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Egypt on the Edge

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Ahmed Ali/AP Images
A woman passing soldiers outside a polling station in Cairo, December 5, 2011

It has been almost one year since Hosni Mubarak gave up power, and in the months since then, the future of a newly democratic Egypt has been uncertain. The political transition all but stalled this past summer, as tensions between Muslims and Copts erupted, street violence flared, and the various post-Mubarak political factions repeatedly disagreed on the form the new Egypt should have. This fall, the military council now ruling the country—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—was itself drawn into violent conflict with protesters, leading to more than forty deaths in a single week. Many wondered, amid all this, if a democratically elected civilian government would ever take office.

In late November, as Egyptians finally went to the polling stations, the direction the country would most likely take was at last becoming clear. If the preliminary results of the parliamentary elections are any indication, most Egyptians want a country governed by the Islamists, whom Mubarak and his allies had aggressively tried to suppress. In the first of a three-stage election process, which began on November 28 and ends on January 10, the Islamist factions emerged with 69.6 percent of the votes. Only nine of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates voted in the first stage on November 28, and there are several weeks to go until the rest cast their ballots—there are some 52 million registered voters in all—but since many of the remaining electoral districts are ones in which the Islamists are known to have a strong popular following, it seems likely that their lead will be maintained, if not strengthened.

That the country’s first free and fair elections will likely result in a parliament in which the Islamists have a dominant majority is casting doubt on the promise of the democratic state that many who took part in the revolution hoped to achieve. When youth protesters first took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, they chanted their desire, among other things, for a state that promised social justice, unity, and equal rights for all. For eighteen days last winter, that model for a new and democratic Egypt seemed plausible; it was being lived in Tahrir. Copts and Muslims, women and men, youth and the elderly, secular and religious protested and prayed together and shared tents and meals. The Copts shielded the Muslims against possible attacks by thugs while they knelt down and prayed, and hundreds of the youth members of the Muslim Brotherhood surrounded the square as guardians for all, searching bags, checking IDs, and trying to ensure that informants or people hoping to disrupt the demonstrations would be swiftly escorted out.

In the aftermath of the first election results, many are wondering if the unity that came to typify the Tahrir protests is now a dream of the past. What is the fate of an Islamist-dominated Egypt? And what does it mean for the country’s liberal minorities—the Coptic Christian community, the moderate Muslim upper class, the remaining handful of Jews, and middle-class Muslims who in spite of their adherence to the rituals of Islam are committed to preserving the cosmopolitan Egypt they grew up in? The concerns of some of these groups are largely about the ways they will live. Will women be prevented from working? Will the veil become compulsory? Will public spaces be segregated to separate men from women? (Such measures are supported by the Salafist Al-Nour Party, which has so far received 18.5 percent of the vote.) For the Copts, who make up some 10 percent of the country’s 82 million people and who have faced increasing persecution since Mubarak stepped down on February 11, whether they will be left to freely practice their faith is an acute and daily concern.

Many people are also worried that tourism and the economy might suffer a ruinous blow if laws are passed to ban bathing suits and alcohol and to cover pharaonic monuments—as several Islamists have proposed in recent months. Although the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has so far expressed its commitment to building a democratic and moderate society, many fear that once the Islamists settle into power, their tune might change.

The likelihood of Egypt transforming from a moderate and open society to one resembling Saudi Arabia or Iran seems highly improbable, at least in the short or medium term. After 498 members of the 508-seat “lower parliament” are finally installed on January 14 (the remaining ten members will be appointed by the SCAF), there will be elections for the parliament’s “upper house.” This will be a consultative council of 270 seats—180 of which will be filled by elections, and 90 by members appointed by the SCAF, a clear sign of the continuing powers of the military. Once that entire structure is in place, the parliament’s immediate task will be to select a committee to draft the long-awaited new constitution.

Since the revolution last winter, the subject of the constitution has proved to be divisive, pitting political factions against one another for eight months. The Islamists, confident of winning the elections, were demanding that the newly elected parliament be granted absolute authority to draft the constitution to its liking. The liberals for their part wanted a supraconstitutional declaration promising respect for religious minorities, as well as the broader vision of a democratic state. To each draft of such a document (proposals were made by both leaders of the Muslim Al-Azhar University and the interim deputy prime minister) the various factions have had objections. On December 7, the SCAF further complicated matters by announcing that it would appoint a council to oversee the drafting of the constitution in order to limit the influence of religious extremism. The de facto military rulers now seem intent on using the rising threat of Islamist rule as their excuse for remaining involved in the country’s affairs, and the future power of the army, which has large economic influence and holdings, remains a central question for Egyptian politics.

Under current rules, for example, the parliament will have limited powers. The military council that is now running the country will continue to have overriding authority, which it has used to curb media freedoms and arbitrarily subject civilians to military trials. It is expected that the parliamentary majority will try to put pressure on the military by passing legislation giving itself the absolute right to appoint a new government and to draft the constitution that will shape the country’s future (already this week the Brotherhood accused the military of trying to undermine the parliament’s authority and said they would boycott the advisory council being formed by them to oversee the drafting of the constitution). With the political balance of the new parliament favoring the Islamists, the liberals worry about the ideological direction Egypt might take. As such concerns have increased, many liberals have slowly shifted away from their previously staunch opposition both to the SCAF and to the remnants of the former regime—the felool.

