Revolution in Egypt

Just returned from a three week trip to Egypt with a group of Drake students. The trip was organized and led by Professor Mahmoud Hamad. We met with one of the principal organizers of the January, 2011 Egyptian revolution and a woman who abandoned her middle-class lifestyle to live in a tent in Tahrir Square for most of the past 18 months. We also met with the president of the Nour Party, which represents Salafi Muslims and is considered more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood. Accompanying us on parts of the trip was a judge who supervised a polling place during the first round of the presidential elections, which took place during our stay in Egypt. We also talked politics with various other Egyptians we encountered, who held varying viewpoints.

The Revolution has accomplished much since its beginnings on January 25, 2011 (actually, there had been less visible efforts to bring about change for years prior to that). Mubarak and his sons have been removed from power. Egyptians of all stripes are politically engaged and free to organize and speak their minds. Political parties are in various stages of development. The press is freer. Parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election have been held.

On the other hand, much remains to be done. The first effort to form a constitutional assembly was aborted and a new assembly is only now being formed. As a result, Egypt will select its first democratically elected president before knowing what the powers of that office will be. And the first president may exercise outsized influence over the shaping of the new constitution.

The Army has remained in charge until now and has made clear that it will jealously guard its independence and prerogatives even after the handover to civilian rule. A major question mark is whether the Army will retain its large stake in a wide range of commercial ventures and state monopolies. If so, it will be difficult to reinvigorate economic growth or address the huge inequalities in Egyptian society.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party – both Islamist – won a large majority in the parliamentary elections and the MB candidate advanced to the second round of the presidential elections, scheduled to take place on June 14. The MB served as an illegal but still well organized opposition during Mubarak’s decades in office. The party has strong roots in Egypt’s poor communities. Imam’s are respected community leaders and the MB provided social services that were neglected by the state. After initial hesitation, the MB also played an important role in the revolutionary events that ousted Mubarak from power. No wonder, then, that Islamists have done well in elections so far.

Secular and moderate parties are still in the process of organizing and serve mostly as vehicles for particular politicians rather than mass-based, representative bodies. During the first round of the presidential contest, the progressive vote was divided among several candidates, allowing the MB candidate Morsi and the old regime candidate Shafik to garner the most votes (around a quarter of the total for each).

Many Egyptians – especially the young, educated professionals and intellectuals who spearheaded the revolution – were disappointed with the results of the first round of the presidential election. If the MB candidate wins in the second round, then the executive and legislative branches will be controlled by Islamists. While the MB has pledged to rule with moderation, Christians, secularists and moderate Muslims are still nervous about threats to social and religious pluralism. Moreover, the Army, the bureaucracy and the judiciary are still dominated by representatives of the old regime. So an internal struggle over control of the state can be expected should Morsi win.

Shafik was the last Prime Minister under Mubarak and a former military man. He ran on a platform of restoring law, order and stability. He has been quoted as saying that “Egypt needs a strong state” and “Egyptians are an obedient people.” The political activists who led the revolution may be able to stomach a victory by Morsi, since the MB were a part of the revolutionary forces and spent years opposing the dictatorship. But a victory by Shafik would push people once again into the streets, since it would be seen as a step back to the old order that produces only repression and stagnation.

Shafik is supported by those who held a stake in the old order, by those who fear the recent rise of crime and by the tourism industry and small businesses who have suffered during the economic downturn that has descended upon Egypt over the past 18 months. Shafik is also preferred by some who especially oppose Islamist rule and see the secular or progressive candidates as too weak to resist the power of the MB and the Salafis.

Shafik’s chances were probably weakened by the verdict in the case of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. Corruption charges against Mubarak and his sons were tossed out on the grounds that the statute of limitations had already run out. Mubarak and his former interior minister were given life sentences for abetting the violence against demonstrators during the protests of early 2011. However, six security officers who were charged in the deaths of peaceful protesters were acquitted. This produced popular anger for two reasons: 1. Mubarak was not given the death penalty and was not held accountable for massive corruption. 2. Because those directly charged with killing demonstrators were acquitted, many expect that Mubarak’s conviction for abetting those same killings will be reversed by a higher court upon appeal. Even though the appeal verdict will take place only after the second round of the presidential election, expectations that Mubarak may escape justice could hurt the candidacy of his close political ally, Shafik.

Should Morsi win, as seems likely, we should pay close attention to how relations between the MB and the Army play out as they negotiate their respective powers We should follow how the constitution turns out and whether it provides sufficient guarantees for civil rights and religious pluralism and how it allocates authority among the branches of government. We should look to see what sort of economic policies the MB adopts and whether these will be sufficient to reassure international investors who shun instability. We should also examine how progressive forces manage themselves in opposition – whether they can overcome internal divisions and establish a strong popular base and a credible program of action.

Egypt remains in the process of democratic consolidation. Based upon other examples, consolidation typically takes 5-10 years. We can expect many twists and turns along the way. One thing seems certain: There will be no turning back to the old order.


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June 9, 2012 · 9:34 am

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