Egypt erupts in anger. Democracy is not the final word (II)

By IndepthAfrica
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Dec 16th, 2012
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Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR
The main criticism being voiced about the government led by President Mohamed Morsi within Egypt and by some foreign observers is that it lacks the majority support of the people of Egypt. In substantiation of this argument it is often mentioned that Morsi obtained less than 25 percent of the votes polled in the first round of the Egyptian president election (May 2012) and barely scraped through in the runoff with just about fifty percent plus of the popular votes.

There is some merit in the argument of the opposition, therefore, that the path of democratization in the country should be an inclusive process that places primacy on consensus building. On the other hand, what cannot be overlooked is that the parliamentary elections in Egypt (November 2011 to January 2012) would also need to be taken into account while evaluating the social and political base of the regime headed by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a way, the parliamentary elections one year ago constituted a more accurate reflection of the popular will insofar as the presidential election that followed them turned out to be far too personality-oriented – in the first round of the presidential election at least, with some genuinely popular figures being barred from contesting it. Thus, it is useful to recall that in the parliamentary elections, Islamist parties of various hues secured an overwhelming majority of support to the tune of three-fourths with the Muslim Brotherhood on its own coming out with flying colors securing almost an absolute majority.

It is useful to recall that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 235 of the 498 seats in the first-past-the-post constituency votes. The hardline Islamist Al-Nur party turned out to be the assembly’s second largest bloc, with 29 percent of the seats won on party lists.  Actually, the backbone of the Egyptian opposition, the liberal Wafd party came in third and the Egyptian Bloc coalition came in fourth.
Three-fold crisis

Without doubt, the ground reality is that Islamism does enjoy majority support among the people of Egypt and it becomes all at once highly debatable today to argue that Morsi is imposing an agenda of ‘Islamization’. The real crisis today is three-fold. One, the polarization is very sharp but at the same time neither of the two ‘camps’ is cohesive, leave alone monolithic, with the Islamists relatively speaking, far better organized. Second, the unvarnished truth is that so-called opposition in Egypt is in effect refusing to settle for democratic verdict through free and fair election as the ultimate yardstick of political legitimacy of a regime that bases itself on representative rule. Third, most certainly, there is outside interference in Egypt’s current turmoil, which complicates matters to a point of dangerous deadlock and confrontation…

Broadly speaking, the polarization in Egypt’s political spectrum today is along the Islamist and non-Islamist camps – although the Egyptian nation as a whole comprises predominantly observant Muslims. On the one side is arrayed the forces of political Islam, which, by the way, comprises not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also various conservative Salafist groups (including hardline and moderate groups). On the opposite side, interestingly, all sorts of disparate forces have come together at present as a matter of political expediency. It comprises ideologically diverse forces ranging from the far left to the far right – liberals, socialists, nationalists, Coptic Church and even the supporters of the ancien regime of Hosni Mubarak.

What has brought such diverse forces together under the opposition platform is their common antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Simply put, they are not willing to accept that the democratic mandate that the Muslim Brotherhood legitimately secured in the parliamentary and presidential elections is necessarily the final word in the situation obtaining in Egypt.

Indeed, their visceral hatred toward the Muslim Brotherhood has some background – the Brothers refused to play as team members during the revolution and instead opted to monopolize political power (although through legitimate elections); they sought covert understanding with the Egyptian military in cynical manoeverings time and again through the past two years to elbow out the other political forces from the political arena; they kept secret contacts with the US all along and so on. In common idiom, this may seem a case of ‘sour grapes’ but then, there are deeper undercurrents, especially the rooted suspicion that the Brotherhood has a secret agenda of establishing a regime over time that may bring Egypt to resemble present-day Iran.

Indeed, the Brothers played tough and mean through the past 2-year period, pretending to be favoring a genuine power-sharing arrangement through Egypt’s difficult, painful democratic transition, while resiling time and again from this commitment whenever an opportunity presented itself for it to occupy the heights of political power. Seeing that political Islam becomes a contentious issue not only for a huge slice of the Egyptian nation as well as regionally and internationally, Brotherhood should have resorted to a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ approach – forming a united front and taking care to carry along with them all sorts of fellow travellers on the treacherous journey ahead.

Why the Brotherhood so swiftly jettisoned its own past record of seamless pragmatism, infinite patience and low-key approach (even in the face of brutal state repression), which used to be its trademark during the Mubarak era, becomes an engrossing question of the dialectic of tactic and strategy. The most plausible explanation is that the Brotherhood has been intensely conscious of the great danger that any delay in consolidating its dominant presence on the post-Mubarak political landscape may prove fatal as formidable forces are stacked against it within Egypt and also from abroad. The heart of the matter is that the Brotherhood is ploughing virgin soil in the politics of Islamism.

Iran calling

In sum, the Brothers are men in some hurry. They would know that the US would not easily let go such a ‘pivotal’ country such as Egypt. They have knowledgeable regarding the range of influences that already work on the Salafist outfits in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia loosening its purse strings. They know how ambitious Qatar is. They also know that the Persian Gulf oligarchies are terrified that the Brotherhood is surging on the regional landscape as the life force of the New Middle East and that their day of reckoning is approaching, considering their brutal suppression of the Islamist activists over time, especially in Saudi Arabia. The Brotherhood’s ‘natural ally’ would have been Iran but then, it takes time to cross the prevailing sectarian divides in the region that the Saudis have manipulated and in any case any premature moves to close ranks with Iran will invoke the wrath of the US and its regional allies.

Having said that, it stands to reason that Egypt’s Brothers have drawn lessons from the success of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Interestingly, Iranian commentators too have been urging the consolidation of the ‘Islamic revolution’ in Egypt at the soonest before the ‘counter-revolutionaries’, inevitably, rallied.

Curiously, there are similarities as much as great differences in the two respective situations in Iran and Egypt. One striking similarity that goes without saying is that both in Iran and in Egypt the revolutionary vanguard included non-Islamist forces, who even played, arguably, a lead role at critical moments when the tide hadn’t yet turned decisively in favor of regime change. Second, both Iran and Egypt are vital cogs in the geopolitics of the Middle East and what happens in these two countries is, therefore, not only the business of these two states but also become the concern of the United States which is the regional hegemon. In both cases, Israel’s security is critically involved – Shah’s Iran and Mubarak’s Egypt were both crucial strategic partners of Israel.

But then there are also the glaring differences. One main difference is that in Iran through a determined push – often through extremely violent methods – the religious establishment established velayet-e-faqih, whereas Egypt’s Brothers do not quite have that option, and the reason why it is so is that the military and security establishment that Anwar Sadat created in the full flush of post-Nasserism under close American supervision still remains intact.

Even more critically, the state apparatus that Mubarak presided over still remains intact and this includes the judiciary, the civil service, foreign ministry, media, the religious establishment and so on. Viewed against this backdrop, Morsi indeed faced an existential choice. He could see the writing on the wall that the Mubarak-era judiciary will not allow the drafting of a constitution that allowed a level playing field for political Islam. His November 22 decree had the express intention to preempt the judiciary from disbanding the constituent assembly and thereby preventing it from adopting a draft constitution at all. He has gambled on the huge groundswell of opinion among the Egyptian people favoring Islamism to carry the day for him. The calculations that underlie Morsi’s moves are perfectly understandable insofar as the Brotherhood’s prospects of steering the draft constitution through Saturday’s referendum are almost uniformly rated as high. But then, that is also what the opposition dreads.

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