Transition time

Published : Nov 18, 2011 00:00 IST

The November-end elections in Egypt may well be a litmus test of the effectiveness of the movements of the Arab Spring.

in Tunis

AFTER Tunisia's success in marshalling an orderly democratic transition, Egypt goes to the polls in November-end to test the limits of the Arab Spring a scorching pro-democracy movement to end an era of authoritarian rule in the region.

Unlike Tunisia, with its outstanding achievement of holding a free and fair election, Egypt, a nation of 80 million which is the fulcrum of the West Asia and North Africa region, faces challenges that are far greater and much more complex. Decades of iron-fisted dictatorship have generated survivalist forces, which are mistrustful of each other and prone to extremism. Among them are Islamists of all ideological shades. They cohabit uneasily with young liberals, leftists and centrists, who wish to establish a modern democratic state that is respectful of civil liberties, gender equality and the rule of law. The demand for civil liberties in Egypt equals the thirst for jobs, of which there are simply not enough for the legions of youth who grew up during the three-decade-long misrule of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak and the nepotistic oligarchy he ran.

Egypt's challenges are also rooted in its heterogeneous society. The recent bloody riots have only deepened the sectarian divide between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christians, who comprise around 10 per cent of the population. These clashes have also brought into question the neutrality of the military, which is venerated by many but whose critics are beginning to rise, especially after the recent killings of Coptic Christians.

Indeed, Egypt is confronted with several challenges as it heads for elections on November 28. Given the military's traditional dominance in politics since the modernist era of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, will democracy endure? Can another military coup to bring back stability be ruled out? Will the country slide into a theocracy if hard-line Islamists do well in the elections? Finally, do the contesting parties have the experience, the will and the skills to revive the country's stagnant economy in a manner that cuts through its horrific poverty and rampant unemployment?

Notwithstanding the hazy future, new political constellations have emerged to implant on the country their vision, however blurred. Unlike Tunisia, where the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a party based on Salafism, a revivalist ideological strain within political Islam, seeks to re-create an ideal society based on a pristine Koranic code, the Salafists are out in full force in Egypt.

The Salafist Al Nour Party heads an alliance that includes the Asala Party, the Salafist Current, and the Construction and Development Party, which is the political arm of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya. Al Nour activists say that their alliance is well balanced and capable of competing strongly in all the electoral districts.

The Salafist Current hopes to come up with a creditable performance in northern Egypt given the fact that Alexandria and the Nile Delta in the region are its strongholds. The Construction and Development Party expects successes in Upper Egypt, where it seemingly has considerable support. Incidentally, the Al Noor alliance has declared that given a chance it will enforce Sharia law in the country.

On the other side, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party, leads a coalition called the Democratic Alliance. The presence of the Ghad Party, a liberal outfit, and the Karama Party, whose members draw inspiration from Nasser, substantiates the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to shed its narrow sectarian agenda, though doubts remain about its final ideological trajectory.

Some analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood is experiencing a monumental inter-generational power struggle between the largely moderate youth activists and the hard-line old-timers. Many among the Muslim Brotherhood youth have been inspired by the so-called Turkish model, which espouses a socio-cultural role for Islam but does not attack the principles of secularism and gender equality. Some like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh have advocated that the state should distance itself from the interpretation and enforcement of Islamic law and that it should not be involved in the regulation of religious taxes. Aboul Fotouh emphasises that gender or religion must not be the yardstick to bar an individual from running for the presidency.

Aboul Fotouh's utterances demonstrate the tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood's rank and file. For speaking out against the established view and declaring that he wishes to run for the presidency, Aboul Fotouh has been expelled from the party.

The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to persist with its age-old slogan Islam is the solution is also a reflection of the tussle between the moderates and the hardliners within the organisation, long oppressed by the country's former rulers. Determined to make its mark, the Brothers will have its candidates in 70 per cent of the seats that the Democratic Alliance has decided to contest.

