectre of the Iranian model that had followed the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in the face. In the Iranian case, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards managed to sideline the other political forces that had launched and participated in the revolution, asserting their exclusive control and consolidating the situation by imposing a Shia theocracy on the country.
It is important to bear in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a national movement. It is a transnational movement, par excellence. It has branches throughout the Islamic world, and it operates with a mentality not dissimilar to Leninism. Therefore, the Brotherhood's control over Egypt, when combined with the prospect of their solidarity with their "brethren" elsewhere, could have enormous repercussions for the region and the world.
Until now, the SCAF has been more or less feeling its way forward, advancing a step here and backing off a step there as it tries to check the Brotherhood's advances.
However, we still cannot rule out the emergence of an "Algerian model" under which the army steps in to settle the question of power after an Islamist win in the polls. Regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such a course of action, it would not be one that lacked some supporters in Egypt, the region or abroad. Indeed, the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the addendum to the Constitutional Declaration that the SCAF issued in June were steps in this direction. One is reminded of the Pakistani model, in which the army retains the upper hand over the affairs of that country. Washington expressed its concern at these measures in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces have been vehement in their criticisms of them. However, they still remain in effect.
All this does not mean that the Muslim Brothers have acquiesced to the current situation. They are not about to let the seats of power, handed to them on a silver platter, so to speak, slip out of their hands. Should their tactics drive society to a clash between the Brotherhood and the army, the movement for democratic change and all the participants who have remained committed to its principles would be the first to suffer. After all, while these forces may have spearheaded the revolution and defined the spirit of Tahrir Square, they have not been the ones to reap its rewards.
The ballot box can sometimes be a tricky and unpredictable creature. So many factors have come into play: ignorance and illiteracy; the long paucity of civil liberties; the long-entrenched tradition of despotism; the dominance of conservative forces; the heavy sway of money in the political sphere; the weakness and fragility of the centrist, liberal and leftwing forces and their inability or unwillingness to engage in battles of this magnitude; and the opportunities the SCAF helped open to the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility that portions of the military are at least sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers.
Whether Egypt is now looking at a Turkish model, whether pre- or post- the Justice and Development Party, or at the Iranian, Moroccan, Pakistani or even Algerian models, a bumpy period undoubtedly lies ahead. If a new round of instability looms, this may induce many forces at home and abroad to take a negative attitude towards the movement for change. Yet, the setback may be only temporary. History does not march backwards. The past remains in the past, and the future can only be brighter than that past, regardless of the challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome.
Perhaps it boils down to the process of evolution and the gradual accumulation of change and development. Things may progress more slowly than some might wish. They may even flounder or take cruel and dangerous detours. But ultimately history will forge its way ahead in its own way, whether via some Islamist model or via another course.