A Political Map for Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Article Summary
Egypt’s political scene is becoming increasingly complex, writes Mokhtar Shuaib. The sheer diversity of political movements has resulted in a lack of coherent political philosophy and disagreements over how regular transfers of powers are to be guaranteed. But the threat of Islamists eliminating liberals remains a distant possibility, he believes.

Despite the parliamentary elections' success, Egypt is witnessing an unusual conflict at all levels of its political class because there is no clear plan on how to build the new political order after the January 25 [Revolution]. That conflict may adversely affect the nature of the political order during the transitional phase.

The Egyptians - who were the first outside Europe to have a parliamentary assembly and a constitution - are bemoaning the absence of a clear vision on the shape of the second republic; a vision around which can gather the varied and antagonistic political and intellectual classes. This is due to various reasons such as the lack of a coherent political philosophy among the political forces. Their ideas and ideologies conflict, and that is causing a sharp intellectual and political polarization. This is clearly revealed by the Egyptian [political] class's profile after the revolution. It can be categorized as such:

1 - An Egyptian national action class that is independent from the former regime. It consists of:

(A) A revolutionary group with a hostile relationship with the former regime. It consists of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, communists, the April 6 and Kefaya movements, coalitions that emerged during the revolution, and some young people who had gotten a lot media attention and thus became the natural leaders of the revolution. In all, they consist of more than 175 revolutionary coalitions and 28 parties in the various governorates. But it is too soon to fully characterize them.

(B) A traditional opposition group that participated in the revolution and played a big role in its steadfastness. It was active under the previous political order but was independent. It was not a regime loyalist but cooperated with the regime in one way or another and held largely independent positions. It includes Mohamed El-Baradei, Ayman Nour, Osama Ghazali Harb, Mustafa Bakri, Hamdeen Sabahi and others; as well as the Wafd Party, the National Progressive Unionist Party, the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, Al-Karama [Dignity] Party, and the Democratic Front Party.

(C) A shifting political group, most notably the Salafi and Sufi movements. They were an effective element in supporting the former regime, but when they realized that its fall was certain they switched positions and supported the revolution.

2- A conservative class. Among its supporters are remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and remnants of the former regime's political elites as well as some top businessmen, financiers, journalists, artists and writers who shared common interests with the former regime; in addition to the political groups that emerged from the large Egyptian families and tribes in the Delta, the Eastern and Western Deserts, and the Sinai. These groups were the cornerstone of the former regime because they were founded on familial and tribal ties.

3 - It should be noted that the Egyptian political class after the revolution is mainly made up of those who had been banned under the previous regime. They include the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, leftist movements, Kefaya, April 6, etc. This new class, in its various components, derives its legitimacy - and thus the legitimacy of the new political order in Egypt - from the January 25 Revolution. It is the alternative to the former political class, which was considered rotten and an extension of the 23 July 1952 movement.

4 - With regard to the conflict of ideas on how to build a new political order, there is a severe elite/popular rift between the Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis) on one side, and liberals, leftists, Nasserists, and supporters of the "Egypt First" slogan on the other. There is also a tug of war between the institutions of moderate Islam and its supporters, especially Al-Azhar, Dar Al-Fatwa, and the Sufis on the one hand, and militant Islamist groups and the Salafis on the other. The Muslim Brotherhood has apparently taken a neutral stance in this conflict. The political arena is also witnessing a sharp conflict - between the movements and coalitions of the revolution's youth and the political forces and parties that participated in the revolution on the one hand, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the government, and the NDP remnants of the on the other. [This conflict is] over the issues of politically isolating the remnants and the receipt of foreign funding by some forces and movements. At the same time, the sharp controversy over the constitutional principles document and how to choose the members of the Constituent Assembly of the Constitution has caused a split within the forces of the revolution between the Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood in their various forms - the Wasat Party, the Salafis, the Jama'a Islamiyya on the one hand, and the liberals, leftists, Nasserists, April 6, and Kefaya, etc. on the other.