While the Islamist parties have hogged the limelight, the Revolution Continues (R.C.) has emerged as a conspicuous contestant among the non-religious alliances. The R.C. includes the Youth Movement that played a key role in organising the mammoth street protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. The left-leaning combination includes the Popular Socialist Alliance Party; the Egyptian Socialist Party; Egypt Freedom, Equality and Development; the liberal Egyptian Current; and the Revolution Youth Coalition. The R.C. will field 300 candidates in 33 electoral districts.

Finally, a liberal-centre-left bloc, which includes the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the leftist Tagammu party, which strongly opposed the Mubarak regime, has also put up candidates.

Some former Mubarak loyalists of the National Democratic Party (NDP) have made a bid to join the fray through the back door. For instance, the Unity Party led by Hossam Badrawy, who headed the NDP during its final moments, has fielded 100 candidates.

Overdrive to woo the poor

Faced with mass unemployment and extreme poverty, most coalitions are an overdrive to woo the poor. The Egyptian website Ahram Online has reported that Islamists of all hues have hit the streets hard to provide a variety of services to the poor. Muslim Brotherhood volunteers have set up food markets where vegetables are sold below the market rates. Salafist volunteers in Alexandria are out in the congested streets to streamline the chaotic traffic flows. Doctors of the Salafist persuasion knock at doors asking people not to dump trash on the streets in order to prevent disease.

Members of non-religious parties, too, have headed in the direction of impoverished neighbourhoods and shanty towns. Unsurprisingly, the R.C. is campaigning hard, advocating redistribution of wealth and an end to military rule and to the repressive measures, such as the emergency law, of the Mubarak years.

The non-religious parties have also opened other fronts to deny the Islamists exclusive political space. The liberal Egyptian Bloc is campaigning vigorously to establish a modern civil state that will prevent the Islamists from moving in the direction of a theocracy. Samir Fayad, a leading member of the Tagammu Party, has been quoted as saying that Islamists are relics from the Middle Ages.

Overlapping themes

The elections are likely to showcase several overlapping themes, reflecting the complex interplay of social forces that are expected to influence the elections. While at one level the secularists and the Islamists vie for political space, an intra-Islamist contest, between the moderately inclined and the extremists, is also expected to animate the elections.

In neighbouring Tunisia, the moderate Islamists under the banner of the Ennahda Party performed strongly in the first election that was undertaken in the region post-Arab Spring. The Ennahda, led by the Islamic theoretician and politician Rachid Ghannouchi, claims that it is a part of a new genre of Isamist parties which are a part of a world movement that has established a niche for itself in countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In an effort to encourage moderation in countries experiencing the Arab Spring, Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan visited Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the North African countries where new leaderships are in the process of taking root, in September.

In Cairo, Erdogan's charismatic presence led one television presenter to say during a talk show that the Prime Minister is a man who is admired not only by a large sector of Turkey but also by a large sector of Arabs and Muslims. But reflecting the country's ideological fault lines, the Muslim Brotherhood tempered its welcome for Erdogan by denouncing his call to Egypt to adopt a secular Constitution.

Ahead of his visit to Cairo, Erdogan noted that the adoption of secularism did not mean the renunciation of religion. A secular state respects all religions, he said in an interview with an Egyptian private satellite TV channel. Be not wary of secularism. I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt, he observed. But taking offence at his remarks, Mahmoud Ghuzlan of the Muslim Brotherhood cited Turkey's unique conditions that imposed on it to deal with the secular concept.

With less than a month to go for the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the focus of world attention. Well positioned as an ideological swing player, the stance of the Brothers, who have offshoots in Jordan and Syria and in the Palestinian territories, may prove decisive in settling the regional contests between what may loosely be called soft and hard Islamists.

The Salafists have signalled their willingness to strike an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood should the need arise after the elections. On their part, the Brothers would have to take the call of either coalescing a conservative Muslim bloc with a pronounced hard-line accent or working out an arrangement in alliance with some of the secular parties to advance on the path of moderation that countries such as Turkey and Tunisia have cleared.

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