Mural of Nasser, Tahrir Square, January 12, 2013
Democratization in Egypt
January 12, 2013
Thank you for inviting me here tonight. It is a real honor to have received this invitation, and be asked to speak in front of such a diverse group of progressive activists.
I am excited about the chosen topic for tonight’s talk, but I also realize its pitfalls. How do I summarize the high points of a Revolution only two years old, but one that has more excitement, plot twists, and drama than a novel by Tolstoy? I was lucky enough to live through the Egyptian Revolution, and actually arrived in Egypt to teach at the American University in Cairo on the first official day of the Revolution, January 25, 2011. I stayed in that country until December 31st, at which point I returned to the US, and began teaching at the Clinton School of Public Service.
So tonight, I am going to just briefly sketch a history of movement towards democratization in Egypt over the past two years, and what I believe are the concerns around those matters. Then, I want to invite questions from the audience to fill in the gaps people are most interested in.
Demographically, Egypt has significant economic potential. It is the most populous country in the Arab world. It has the Nile River. It has strong ties to both Africa and the Middle East and lies upon the mediterranean ocean. It has significant natural gas reserves, and massive tourist potential. It has a well developed manufacturing base, and some impressive engineering, such as the Aswan dam. It is a diverse country with approximately 90 percent of a Muslim population, ten percent Coptic Christian, and the remaining population consisting of Bahais, and traditionalists. Every shade of skin is represented in Egypt from the blue eyes and blond hair of Alexandria, to the dusky tones of the bedouin in the Sinai, and the rich dark skin of the Nubians in Upper Egypt.
So, what is the current political situation in Egypt? As you know, an enlightenment style revolution swept through Egypt two years ago. One of the mottos of the revolution was “bread, equality and social justice.” Hosni Mubarak, a US ally, and an authoritarian, oligarchic leader was forced to leave power.
Politically, Mubarak was very beholden to the US. He was enormously corrupt. He had emerged from the military and maintained strong ties with them. Under Mubarak, business and the state became one in a manner a political scientist might characterize as nearly fascist. In an interesting twist, the military created its own business empire under his rule. Under Mubarak, the poor became desperately poor. Illiteracy increased to nearly 70 percent, and corruption was rife. Inequality increased rapidly, and as the Revolution indicated, Mubarak and his cronies stole a significant amount of the nation’s wealth under his rule.
After Mubarak left, the country was ruled for an extended period by the military, known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF. Essentially, the country remained authoritarian in this period, but the military was the leader, not Mubarak. Many viewed this as the death of one head of a two-headed hydra, where the beast remained alive. One head had been cut off yet the other head remained.
The conservative right and liberal left categories which categorize Europe and perhaps the US simply do not fit well in Egypt. Rather, parties can more easily be divided along a crucial axis: support for a secular state, or support for a religious (Islamic) state. Another axis might be support for human rights, democratic mechanisms, social justice and the poor, or conversely support for large business, the military and an authoritarian state. So to give an example, Mubarak was secular, but pro-business and autocratic. The Muslim Brotherhood supports poverty relief, but also leans towards an Islamist state. The Nour party (Salafis) support a strong Islamist state and have no well thought out views on most of the other issues. The opposition led in part by Mohammed El Baradei, supports a secular state, the rights of women and minorities, poverty reduction, and more democratic approaches.
As a point of clarification, being Muslim does not make one an Islamist, or a radical or al qaeda. There are many practicing Muslims who prefer a secular state. The threat, in my view, comes from the Salafis, or fundamentalists, who wish to impose a Wahabi, Saudi style, stripped down, and very strict version of Islam on Egypt. These are the people who are destroying Sufi relics in Mali, and who terrorize Afghanistan as the Taliban. Like Christianity, Islam has many voices, from the most conservative, (Wahabi) to the most liberal, perhaps the Sufi, and a whole spectrum in between.