A Multilateral Conflict

The political arena is witnessing is a sharp conflict over the previous regime's privatization projects and how to recover state companies that were sold. The conflict is between liberals, the government, the SCAF, businessmen, the private sector and NDP remnants on the one hand, and leftists, Nasserists, revolutionary coalitions and Islamists on the other.

The political scene is witnessing sharp conflicts within political parties and forces - including the Wafd Party, the Democratic Front, the Free Egyptians, the Nasserist Gathering, and others - due to their decision to nominate members of the dissolved NDP under their name. The Muslim Brotherhood is experiencing a unique case of generational and ideological conflict between the official Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party from one side, and the Shabab al-Ikhwan movement - represented by the Egyptian Current - Hizb al-Wasat, and the supporters of likely presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, on the other.

Modernity and What Precedes It

The problem is that the divisions within the Egyptian political class are not only political but also ideological. They reflect some forces' desire to consolidate their control not only over the regime's institutions but also on society. On that, we shall confine ourselves to a few general observations:

1 - The first observation is about to the various classes in Egyptian society. The bourgeois class has more political influence than the middle or working classes. The bourgeois class fears political conflict because it may lead to certain political forces gaining power, which would cause it to lose all its gains and privileges. The middle-class is experiencing worsening economic difficulties and all it can do is demonstrate to bring down governments and oppose policies. The working class is in reactive mode and is suffering from the former regime's privatization policies that largely fragmented the labor groupings.

2 - The second observation is that civil society organizations in Egypt still have many problems at the intellectual and organizational levels. From one side, the teamwork ethic is still largely lacking in Egyptian society, as is the ability of these organizations’ leaders to resist the government's temptations, which can take many forms such as promises of prominent positions. This seriously diminishes the credibility of these organizations in the eyes of its members because the public will think that these organizations cannot escape the hegemony of the elites. Civil society organizations in Egypt also have organizational problems caused by the continued ability of the political order to "take from the left and give to the right," which keeps the civil society organizations permanently under its political control.

After the revolution, the political alliances revealed that, first, they were temporary electoral alliances. They were not political alliances with an integrated vision or a unified coalition program on national issues. They were fragile alliances and resulted in acute divisions after several political forces and parties left them. Second, they focused on political reforms at the expense of economic, social, and cultural reforms. It became clear that the political forces and parties could not remain allied due to differences in economic and social visions. With regard to the nature of the political order, there is a sharp difference in vision on whether the state should be civil or based on Islamic law, and on whether the government should be presidential, parliamentary, or mixed. There is also sharp disagreement about how the regular transfers of power should be guaranteed.

It could be argued that Egypt's fate and that of the revolution largely depend on the relationships to be established between the emerging Islamist currents on the one hand, and the country's political and intellectual currents on the other. This relationship may become adversarial if the emerging Islamist currents try to exclude other political currents - liberal, socialist, and moderate - from the political arena. What happened after the Iranian Revolution stands as an example, but it is doubtful that the Iranian experience can be replicated in Egypt.

The regional and international situations, in addition to the deep-rooted values of modernity and its historic role in the establishment of modern Egypt, do not allow the full marginalization and exclusion of the non-Islamist currents even if the balance of forces and the votes indicate otherwise. But the improbability of that scenario does not mean that some Islamists will not try to take matters in a direction that could lead to violent conflicts between them and the civil forces. What is more likely is that these conflicts will end up producing new forms of coexistence among different currents and, more importantly, a relationship between state and religion that is different from what had prevailed in the past two centuries, but without producing a religious state as [was the case] in Iran. It will not be similar to what happened in Turkey either. It will be somewhere in between. Achieving consensus and a new relationship between religion, state and society requires pragmatism and concessions by all parties. The expected outcome should be close to what happened in Tunisia.

The fact that the political class declared its intention to continue this process by putting forward reformers that are acceptable to both the conservative and reformist wings has made a number of analysts optimistic about the future of political reform and democratization in Egypt. But that is because the political class has positive intentions - not because of the democratic process itself.

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