Democracy on test

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

The first sessionof the Egyptian Parliament on January 23.-AP

The first sessionof the Egyptian Parliament on January 23.-AP

One year after the revolution, Egypt gets an elected government with Islamist parties winning the overwhelming majority of seats.

THE year that has gone by was an eventful one for Egyptians. On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians workers, students and intellectuals spearheaded a revolution which, within weeks, overthrew the long-time authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. That revolution was inspired by the popular uprising in Tunisia in December 2010, which brought down the military-backed dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee the country in January 2011.

The Islamist opposition in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood joined the anti-regime protests, which swept across the country, only after the movement had gained momentum. All the same, the organisational acumen of the Muslim Brotherhood proved invaluable when the protesters faced the full wrath of the security apparatus at Tahrir Square in Cairo. More than 840 protesters lost their lives in the struggle to restore democracy. Thousands of young activists were arrested during the sporadic protests against the continued domination of the military in the political life of the country. On January 25, on the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by General Hussein Tantawi, a long-time associate of Mubarak, released 3,000 activists. Tantawi was Defence Minister for two decades in the Mubarak dispensation. Kamal al-Ganzouri, chosen by the SCAF to be the Prime Minister, had held the same post under Mubarak for a shorter term. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the country witnessed a spate of industrial action by workers demanding better working conditions and wages.

In the last week of January, protesters started a sit-in at Tahrir Square to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution. Students gathered in the Square and waved banners demanding an end to military rule. An Egyptian intellectual and pro-democracy activist, Alaa al-Aswani, wrote in an independent daily that Egyptians should once again take to the streets, not to celebrate a revolution which has not achieved its goals, but to demonstrate peacefully our determination to achieve the objectives of the revolution. Many Egyptians want the army to cede power immediately and allow civilians the freedom to draft a new Constitution. In the last week of January, the SCAF partially lifted the state of emergency, which has been in force since 1981. The military authorities said the emergency laws were still applicable to acts defined under the broad category of thuggery. The emergency laws allow arbitrary and long-term detentions.

But there is also evidence that the majority of Egyptians are still willing to give the SCAF the benefit of the doubt. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre showed that around 80 per cent of them trust the army's motives. Elections to a constituent assembly have been held successfully under the military-backed caretaker government. The newly elected Lower House of Parliament met for the first time on January 23, a few days after the completion of the historic elections. The elections were the freest so far in the history of modern Egypt and the people seem to have generally accepted the results. For, it was the first time there was no ballot stuffing and people were able to exercise their vote without being intimidated. The Election Commission admitted to some voting irregularities, but the process was generally deemed fair and transparent by local non-governmental organisations and international observers. The Atlanta-based Carter Centre, which had sent poll observers, said in a statement that the results appear to be a broadly accurate expression of the will of the voters. It, however, added that the ultimate success of Egypt's transition will depend on the earliest possible handover of power to a civilian government that is accountable to the Egyptian people.

The Muslim Brotherhood-led Freedom and Justice Party secured 47 per cent of the vote, followed by another Islamist grouping, the more conservative Al Nour Party, which polled 25 per cent of the vote. In the 498-member Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood will have 213 seats and Al Nour 125. Together these two parties will have an overwhelming majority, constituting two-thirds of the seats. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, like its counterpart in Tunisia, would prefer a coalition government with smaller liberal and secular parties that have also found representation in the new Parliament. It is also a signal to the West that the Brotherhood has no hidden Islamist agenda. The party is also aware that Egyptians are more interested in having a better standard of living than in Islamist rhetoric.

The Muslim Brotherhood has ideological differences with Al Nour. The latter adheres to a Salafist theology akin to the kind practised in Saudi Arabia. Al Nour has its roots in the Salafist Call founded in the 1970s to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood among university students. Both parties struck a chord among the electorate because of the charity work they undertook on a large scale across the country in areas inhabited by the poor and the deprived when Mubarak was in power. The Mubarak government, while prohibiting them from openly participating in politics, allowed them to work relatively freely in the social sector.

The liberals and the leftists, who were instrumental in sparking the revolution, failed to connect with the mass of voters, especially those in the rural areas. The Egyptian Bloc, founded by the telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris, a Christian Copt, got round 9 per cent of the seats as did the liberal Wafd Party, Egypt's oldest party. Coptic Christians constitute around 10 per cent of Egypt's population. After the fall of Mubarak, radical Islamists have targeted the churches. In one incident in October last year, Copts demonstrating peacefully in Cairo were fired upon by the police, and 30 protesters lost their lives. Coptic leaders are anxious about the meteoric rise of Islamists, especially Al Nour. Al Nour leaders have, however, promised to leave Christians out of the ambit of Sharia law, which they want the country to adopt.

The Egyptian Parliament has been tasked with writing a new Constitution, and secular-minded Egyptians are worried that a Parliament dominated by Islamists will now have the responsibility of drafting a new Constitution. Others are also not happy that the new Constitution is proposed to be drafted at a time when the military continues to be at the helm of affairs. Many politicians, including some belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, prefer the new Constitution to be debated and approved after the presidential election in June.

The Brotherhood has stated categorically that it is against the call for a second revolution against the military's continued dominance in the affairs of the state. In fact, Brotherhood leaders are not averse to working under the military-appointed government until the presidential election. Until late last year, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood had said that it would deny the military the right to name the Prime Minister and the Cabinet once a new constituent assembly was elected.

The United States established direct contacts with the Islamists as it was clear from the outset that they would win the largest number of seats in Parliament. Until recently, U.S. officials were prohibited from contacting the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. During the Mubarak regime, Washington had turned a blind eye to the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Egypt under Mubarak was a lynchpin of American policy in the West Asian region. After the government under Anwar Sadat signed the historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the U.S. became the biggest provider of financial and military aid to the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it will adhere to the peace treaty with Israel when its elected representatives take office.

The Hamas, which is in power in Gaza, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The two parties have close links. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was given a warm welcome when he arrived in Cairo recently. Israel fears that Egypt's policy under a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood could undergo a change. Tel Aviv knows that unlike Mubarak the Islamists will not give Israel a free hand on Palestine.

As things stand today, the Egyptian armed forces, which have been intimately involved in the country's affairs since the early 1950s, seem determined to continue playing an important role. The army leadership, with the tacit support of Washington, wants to ensure that there is no dramatic shift in the country's politics. Reports from Cairo indicate that the army leadership and the moderate Islamists have already reached an informal agreement that Egypt will retain its broad secular character under a mixed form of French-style presidential/parliamentary government. Statements from military officials and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood indicate that the 1971 Constitution will remain largely untouched. The 1971 Constitution has a clause which states that the principles of Islamic law are the basis of Egyptian law.

The two sides are still talking about the powers the military will retain under a government elected by the people. According to reports, discussions are going on about the degree of civilian oversight over the military and the issue of immunity from prosecution for top military leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood has given its approval to a declaration that has come from the Al Azhar theological centre, an institution that is held in high esteem in the Muslim world. Al Azhar wants religious observance, artistic expressions, scientific inquiry, theological dissent and civil society groups to be protected.

Meanwhile, liberal politicians such as Ayman Nour and Mohammed ElBaradei have announced that they will not contest for the presidency. They have said that democratic reforms have been superficial in nature. Ayman Nour and ElBaradei were the only two prominent politicians to challenge Mubarak openly when he was President. They have alleged that the military is trying to preserve its traditional role.

Ayman Nour spent many years in jail after running against Mubarak in an earlier election. He said a counter-revolution was now running Egypt.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment