The future of Egypt

Print edition : May 17, 2013

The military council chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi presenting the 'Shield of the Armed Forces', the Egyptian military's highest honour, to President Mohamed Morsy during a ceremony at a military base in Cairo on June 30, 2012. Morsy was sworn in as Egypt's first freely elected civilian President earlier in the day. The military had ruled the country from 2011. Photo: AFP/Handout

A book no student of the region can afford to ignore. It helps one understand the nature of the contradictory forces at play.

THE subtitle of this book omits the most powerful player in Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It took power from President Hosni Mubarak after he was ousted by a popular revolt on February 11, 2011. This was the culmination of protests that began on January 25, 2011, eleven days after massive crowds drove into exile President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. The Tahrir Square in Cairo passed into legend.

The SCAF immediately suspended the Constitution, disbanded Parliament, announced plans to supervise elections for a new Parliament and President, as well as preside over the drafting of a new Constitution. It released a Constitutional Declaration on March 30, 2011, as a de facto Constitution.

Elections to both Houses of Parliament were held in late 2011-early 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 42 per cent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and 58 per cent of the contested seats in the Shura Council. The extremist Salafi movement’s main representative, the Al Nour (Light) Party, won 21 per cent in the Lower House and 25 per cent in the Upper House. Sadly, the liberal parties came third. The largest liberal party, the Wafd Party, won only 7.5 per cent of the seats in the Lower House and 8 per cent in the Upper House. An alliance of other liberal parties, the Egyptian Bloc, won 6.7 per cent of the seats in the Lower House and 4.5 per cent in the Upper House.

The first round of presidential elections was held on May 23-24, 2012. Mohamed Morsy, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and president of the FJP , came first with 24.8 per cent of the vote.

Ahmad Shafiq, a former military officer and Mubarak protege who briefly served as Prime Minister in early 2011, won 23.7 per cent. A run-off was held on June 16-17 to determine who would be Egypt’s first elected President.

Two days before the run-off, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) declared as unconstitutional the law governing the election of the People’s Assembly. The SCAF thereupon dissolved the People’s Assembly. The FJP held a large majority of seats in this chamber (42 per cent). The Brotherhood and some observers asserted that the SCC ruling and the SCAF decision to dissolve the Lower House of Parliament were politically motivated and were designed to deny the Brotherhood the political power it had earned at the ballot box. Morsy, portrayed it as an attack on both the Brotherhood and the democratic principles of the January 25 uprising. He campaigned as the “candidate of the revolution” who would fight against the counter-revolutionary forces in the military, the judiciary, and the security services.

Morsy’s efforts were successful. He won 52 per cent of the vote to Shafiq’s 48 per cent. The military allowed Morsy to assume office. “For the first time in Egypt’s 5,000-year history, the country had an elected national leader. In his inaugural address, Mursi promised to be the President of all Egyptians and to build a new Egypt that is ‘civil, national, constitutional, and modern’.” But, the struggle between the Brotherhood and the military continued.

Professor Bruce K. Rutherford describes in authentic detail the conditions that led to the upheaval and the tussle that followed. So fast have events moved that he had to write a foreword to catch up with the events. He provides particularly useful insights on three factors of crucial importance. One is how the armed forces can be tamed into becoming supporters of the democratic order instead of acting as its rivals and, eventually, as its subverters.

The other is the real character of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. The last is Islamic constitutionalism. He calls the net result a “hybrid regime”, neither fully democratic nor completely authoritarian. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolith but a coalition of disparate factions. “The Brotherhood’s reform initiative states that the organisation seeks to create a ‘republican system of government that is democratic, constitutional, and parliamentary and that conforms with Islamic principles. In pursuit of this goal, the Brotherhood specifies the institutional changes needed to achieve each of the features of Islamic constitutionalism.’”

Its campaign documents stress the centrality of law to the political order that it hopes to create. Law applies equally to the ruler and the ruled and is the primary means for achieving a more just society.

“These campaign documents also call for Parliament to adopt laws that are compatible with Shari’a. Significantly, the MB’s literature makes relatively little use of the phrase ‘implementing Shari’a’. Rather, it stresses that man-made law should play a prominent role in the day-to-day affairs of the community, and that it should be formulated ‘within the framework ( itar) of Islamic Shari’a’. This framework is to be delineated by elected representatives of the people.”

Its electoral programme states that “Shura is a fundamental concept in Islam, and democracy is its most appropriate mechanism within the modern state”. Islamic democracy, in short. Shura signifies rule by consensus.

The author has studied closely the Brotherhood’s campaign documents, and the book is based on primary sources. No student of the region can afford to ignore it.

It helps one understand the nature of the contradictory forces at play. Suffice it to say that liberalism will triumph in Egypt only if it adopts the rhetoric of the Brotherhood to justify a liberal creed that appeals to all sections, especially women, whom the Brotherhood neglects.