Samer Shehata is assistant professor of Arab politics at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His research interests include Middle Eastern politics, Islamist politics and elections under authoritarianism. He talked to Al-Ahram Weekly on the fringe of the Economic Research Forum’s 19th annual conference held in Kuwait last week.
Why did Islamist parties come to power in Egypt and Tunisia?
They were clearly the most powerful opposition political forces before the uprisings. Organisationally they are very strong. They were the leading opposition parties before the uprisings, associated with resisting authoritarianism and with being victimised by authoritarian regimes. They were seen as having integrity, honesty, probity and a clean pair of hands.
Moving away from politics and looking at societal transformations that have occurred in the region and beyond we notice that even though Islamists did not come to power earlier there was a big change in terms of religiosity. There were growing calls for Islam to play a larger role in public life and for changes in morals and values.
The social makeup of Islamists is also very important. They are organically embedded in society. They are middle class movements, with a lower middle class membership and they have a history of electoral participation not just in Egypt but in Tunisia in the 1980s and in Algeria in the 1990s. Had the revolutions occurred earlier they would have also done well. They have a recognisable brand name.
If you were a political player in a country like Egypt under its authoritarian regime the rational was not to participate in elections because elections did not mean anything, they were not free and fair. Everybody else who was really opposed to authoritarianism did that apart from those who were part of the décor of authoritarianism and willing to play for crumbs.
The Islamists, meanwhile, were very shrewd about their participation. They participated not to win seats and votes, to influence policy or to come to power. They knew they were going to lose. They participated because elections provided them with a mechanism to engage with society, to do outreach, to campaign and spread their message.
There is an unusual moment in authoritarianism: during elections there is increased space for political activity because to some extent the regime needs to show that it is free. The Islamists took advantage of this moment to spread their message. I call it political daawa. That benefited them not only because of the impact of their political daawa but because they gained invaluable experience in polling, candidate selection and messaging.
What no one anticipated was how well the Salafis would do. Not only had they never participated in elections, they were against them. Their success was partly a result of the societal-cultural transformation that has occurred and from which they benefited and partly a result of socio-economic factors. The Salafis speak to the people who vote for them.
Why is it that Islamist parties have been successful in education and health work at a grassroots level yet unable to replicate this success nationally?
These are not political organisations but much broader social movements. What this means is that their goal is not simply to win power, seats or influence policy. Their goal is to transform society, and politics is only one part of this. They were working towards their goal before participating in elections. Elections are merely one more tool to be used in transforming society.
It is one thing to provide social services when this is a kind of extracurricular activity, when it is not something you are expected to do. It is another thing when you are in government and that provision is expected, when it is a basic demand that you provide education, healthcare and some form of social safety net. The scale of what is being asked of them now is completely different, though this does not excuse bad performance.
Some observers blame the Islamist parties for the deterioration of the economy…
It is true the economy is going down and they have certainly contributed to that, but it is not completely their fault. In order to improve the economy political stability is needed. There must be agreement and belief in a political process and that is not in place. The absence of the most basic, minimal consensus means Egypt is severely compromised as a vacation destination, let alone as a destination for investments.
How can the current impasse between the Islamists and the opposition be overcome?
Blame needs to be apportioned objectively. I think the Islamists are responsible for much of the impasse, but at the same time the opposition is seeking political rewards that are not commensurate with their electoral capabilities. They are like a student who wants an “A” without preparing for the exams.
In Egypt we have democrats who are not liberals and we have liberals who are not democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood believes in democracy but they do not believe in liberalism and related issues such as equal citizenship, full rights for minorities and equality for women. They believe in majoritarianism. The liberals believe in all these wonderful things but they do not believe in democracy because they only want democracy if they win.
How can the opposition win more support in the street?
There is a difference between street politics and formal politics. Street politics is occasionally effective in terms of crisis, in the overthrowing of a regime, though this is extremely rare and is not going to happen again. Perfect storms rarely happen. It is unrealistic to think that you are going to get rid of a democratically elected government supported by a significant percentage of the people.
Half of the success of politics is organisation. They need organisation, need to make inroads into communities, they need to canvas, have membership, to package a message that is attractive and simple, a message people can understand and that relates to their reality. The way to move forward is not to call for Morsi’s overthrow but through democratic elections.
What do you think of the calls to boycott the elections?
Boycott is a failed strategy. Boycotts are very hard. The goal of the boycott is to de-legitimise the elections and their results. The only way this will happen is if everyone participates in the boycott. Already we are seeing that not everyone will boycott. When one group boycotts the incentive for others to participate increases. Were once you would have been competing in a field of 15 you are now competing in a field of 13. You have a greater chance of winning. The likelihood of staging an effective boycott that delegitimises the process is low.
To make an impact you must build organisations, form real political parties, make inroads into society. The only way to do this is through participating in elections. Not to do this is to postpone the necessary homework.
Morsi and the Brotherhood have provided the opposition with a silver platter in terms of doing well this time, not getting a majority but doing better. With a deteriorating economic and security situation the opposition has a golden opportunity to convince people that they gave the Brotherhood a chance and it failed to deliver.
Where is Egypt heading?
I am pessimistic in the short term but optimistic in the medium and long terms. The country has tremendous potential. The uprising needs to be transformed into a revolution in terms of a major transformation in the relationship between state and citizens and there needs to be security sector reform.
Will authoritarianism be back?
What is more likely with Islamists in power is illiberal democracy. Essentially majoritorianism.
Could that be a reason for their ultimate failure?
It is quite possibly a reason why they will fail. The economy is going to take them down and it seems like the only convincing logic behind an elections boycott is precisely — let them take the government, take responsibility, let them fail. That seems to be the only electoral strategy of the opposition, which is a problem in itself because you cannot defeat something with nothing. However bad their performance, if there is nothing else they can still win. And they are not going to sit quietly, they are going to come up with plenty of explanations to justify the situation.