Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The ups and downs of our civil current

Despite the appearance of an Islamist landslide post-25 January, Egypt's civil and moderate culture remains strong, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Egypt's civil current, with its ideals of freedom, modernity and enlightenment, was not born on 25 January 2011. It goes back two centuries at least, to the time Hassan Al-Attar, eminent scholar and one time imam of Al-Azhar, helped Mohamed Ali with his education plans. Al-Attar was the mentor of Rifaah Rafei Al-Tahtawi and the inspiration for men such as Ali Mubarak, Mohamed Abdu, Saad Zaghloul, and Qassim Amin, all paragons of Egyptian enlightenment.

The Wafd Party, Egypt's most popular party before the 1952 Revolution, was only one of many civil parties in the country. Unfortunately, the liberal movement was smashed to pieces when the Free Officers disbanded political parties. A quarter of a century later, when Al-Sadat sanctioned semi-partisan life, ordering the formation of what he called forums for the left, right and centre, it was too late. The new parties, and those that emerged under Mubarak were too crippled, too closely monitored, and two domesticated by the powers that be to offer any genuine input or to rouse public interest.

The regime used these parties as window dressing, to deflect accusations of tyranny. But whenever a party tried to pose as an alternative to the regime, it was immediately pounced upon and split in half, in what became habitual actions of dissent, quarrelling, and court cases.

When the New Wafd Party was created in 1984, it had one million members. By January 2011, this membership had dropped to 50,000.

The regime's intent to use the parties for show, not for real action, left a lasting impact on these parties. Now many of their leaders find it hard to get out from closed rooms to connect with the people.

The Egyptian civil scene is spearheaded by political parties, new social movements, and pressure groups. Some parties, leftwing and rightwing, has been around for decades, trying to promote pluralism, freedom, and a more equitable political system. The Wafd, the Tagammu, the Arab Nasserist Party, and other minor parties have been in existence for years, but were robbed of their vitality through years of oppression by the regime.

After the revolution, new parties sprang into being, such as the Free Egyptians, the Social Democratic Party and the Justice Party. Nearly 20 parties were formed after the revolution, some of which by former members of the National Democratic Party.

The less structured part of the civil movement includes groups such as Kifaya and the National Association for Change, which predates the January revolution. These were soon joined by a plethora of coalitions and revolutionary alliances of various sizes and shapes -- some of which may have been put together by counterrevolutionaries hoping to confuse the public.

Also in the civil current, you get trade unions, professional syndicates, and other federations and societies who act as pressure groups for any number of causes. Right now, this segment of the civil current is trying to find its voice, but in the long run it may become a major force in the country's politics.

Then you get a wide range of civil society organisations that have worked for years to promote human rights, the rights of women and vulnerable groups, and freedom and democracy in general.

Now it is time to state one thing clearly: The Egyptian civil current is not necessarily a secular current. What makes it civil is not that it is opposed to the role of religion in life, but only that it is abhors the mixing of politics with religion.

The civil current is now in the minority when one looks at parliamentary representation and voting patterns. But it is my contention that this current is stronger than it appears and that it has the key to the future of this country.

The civil current has organised rallies involving hundreds of thousands across the country on events that were boycotted by Islamists. The civil current is gaining supporters all the time, even among former supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it has a lot of work to do.

Civil parties, old as well as new, are disorganised, suffer from a lack of funding, and have an elitist aura about them. The civil parties that emerged after the revolution have a tentative structure and lack massive following. They are yet to connect with the people and draw on the untapped energy of the millions who have taken a sudden interest in politics after years of involuntary indifference. So far, the new parties remain too sluggish and aloof to engage in serious recruiting and mobilisation.

By the way, this sluggishness is not confined to the civil parties. Even the religious parties, which won a landslide in the parliament, have small membership. The religious parties tapped on the public impression that they are God-fearing and hardworking. Those who voted for them were mostly sympathisers, not active members.

The civil current is not doing great when it comes to connecting with the public. Some have internalised the impediments imposed by the old regime, and lost the habit of talking to the people face to face. It will take time for them to realise that writing articles, publishing books, and appearing on camera is not enough.

The civil current needs to change its tactics in elections. Unlike the Islamists, who ran mostly on two lists, the civil candidates ran on dozens of lists and for individual seats, thus confusing and dividing their supporters.

Also, members of the civil current tend to be too competitive to work together. Everyone believes they should be boss. This is the reason why we have so many civil parties and groups. Groups such as Kifaya and the National Association for Change have remained weak because of egoism in the top ranks.

Rampant egoism in the ranks of civil society has played into the hands of the military and Islamists. The latter were able to recruit presumed members of the civil current at will and use them to undermine the very cause the liberals were supposed to fight for.

At some point, the civil current should address this problem. Its members should unite, or at least merge into a smaller number of coalitions, so as to keep the public focus and create a critical mass at the ballot box.

The learning curve may be steep, but the civil current is capable of learning from its mistakes, and of banking on the mistakes of the religious current.

Egypt is not going to turn secular in the Western sense of the world, nor will there ever be a total separation of religion and public life. But what is going to happen, and what the civil current hopes to achieve is a separation between politics and religion.

So far, the civil current has won a following among some members of the Islamist current. Former Muslim Brotherhood members who have founded or joined parties such as Revival (Al-Nahda), Leadership (Al-Riyada) and the Egyptian Current (Al-Tayar Al-Masri), are now propagating a civil state. Those who have rallied around Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau, share the same perspective.

You may also notice that for all the religious rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, everyone is playing by what must be called civil rules. They are running for parliament and electing a president, instead of doing a baia (loyalty oath) and engaging in shura (non-binding advice). In general, everyone is following the standard civil procedures of modern political life. Some may hope to be able to change that in the future, but their hopes are going to be dashed. Egypt is too modern to be fit into the straightjacket of outmoded systems of government.

Still, the civil current must make sure that the elections are fair, free and properly supervised. The Islamists, if they make friends with the army, are not above using the state apparatus against their rivals. They are not above using the bureaucracy, the media, and the financial resources of the state for electoral purposes. They are not above interfering with the democratic rules of power sharing.

The civil current must also make sure that the military stays out of power. Since 1952, army generals have taken charge of various aspects of life in this country. The four last presidents were military men. Governors are often military men. Retired army generals often end up in top positions in companies, sporting clubs, and public service agencies. This doesn't bode well for the future of democracy.

Egypt has every reason to remain a civil state. The country has a natural distaste for fanaticism, a natural appreciation of modernity, and a deep-seated propensity to religious moderation.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis may overlook these natural preferences of the nation at their own risk. They may think of their landslide election performances as a national mandate, but this is far from the truth. The very voters who put them in office may turn against them if they start steering the country away from its moderate course.

As for the military, their threat to civil rule is far from over. Army generals are still in powerful posts all over the country, serving as chiefs of government agencies and top businesses, and the army is still doing business with private corporations and international companies. Army generals wield immense power in government agencies dealing with security, planning and the media.

Power is something that can move from one hand to another without a glitch. It is a complex web of connections and interests, of laws and regulations, and of social modalities that are not prone to sudden change. The army may have stepped back from politics, but it is still a dominant force in every other aspect of our life. If Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan end up on trial, this may be the sign that things are about to change.

The writer is a political analyst

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