The largest liberal coalition, El-Kotla or the Egyptian Bloc, includes many former MPs who had strong influence under the Mubarak regime. Liberals now view them as preferable to the Islamists. Members of the Egyptian Bloc are also now advocating the continued involvement of the SCAF in the country’s affairs so that it can guarantee that the basic tenets of the constitution remain untouched—namely, that Egypt remain a democratic, modern state, a commitment the SCAF has repeatedly made.

What will happen, then, when the new parliament begins its first session in March? Most likely we can expect continuing arguments over the extent of the parliament’s authority, the timetable for transition and the handing over of powers from the military, and what the new cabinet should look like. In the debate over the constitution many of the Islamists, in particular those of the Muslim Brotherhood, will probably try to exert influence not through outright demands that it be based on Islamic sharia law—already, Article 2 in the current constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and the principle source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence—but rather through a subtle play on words and syllables in the Arabic language that can convey double meanings. They will favor a constitution with provisions that provide leeway for later reinterpretation. There will no doubt be fanatical members of the ultra-orthodox Salafis who push for a constitution that asserts boldly and clearly that Egypt is an Islamic state—indeed, some Salafis are already supporting this—but it is doubtful that they will form an overriding majority.

The transitional parliament could be in power for what might be as little as a one-year term, while a regular term in the previous Egyptian parliament was five years. The two largest political factions in the so-called “lower house”—the Muslim Brotherhood (represented by its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)) and the Salafi Al-Nour Party—are well aware that within that term, their constituents will expect them to deliver on some of their promises. Among the failures of both the SCAF and the various interim cabinets in recent months have been their responses to the demands of the revolutionaries, which have resulted in large-scale protests calling for them to step down. Egyptians will expect that the parliament deliver some tangible and immediate results—a pressure that will be felt by the liberal MPs as well.

The Muslim Brotherhood has decades of organizational and administrative experience. Aside from its expansive nationwide networks, its services to the needy have included selling meat at wholesale prices, offering subsidized school supplies, helping with medical treatment, and providing handouts of fresh produce, sugar, cooking oil, and other items. These activities have won it popular followings. The Brotherhood has also long had leading and instrumental parts in the country’s various professional syndicates and labor unions. The doctors’, lawyers’, and engineers’ syndicates, for example, have historically been dominated and led by Brotherhood members. At the journalists’ syndicate, reporters say that some of the board members affiliated with the Brotherhood have provided the best and most efficient services to the syndicate’s members to date—health care plans, for example.

It is the Brotherhood’s strengths in such different spheres of life—both in municipal welfare and as prominent business owners themselves—that give rise to hopes that it will be a positive force in Egypt. Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the group’s long-time spokesperson, told me this week: “We are ready for democracy and this parliament will work to rebuild this country for all Egyptians.” The party’s secretary-general, Mohamed el-Beltagy, said something similar, insisting that the parliament, and his party in particular, would serve as “the representative of the people”: “we have to respect one another and defend the rights of all Egyptians—of the entire nation and its people.”

The FJP seems to know that it has little choice but to act in a moderate and strategic manner. Issues of education, the economy, and rising inflation are of critical concern and need to be tackled immediately. In both their pre-election campaign rallies and recent press conferences, the Brotherhood leaders have promoted moderate positions. They have included among their supporters a variety of liberal and secular professionals. At the FJP‘s first public rally before the elections in the working-class district of Bulac, a leading member of the liberal Egyptian Bloc coalition was among the invited speakers. It also has women and Copts among its members. Many of the hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood women I have encountered at its events work, and some hold full-time jobs. During the years immediately ahead, there is little reason for the party leaders to radically change their tone.

For Islamist factions, the coming parliamentary term offers an opportunity to widen their support and allay fears of Islamic domination. The FJP will doubtless take advantage of its plurality to show that it does not menace the rights of others. But among the MPs of the Salafi Al-Nour, it seems likely that there will be a divide; many Salafist members of parliament envision an Egypt on the model of Saudi Arabia.

During the next year the laws regarding codes of dress or matters of faith and worship will probably remain unchanged. Transformations are more likely to take place in subtle ways. As the social and cultural landscape of the country is altered, the visibly orthodox Muslims will become freer in their movements. Under the Mubarak regime, the Salafis with their bushy beards and ankle-length galabiyas were very closely watched; many of them were virtually under house arrest. In the months since Mubarak was ousted, and certainly in the center of Cairo, there has been a visible rise in the number of bearded men and of women who are fully veiled. The men, in particular, say that they were persecuted for their beards under Mubarak’s regime, often keeping them trim if they grew them at all. Or as many told me, they simply stayed in their Islamist governorates or city suburbs, where the state’s informants kept them under watch. Now it is probable that the more liberal Muslims, and the country’s Copts, will feel increasingly out of place.

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