Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: The Major Players

This is part I of a three part series I will be writing on Egypt’s transition to democracy. Originally, I planned to write on the role of the military in Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics. But instead, I have decided to present a more complex and informative picture of contemporary Egypt. Toward that end, Part I describes the current domestic political landscape in Egypt by listing the five main actors that will shape and influence politics in the near future. Part II builds upon this by exploring the probable relationships and interactions between these five actors. And lastly, Part III looks at how Egypt’s internal changes will likely impact its foreign policies.

The five actors I list below are mix of old and new players on the political scene. The military and the counter-revolutionaries were integral parts of the old regime under Mubarak. They possessed and wielded political power and accrued many benefits from the status quo. The revolutionaries, Islamists, and The People are mostly new to Egyptian politics. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has participated in elections and held seats in parliament, but its role in politics was always severely constrained. There was no chance of it garnering meaningful political power. That is no more. The MB can freely and openly participate in politics, and, by many accounts, it has a real shot of being the dominant political party. Previously, The People were expected to be docile and passive citizens who reflexively supported the government. Those who publicly criticized or protested against the ruling elites–the nascent class of political activists–were subject to the whims of a repressive police state (surveillance, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture, etc.). Not surprisingly, then, prior to the revolution, there were no significant agents or advocates of change in Egyptian politics.

1. The Counter-Revolutionaries: This group consists of various figures who have entrenched interests in and sympathies for the old regime. It is their clear political preference that either the old domestic political status quo is restored or that the new state does not deviate much from the old status quo. Egyptian citizens widely perceive the counter-revolutionaries as working behind the scene to stymie any change in a liberal, democratic direction. This group includes former National Democratic Party (NDP) officials, undoubtedly some police and military officials, those citizens who still support Mubarak, and any other anti-change groups and individuals. Though the NDP has been formally disbanded, this group has already begun setting up re-branded political parties, such as the New National Party (NNP), which is headed by Talaat Sadat (son of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat). So as we can see, the strategy–at least for some in this group–is to challenge authority by working through the new political system. The NNP has stated its goal to remove corrupt officials and claims that it supports political reform, but many Egyptians are justifiably skeptical of their motives.

2. The Islamists: Now that religious groups and parties can now participate in the politics, they are doing so with much gusto. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have joined protests and are in the process of fielding political parties for the upcoming elections. For all of the concern about the MB from Egyptian secularists and the West (especially the U.S.), this group has the look of a fairly moderate Islamic political force. Yes, the MB is Egypt’s best organized and one of its most experienced political groups. But the MB has renounced violence decades ago and most of their views are in line with those of Egypt’s citizens (pro-democracy, pro-Palestine, etc.). And despite monolithic characterizations of the MB, there are clearly internal fissures. For instance, the core of the MB–in large part made up of the elders–has set up the Freedom and Justice Party, while the group’s youth are looking to set up their own party. The MB revealed today that it plans to contest about 45-50% of the seats in parliament and will not put forward a candidate for the next presidential election.

Meantime, the Salafis, on the other hand, loom as a more ominous group in Egyptian politics. Not afraid to use violence, they have been accused of recent church bombings. These acts, in combination with Friday sermons by Salafi sheiks, such as Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, have only stoked sectarian tensions with Egypt’s Coptic population. And compared to the MB, the Salafis’ views are definitively hardline. They desire an Islamic state. In fact, they (in addition to the MB) campaigned vigorously in support of a "no" vote in the constitutional referendum, claiming that a "yes" would violate the tenets of Islam. Furthermore, "Abd El-Monem El-Shahat, spokesperson of the Salafist Group, said to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) newspaper that the position of the president is limited to a male Muslim. He also has some doubts about democracy since the source of legislation is people and not God." And while the MB has been viewed as content with playing a background or supporting role for now, knowing that they will soon have their day in the sun, the Salafis have taken a more aggressive political stance. Just last Friday, they organized three protests in Cairo to highlight various demands of theirs.

3. The Military: It runs the country (including the reform processes) under the banner of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It has made good on quite a few of its reform promises so far, keeping Egypt’s transition to democracy mostly right on track. Additionally, it is a very popular institution in Egypt. After all, as a way of saying thanks for minimizing the violence during the revolution, Egyptian citizens held a pro-military rally a few weeks ago.

Tahrir Square on April 8-9. An Egyptian blogger named Maikel Nabil Sanad, who detailed various human rights abuses committed by the military, was recently sentenced by a tribunal to three years in prison for "insults." Moreover, the military is clearly supposed to serve an interim ruler, but there are no guarantees that it will freely relinquish its grip on power. It has been a major part of Egyptian politics–either directly or indirectly–since 1952. Its members are accustomed to holding power and acting within a system that offered them enormous business interests. In a new democratic system, at a minimum, the military will seek to protect its business interests, which, in turn, requires some level of informal political power. How will it obtain this power? Finally, the military is expected to hand the keys to power to civilian rule, but this is at time when its political power is arguably at its apex. It now plays the role of king and kingmaker. Which means that the temptation to act purely on its own self-interests, no matter how this might impact the stability of the country, has never been greater.

4. The revolutionaries: I have already written an article on the role of the revolutionaries in Egyptian politics, so look here for a longer elaboration of my views of this group. In short, the revolutionaries are the ones who demonstrated in the streets and squares and eventually toppled the Mubarak regime. Their efforts made it possible for completely new political system to emerge in Egypt. Continual pressure on the SCAF has led to even further progressive changes (The NDP and State Security Investigations has been dissolved, Mubarak and his sons detained and questioned, Ahmed Shafiq dismissed as prime minister, and political prisoners released from prison.) This is an activated and energized group that still holds protests and strikes for what they see as just and fair political and economic conditions. The revolutionaries possess moderate to liberal views, making them well positioned to counter-balance the forces of extremism and as well as any group or individual resistant to political change. The revolutionaries’ main challenge is to build cohesive and well-organized political parties that can represent and defend their pro-democratic views.

5. The People: This group refers to the millions of non-elite Egyptians who do not fall into any one of the first four categories. At bottom, this is the base of support of that the reformers, Islamists, the military, and former regime members need to acquire and maintain a hold on political power. Hence, it is important to watch the opinion trends in this group. Initially, The People gave tacit support for the revolution. But more recently, there has been anecdotal data suggesting that Egyptian citizens are starting to get frustrated with the constant strikes and protests, believing that they disrupt daily life. Relatedly, there is some evidence that The People are worried and disturbed by the crime and violence that has swept parts of post-revolutionary Egypt. In fact, some citizens are so concerned that they reportedly would like to see an extension of the much-despised emergency law. It will be interesting to observe how political groups and parties attempt to play off these attitudes for political gain.

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