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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 04   01-15 July 2012

Professor A. R. Momin

Egypt’s Tortuous Transition to Democracy

The results of the final round of presidential elections in Egypt, held on June 16-17, 2012, mark the triumph—albeit a circumscribed one—of the 2011 revolution that led to the ouster of the disgraced former president Hosni Mubarak. The outcome of the presidential election and the events that preceded the announcement of the results represent a mixture of hope, intrigue, apprehension and despair. Mr. Mohammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood-nominated presidential candidate, won 51.7 per cent of the vote as against 48.3 per cent won by his rival, Mr. Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era. This evidently reflects a narrow victory for Mursi and points to the conspicuous political, ideological and social fracture in Egyptian society. Shafiq, who openly declared that he considered Hosni Mubarak as his “role model,” was widely perceived as a representative figure of the Mubarak regime.

Shafiq was first disqualified in the wake of the ratification of the Corruption of Political Life Law (or the Disenfranchisement Law), passed by the Egyptian parliament on 12 April 2012, which banned candidates who had been high-ranking officials in the last 10 years of the Mubarak administration from contesting elections. Shafiq, however, promptly filed an appeal against his disqualification before the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission, which upheld his appeal and allowed him to contest the election. It is an open secret that Shafiq, a former member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), enjoyed the tacit support of the Egyptian military. The US McClatchy Newspapers chain reported the “conspicuous presence of sympathetic security forces” at Shafiq’s campaign stops. On June 25, 2012, Egyptian prosecutors named Shafiq in a corruption law suit, which alleges that Shafiq was involved in corrupt land deals during his tenure as civil aviation minister between 2002 and 2011. The following day Shafiq flew out of the country.

Mr. Mohammad Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected President

In the first round of the presidential elections held on 23-24 May, Mursi won 24.78 per cent of the vote while Shafiq garnered 23.66 per cent. Since the votes in the first round were divided among the frontrunners like Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, Hamdeen Sabhi and Amr Moussa, it was widely expected that Mursi would win the final round with a huge margin. But the results came as a shock and disappointment to most Egyptians. It is puzzling how Shafiq, who represents the sordid legacy of the Mubarak era, who has been involved in massive corruption scandals, who has scant regard for civil liberties and whose personality and views are at complete variance with the spirit of the 2011 revolution, could manage to win nearly half of the vote.

Celebrations at the Tahrir Square (AFP)

Five interrelated factors seem to account for this strange turn of events. First, the results are a pointer to the deeply fractured and polarized Egyptian polity and society. Egyptian society is not only ethnically diverse but is also divided in terms of rural-urban distinctions, class, occupation and ideological orientation. This is clearly reflected in the divide between the secularists and modernists, including the military top brass, and the large masses of people who are deeply inspired by Islamic values and traditions. The roots of this divide can be traced to the European colonization of the country in the 19th century and the subsequent ascendancy of the Westernised elite.

Since the time of Jamal Abdel Nasser (ruled 1954-70), Egypt has been ruled by authoritarian leaders, who systematically stifled political dissent and curtailed civil liberties. A large number of dissident leaders and political activists, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, were imprisoned, tortured and even executed. The ruling elite, courted and patronized by the Western powers, systematically unleashed the propaganda that Islam-inspired groups and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were conspiring to establish a totalitarian Islamic state which would have no space for freedom and civil liberties, that if such groups came to power they would take the country away from the path of modernity and development, and that if their activities remain unchecked, there would be widespread instability, chaos and anarchy in the country. Shafiq used the same rhetoric to dissuade Egyptian voters from casting their votes in favour of Mursi.

Rejoicing on the streets of Cairo (Reuters)

Secondly, a large number of voters were disappointed by the face-off between the newly elected parliament and the military, disillusioned by the outcome of the first round of the presidential elections and the prospect of a run-off between Mursi and Shafiq. Many of them felt that there was not much of a choice between Shafiq, who represented the old order, and Mursi, whose affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as a cause for misgivings and apprehensions. The prevailing mood of despair and gloom was exacerbated by the dissolution of the first democratically elected parliament by the Supreme Constitutional Court and the assumption of sweeping legislative, executive and judicial powers by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces prior to the election. The Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that one-third of the seats in the parliament had been illegally assigned and therefore it had to be dissolved. Consequently, many Egyptians decided not to exercise their franchise.

A large number of Egyptian women campaigned for Mursi (Reuters)

Thirdly, the presidential elections took place against the backdrop of the gloomy economic scenario, political instability, rising inflation and unemployment. GDP growth has declined from 5 per cent to 1 per cent in the span of a year. Foreign direct investment has declined from $6.4 billion in 2010 to 500 million in 2011. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have dwindled from $36 billion in 2010 to $10 billion in 2011. The country is faced with mounting debts, which necessitates a likely devaluation of the currency, which in turn will inevitably lead to a sharp rise in the prices of food and other goods. Inflation now runs into double digits. Tourism is one of the major sources of revenue, and some 15 million Egyptians depend on tourism. The political turmoil, the collapse of the government and political uncertainly have led to a 30 per cent decline in tourism. More than 40 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. Unemployment has risen from 10 to 15 per cent, while youth unemployment is now at an all-time high of 25 per cent. Shafiq cleverly played on widespread popular worries and anxieties about political uncertainty and its long-term consequences for the country.

Fourthly, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Egyptian military, which supported Shafiq, continue to be influential and powerful. The majority of Egypt’s regional governors are retired army officers. The National Democratic Party’s organizational network and the military’s undeniable clout played an important role in expanding Shafiq’s margin of votes. Finally, an overwhelming majority of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 per cent of the population, fearing that the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood would undermine their rights, voted for Shafiq.