A burst of optimism among the liberal secularists occurred as the nation prepared for the first ever truly free parliamentary elections in the Winter and Spring of 2012. However, after the dust had settled, the first post-revolutionary Egyptian parliament had few women, and many Islamists, some of them extreme. One good outcome of the parliamentary election was that the liberals and secularists did better than expected, capturing about 15 percent of the seats in the lower house. Given the fact that the majority of liberal parties were formed after the Revolution, I believe that was a strong showing.
Late in the spring, however, the sunshine of democracy dimmed as the judiciary dismissed the lower house of parliament on technical grounds.
In June 2012, I returned to Egypt to the American University in Cairo to work on my research. In mid June, an election took place between Ahmed Shafiq, former prime minister under Mubarak and a military man, and Mohammed Morsy, a well educated engineer, and prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions ran very high, and matters were tense. It appeared to be a Hobson’s Choice: on the one hand, Shafiq was resolutely secular, but nonetheless had strong ties to the deposed regime. On the other hand Mohammed Morsy was a revolutionary of sorts, but he was also clearly an Islamist. It was really a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. As we know now, it was a tightly contested election, but Morsy seems to have fairly won Egypt’s presidency.
This ushered in another strange interregnum with both democratic and authoritarian elements. An Islamist was President, the judiciary had been appointed by the old regime, and the freely elected parliament had been dismissed. After only a few months in power, Morsy stunned the world by trying to implement a power grab in late November 2012, sparking outrage and massive protests across Egypt.
Egypt’s New Constitution was approved by referendum in December, and was signed into law by President Mohamed Morsy on December 26, 2012. Human Rights Watch states that the draft constitution provides for basic protections against arbitrary dentention and torture and for some economic rights. However, it fails to end military trials of civilians or protect freedom of expression and religion. One positive development is that the final draft does not require strict adherence to sharia with regard to women's rights (former article 68 has been removed). However, sex or gender is not a grounds for prohibiting discrimination in the approved version, and potentially interferes with women's choices about work and family.
Also, in the period between Christmas and New Years, more developments occurred. In accordance with the recently passed Constitution, eight judges have been dismissed from the Supreme Constitutional Court, one of whom was the first Egyptian woman to hold a post in the judiciary. Activists believe this dismissal violates the separation of powers, and shows that the judiciary is increasingly under attack.
The dispute about the Constitution, which was largely viewed as drafted by Islamists, has had a positive side effect of bringing the opposition together. The new opposition coalition is called the National Salvation Front. This group includes Mohamed El Baradei, the Social Democratic Party (a European style left democratic group), The Free Egyptians (A free market group which has secular and coptic membership) and a variety of socialist, communist, and secular groups.
All legislative power now rests with the upper house, the Shura. A draft law on elections has been proposed by the Egyptian Shura council. This law is being put in place to plan for a new round of parliamentary elections scheduled for April. The National Council of Women, however,has said the draft does not allow proper representation of women in Parliament, nor does it represent the capabilities, potential and ambitions of women after the January 25th revolution.
So, in summary, there is good news and bad news about democratization in Egypt. Egypt has made remarkable, and bold strides. It is impressive that elections were held. They were not completely free and fair, but neither were they totally rigged. The fact that the Islamists won is encouraging in the sense that the electorate did elect a completely different group into power than held power during the Mubarak government. The bad news is that the Islamists are not progressive, nor particularly interested in democratic institutions, and they seem to be consolidating their grip on power.
As we have seen, two years into the Revolution, there is still a lot of work to still be done. That is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. Please remember that the French Revolution took nearly twenty years to complete. Many countries that have gone through democratic transitions recently, including Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, often experienced long periods of partial transition. Thus, it would be realistic to assume that Egypt has a good ten to twenty years ahead of it before the democratic transition is complete.
What can American activists do to support democracy in Egypt? We can send support and training to the emerging progressive parties, such as the National Salvation Front, and urge the American government to do the same. We can also educate our fellow Americans that there are different kinds of Islam, most of which are moderate, and not affilated with al qaeda. We can also encourage support for the rule of law, and democratic processes. The best idea is to support Egyptian based NGOs doing work in these areas.