Egypt's possible political systems
Islamist caliphate, modern civic state or somewhere in-between? Yusry El-Azabawi examines three scenarios at the centre of Egypt's political drama and what they herald at home and abroad
At this crucial time in the life of our nation, newly elected President Mohamed Mursi took the constitutional oath of office three times: once before revolutionary forces in Tahrir Square, then before the Supreme Constitutional Court, and lastly before participants in the inaugural celebration at Cairo University. In taking this oath in three venues, he affirmed the sovereignty of the people and respect for the rule of law. Yet one of his first acts of office was to issue a decree to reconvene the parliament that had been dissolved by virtue of a court ruling early last month. This unprecedented decree was an open act of defiance against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and, simultaneously, it implicitly and perhaps intentionally delivered a powerful slap in the face to the Egyptian judiciary. One cannot help but to say that, for all the president's affirmations of the sovereignty of the people and of the law, he has aggravated the prevailing state of confusion and anxiety surrounding the future of the system of government in Egypt.
Any system of government is a complex structure. Effectively, it is a complete social system that performs a multiplicity of roles and functions in accordance with the authorities vested in it and the power on which it rests. In general, a government is responsible for ensuring the effective management of society's resources, safeguarding domestic and national security, promoting public welfare as much possible, and minimising social tensions and contradictions. Bearing this in mind, as Egyptians proceed in their nascent trouble-fraught transition to democracy, they face three possible scenarios for a new system of government headed by a president who is a member of a group that has operated in the dark for almost 85 years.
THE MODERN CIVIL STATE: The new Egyptian civil state, in which criteria such as competence, expertise and equitability form the basis for holding public office, will safeguard the universal system of human rights, the peaceful rotation of authority, the freedom to create political parties and other such political liberties. It will preserve the centrist identity of the state as based on national political consensus as it brings to fruition the concept of full and equal citizenship and the rule of law.
This scenario will yield numerous results. Domestically, the institutions of the state will be reconstructed on the basis of new criteria, most likely ones consistent with the spirit, principles and goals of the 25 January Revolution. This is not an unrealistic prediction in view of the fact that democratisation has already made considerable progress and, in spite of all obstacles, the Egyptian youth and the revolutionary movement remain strong enough to sustain the impetus for democratic change and to bring it back on track should it stray off course.
The civil state will be the best safeguard of Egyptian identity whose roots stretch back more than 7,000 years. Preserving this ancient identity entails much more than protecting the interests and higher principles of the Egyptian citizen state; it involves optimising the soft power that Egypt possesses in its immense and concrete cultural, social, intellectual and political influence in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Precisely because of the real potential of Egyptian influence, at the Arab level, the Egyptian civil state will be the beacon for other revolutions of the Arab Spring and the driving force behind the revival of unity and solidarity among the Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni peoples. There are no grounds for presuming that the Arab monarchies, whose thrones where shaken by the waves of Arab uprisings, will strive to undermine the Arab revolutions. In fact, the likelihood is that they will assist in the reconstruction of the states of the Arab Spring, at least economically.
Internationally, the modern Egyptian civil state offers a solid guarantee against any clash between outside powers and the new Egyptian political leadership. The reason for this is quite simple: Egyptian foreign policy will be based solely on considerations of higher national interest and, therefore, free of the confusions and potentially divisive effects of other types of considerations.
A THEOCRATIC STATE: This scenario would bring the Islamisation of state and society, a possible sign of which is the recently created "public grievances" bureau that is directly subordinate to the president. The least grave consequence of a theocratic state would be a radical overhaul of the social and political structures of the nation. The gravest would result from an attempt to upscale Egypt's profile from a regional to an international power, which would be drastically counterproductive for Egypt domestically and internationally because other regional and international powers will do everything possible to clip Egypt's wings. Vivid proof of this is to be found in the dire consequences that resulted from Mohamed Ali's expansionist drive in the first half of the 19th century and from the Nasserist experience in the 1950s and 1960s.
The establishment of a theocracy would inherently entail the explicit Islamicisation of the constitution and supporting laws. In today's world, there are only three states founded on a religious basis: the Vatican, Israel and Iran. Because of the special status and function of the first, it is not of concern to us here. As for the other two, they are plagued with constant difficulties and problems both at home and abroad. The two can best be described as states in a constant state of war, which naturally affects their social and cultural outlooks. Both countries have high and climbing emigration rates which is one reason why Israel, in particular, is forever "importing" people and offering considerable material inducements towards that end.
In order to make the country consistent with their view of the "Islamic" character of the state, Islamist political forces will Islamicise the frameworks of the state in a manner that will enable them to realise their ultimate goals of reviving the Islamic caliphate and applying Sharia law. Towards this end, they will fill the hierarchies and staffs of government institutions and agencies with personnel loyal to them and supportive of their ideological creed. Inevitably this will reproduce one of the most salient traits of the former regime, which is the prevalence of the criterion of loyalty to the persons in power over the criterion of professionalism in the designation of power and authority. In view of the totalitarian nature of the project, the resultant regime can only be worse than its predecessor.