A sea of humanity gathered at Tahrir Square to celebrate Mursi’s victory (Photo: Reuters)

Challenges and Prospects

Mohammad Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, who has a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California and has been a professor at Zagazig University, is caught in an unenviable and extremely trying situation. The interim constitutional declaration issued by the SCAF prior to the declaration of the presidential election results divests the president of much of his powers. The SCAF has exempted itself from civilian oversight and has given to itself sweeping and unaccountable powers, including the power to determine the defence budget and complete control over all army affairs. Under the declaration, the SCAF will oversee the formation of a new constituent assembly to write Egypt’s new constitution and will have the right to veto it. The declaration says that the president cannot declare a war against any country except with the approval of the SCAF. The military has acquired de facto control over the country’s foreign policy as well as internal security. Since the parliament has been dissolved by an order of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Mursi will have to function without a parliament. According to the SCAF’s declaration, a new parliament can be elected only after the new constitution has been drafted and ratified through a nation-wide referendum. Mohammed ElBaradei, former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel laureate, called the military declaration a “grave setback” for democracy and the revolution. Though the military has promised to hand over power to the civilian authorities on 30 June, this remains to be seen. Mursi is faced with a host of formidable challenges, including the overbearing dominance and control of the military, the worsening economic scenario, political instability and the pressing need for national reconciliation. The biggest and seemingly insurmountable challenge before him is the might of the military, which is often described as a state within a state and represents part of the legacy of the Mubarak era. The military runs an incredibly vast commercial empire, which encompasses construction, mining, land reclamation, food and the production of consumer goods. It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product is generated by companies owned by the military. The accounts of the establishments run by the military are kept secret and are beyond parliamentary or public scrutiny. The Egyptian military officials enjoy huge privileges, including palatial houses on the Mediterranean, free vehicles and paid vacations, free food produced on military farms and well-paid positions in military-owned businesses upon retirement.

The Egyptian army runs a vast business empire, covering a vast array of businesses and services,
from consumer goods to mining (Photo: Getty Images)

Since winning the election, Mursi has displayed exemplary sagacity, far-sightedness and vision and a much-needed spirit of reconciliation. He has pledged to be the president of all Egyptians, including Coptic Christians, and has emphasized that he wants to build a “democratic, civil and modern state” that guarantees the freedom of religion and the right to peaceful protest. He suggested that he would like to appoint a representative of Coptic Christians as one of his advisors and even possibly as a vice-president. He also said that an Islamic dress code would not be enforced. Mursi declared that he would honour all the international agreements and treaties that Egypt has signed with other countries, including Israel. On the domestic front, Mursi has promised to tackle the day-to-day problems faced by Egyptians, such as bread and fuel shortages, traffic congestion and pollution, on a priority basis.

Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have reiterated, during the Egyptian uprising and after their electoral victory, their commitment to the civil, non-sectarian nature of the Egyptian state. Ibrahim Zakariya, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of the Egyptian parliament, told the Time magazine: “The Muslim Brotherhood takes Islam as a template, but we don’t have a religious state or God-ordained rule. We believe in democracy and all its rule. We believe in the principle that the people are the origin and source of sovereignty and that people choose their leaders in free and secret ballots.”

In May 2011 Egypt’s military rulers had rejected a $3.2 billion loan offer from the IMF, saying it would infringe on the country’s sovereignty. Now, faced with extremely grim economic prospects, the military rulers have agreed to reopen negotiations with the IMF. The Muslim Brotherhood is open to restarting negotiations with the IMF over the loan. The Muslim Brotherhood has also declared its support for free markets.

Though the transition to democracy in Egypt appears to be fraught with formidable obstacles and challenges, they are not insurmountable. If Mursi and his council of ministers act wisely and pragmatically and in a spirit of reconciliation, they will be able to tide over the manifold problems the country is facing. Hopefully, the new parliament will strengthen Mursi’s hands. The iconic Tahrir Square has emerged as the symbol of the Egyptian revolution and the multitudes of Egyptians that throng it from time to time will keep the flames of the revolution burning. In a significant gesture, Mursi swore himself before tens of thousands of people at the Tahrir Square on 29 June on the eve of officially taking the oath of office. In his address, he referred to the “free world, Arabs, Muslims of Egypt and Christians of Egypt” and said, “I swear to preserve the republican system and the independence of Egypt.” He said that no institution in the country would be above the people and that the Egyptian people would remain the ultimate source of authority, alluding to the military, which has sought to shield itself from parliamentary oversight. Mursi was sworn in as Egypt’s first civilian and democratically elected president before the Supreme Constitutional Court on June 30. After the swearing-in ceremony he was saluted by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Role of the West

For decades, Western governments have courted and supported dictators and autocratic rulers in the Arab region and turned a blind eye to their shameful record of suppression of human rights, largely because such rulers were useful in protecting and augmenting the West’s economic, political and ideological interests and were perceived as a bulwark against the rising influence of Islamic groups. By and large, the response of Western governments, political leaders and the media to the Arab Spring has been a mixture of ambivalence, negativity and deeply-entrenched prejudices. Tony Blair, the Middle East peace envoy, for example, warned that Egypt might take a backward step “into a very reactionary form of religious autocracy.”

In the Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, Kenneth Roth has written that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. The report calls on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect human rights. “So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their religious or political complexion,” the report says. The Economist has wisely commented that the West must make it clear that democratically elected politicians, even Islamist ones, rank above generals. Since 1979, the Egyptian military has been receiving $1.5 billion per year in military aid from the United States. The Economist suggests that since the Egyptian generals thrive on American aid, the United States and Europe can influence the generals for tipping the balance in democracy’s favour.

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