Under theocracy, the role of currently existing cultural institutions would decline or alter dramatically. This applies in particular to Al-Azhar. Noted for its moderation and centrist Islamic outlook, this ancient Islamic establishment long predates the political Islamist movements and possesses considerable "soft power" in the form of its extensive influence in the Islamic world and even beyond. One of the first actions of the new Islamist forces will be either to neutralise this power or to bring Al-Azhar in line with their universalist Islamist project, in which case Al-Azhar will be radicalised and lose the moral and political advantages that came with its moderateness. It almost goes without saying that under a theocracy or a rigid Islamist rule, the Egyptian media and arts will lose their pioneering role in the region.
En route to an Islamist state, an Islamist-dominated government is likely to explicitly permit the creation of political parties established on the basis of religious affiliation. If so, Egyptians will see, for the first time, political parties that are more bent on advocating the application of hodoud -- the forms of punishment stipulated under Islamic penal law -- than on attaining power.
The question remains as to how national institutions, such as the security services, the intelligence agencies and even the military ,would respond to a drive to Islamicise them. Would they submit? If so, what concepts and mechanisms would they bring to bear in the world's fourth theocracy?
The theocratisation of the state would also bring a structural and theoretical change in foreign policy outlook and design. Since the 23 July 1952 revolution, Egyptian foreign policy has been shaped by the concept of three spheres of influence (Arab, African and Islamic). Under a theocratic state, these spheres would merge into a larger and more comprehensive "Islamic sphere". It's overall thrust would be to promote the victory of Muslims in Gaza, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Africa and perhaps elsewhere, because pursuit of this victory is a duty and one of the higher ends of Islamic Sharia. With this foreign policy outlook, the Egyptian theocracy would acquire a transnational character, because allegiance to the global Islamic entity would supersede allegiance to the nation state.
Such a change in outlook and approach would fundamentally alter the patterns of Egypt's international alliances. Its ties with the US, the EU and even Arab states would undergo radical shifts as it builds new and different types of alliances. Countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, Pakistan and Afghanistan would receive greater attention and acquire greater priority as potential allies in view of their Islamic identity. It is possible to envision, for example, the rise of an axis consisting of Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt, Iran of the Mullahs, and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the only advantage of such an alliance would be that the human and material costs would be spread over the three partners. The axis would include other countries as satellites, in view of Saudi Arabia's influence in the area of the Gulf, Iran's ability to influence in the Asiatic sphere and Egypt's potential to influence Libya, Sudan and the Palestinian resistance. If it proves demonstrably viable in terms of economic progress and political successes, the alliance would also bring on board other countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia and Indonesia, thereby realising the Muslim Brothers' aspiration of reviving the imperial Islamic caliphate.
On the other hand, when "religious" criteria prevail over considerations of higher national interest in the design and justification of foreign policies, that chances are that the policies could ultimately prove highly detrimental to Egypt and the region as a whole. Because the concept of an Islamist sphere entails an expansionist dimension, the new foreign policy outlook would probably revive "sleeping cells" of extremist Islamist fundamentalist groups in parts of Asia and Africa. Of more immediate concern to Egyptians, the Islamist radicalisation of foreign policy would court enormous challenges and dangers from other regional and international powers, most notably the US, the sole pole of the international order at present. In this scenario, it is not difficult to envision major political conflicts with the US and the EU and a military conflict with Israel, especially in view of Iran's ceaseless attempts to embroil Egypt in its conflict with Israel under the banner of the "Islamic resistance to the Zionist entity". Clearly the region would be plunged into another morass of political tension and warfare, perhaps precipitating a fourth world war in light of the re-emergence of the Russian bear and the determination of the Chinese dragon to elevate its status as a world power.
A CIVIL/ISLAMIST STATE INDIRECTLY CONTROLLED BY SCAF: It is blatantly obvious that SCAF is striving to remain in power for as long as possible, largely for fear of the designs of the Muslim Brotherhood which is just as clearly working to impose its control and ideology on the state at a time when it knows that the other political forces are too weak and divided to compete with it in elections and will probably remain so for some time to come. In this scenario, confusion and uncertainty will continue to hold sway and, in the worst case, the situation will deteriorate into violence and chaos, while in the best case, there will emerge a modern Islamic state patterned on the Turkish model and in which moderateness will prevail and professional expertise and criteria will shape the construction of the new edifices of the modern state. At the foreign policy level, this model will promote regional stability through an attempt to establish a Palestinian state and an attempt to help resolve the conflict over Iran's nuclear capacities.
Ultimately, which of the above scenarios prevails is contingent upon a number of immediate factors. The first is realisation of a broad-based consensus among various political elites over the need to resolve the current state of confusion and mistrust. Second, there must be an agreement on a single criterion for arbitration in the event that political forces are unable to reach consensus. For this delicate transitional period, the "legitimacy of the ballot box" may be the best arbitrator. Third, it is vital to end the sharp political polarisation that has spread from political parties and youth coalitions to the general public and state institutions. Lastly, there must be a general resolve to keep higher national interests foremost in mind and to abandon the self-serving tendencies and rigid insularity that carry the seeds of disaster for all.
The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.