Egypt’s All-Or-Nothing Politics
by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Heritage of Westernization
The cultural situation in much of the Middle East resembles a volcanic landscape. On the surface there is a layer of Westernization. Within the confines of this layer dwell that portion of the population that has, in terms of lifestyle, come to favor Western ways. This is not an unexpected phenomenon. After all, imperial European powers controlled much of North Africa from the early nineteenth century onward as well as most of the rest of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Members of the region’s upper classes, both economic and military, long interacted with and often mimicked European colonials. Though there have always been differences in the details (for instance, some are more democratically minded than others), the resulting Westernized layer has always been largely secular. Those among them who may be of a religious bent are moderates and have no problem with a separation of state and religion. Though it varies with the country, those belonging to this layer make up perhaps 25% of the population.
Beneath this surface layer is the majority population – a deep pool of magma – which is much more religious and much more tied to Islamic traditions and values. This does not mean the majority is always united in outlook. Some strongly desire an Islamic state while others do not see this as a necessary goal. There are other sources of division as well. Nonetheless, as in the case of volcanoes, the magma exerts fluctuating political and social pressure on the surface layer. To indefinitely keep it from erupting forth is probably an impossible task.
In Egypt, since the mid-1950s, the task of keeping the magma from erupting was accomplished by a series of military regimes. The officer corps of the Egyptian military tends to be secular and thus belongs to society’s surface layer. The same can be said for those who run the Egyptian police. In both cases they see the religious elements of their society as ideologically backward and competitors for power. Thus, upon attaining control, such military regimes, be they those of the famous Gamal Abdel Nasser or the infamous Hosni Mubarak, worried about the revolutionary potential of the more traditional majority. They sought to control it by either co-opting or suppressing any potential leadership cadres coming out of this population. For instance, they control most of the mosque imams by making them employees of (and thus financially dependent upon) the state. Also, they would regularly arrest and imprison the leadership elements they could not buy off. This was often the fate of those who led the Society of Muslim Brothers.
Part II – The Magma’s Moment
This pattern seemed to have been broken by the events that brought down the military regime of Hosni Mubarak. The mass demonstrations of 2011 initially convinced the military elite that Mubarak needed to be replaced and then, with the continuance of popular demonstrations, that acquiescence in a process of democratization would be necessary as long as the military maintained its organizational and economic privileges. During this revolutionary period other groups within the Westernized surface layer proved more naive. The various elements of the youth movement that initiated the anti-Mubarak demonstrations convinced themselves that their bravery and sacrifice gave them the right to define the political outcome of the revolution, i.e. a liberal democracy. Yet, while the youth movements represented hundreds of thousands, they were not the majority. What they did not foresee was that the revolution they felt to be their own would open a way for the magma, the traditional majority, to flow to the surface and, under the aegis of a democratic process, achieve power.
The result was the victory of Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who became the first democratically elected president of Egypt. He accomplished this historic feat in June of 2012 when he won 51.7% of the vote in a free and fair election. What followed, depending upon which element of society one belonged to, was elation, shock, or fear and, for some, there was a stubborn refusal to accept the results. This led to a series of political mistakes all around that undermined Egypt’s democratic experiment.
Part III – Mistakes of the Winners
The elation felt by Mohammed Morsi and his supporters, particularly the vast number of Egyptians formally or informally associated with the Society of Muslim Brothers, was easy to anticipate. For decades the Islamists of Egypt had been persecuted. Their leaders had been jailed for long periods, sometimes tortured, sometimes executed. When Morsi won the presidential election, millions of Egyptian Muslims – traditionalists, fundamentalists, and just the ordinary pious people – must have felt that this was their God-given moment. This elation was probably behind the newly elected leadership’s precipitous writing of a constitution that reflected the religious inclinations of the majority. Morsi and his supporters assumed that their election win was a mandate to carry through their own vision for Egypt, that is, an Islamic-oriented state. They moved too far, too fast, and did not offer sufficient protections for either religious or secular minorities. In doing so they caused the losers of the election to panic at the prospect of Islamist rule.
Thus, there was quick and vehement resistance to the new government, initially coming from the Egyptian courts. The array of secular forces that had lost the election appealed to the courts to put aside just about everything the new government did. And the Egyptian courts, still populated with Mubarak-era appointees, proved quite willing to reverse the democratic process.
President Morsi then overreacted to this resistance. He declared himself beyond the authority of the Egyptian courts, and for a short time, he attempted to assume dictatorial powers. He soon backed away from this position and, as anti government demonstrations organized by Tamaroud, a group associated with the Egypt’s secular youth movements, grew ever larger, he showed a belated willingness to compromise. Morsi accepted the need to negotiate a government of national unity and accelerated elections for a new parliament. However, it was too late.
Increasingly, Morsi was in a no-win situation. For instance, Tamaroud repeatedly blamed Morsi and his government for the country’s rising level of crime. However, Morsi had not been able to gain control over the country’s police establishment, which, like the courts, remained in the hands of Mubarak-era functionaries. He was blamed for the poor state of the Egyptian economy. Morsi was in office for about a year and never had effective control of an economy that has been derelict for decades. He was even accused of increasing the influence of the United States in Egypt. These accusations made little sense and were probably propaganda moves made in an effort to destroy the new government altogether. The secular minority seemed to be taking a position that the traditionalist/religious majority would not be allowed to rule, even within the context of democratic structures.
Part IV – Mistakes of the Losers
The primary mistake of the those who lost the election in June 2012 was to abandon the democratic process. What was needed were guarantees from the new government that there would be a regular election cycle, that those elections would be as free and fair as the one Morsi’s opponents had just lost, and that whatever constitution was produced under Morsi’s government would be amendable through a reasonable process. These were achievable goals, particularly once Morsi understood the opposition he faced.
However, the opponents of the elected government proved averse to compromise. They often boycotted negotiations with the government. Instead they opted for scrapping the entire election. In doing so, those who made up organizations like Tamaroud and Mohammed ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, appeared to be saying that their own (primarily secular) vision of Egypt was the only legitimate vision. Unfortunately, this outlook eventually led them into a de facto alliance with the military to bring down Egypt’s first democratically elected government.
Part V – Who Now Rules?
Those who opposed Morsi may soon rue the day they refused to negotiate with him. Why so? Listen to the explanation given by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian:
Much has rightly been made of the threat to Egyptian democracy that comes from the so-called deep state: the still entrenched bureaucracy made up of officials of Mubarak’s National Democratic party, elitist entrepreneurs who were his cronies, and an army hierarchy that exploited state assets. . . . Some accused Morsi of joining the ranks of this authoritarian elite. But the real charge was that he did too little to challenge them or their foot soldiers, a corrupt and brutal police force.
Thus, if those who celebrated Mohammed Morsi’s removal believe that the Egyptian military and its “deep state” accomplices share their democratic vision for a better Egypt they are doomed to disappointment. These elements care nothing for the political and civil rights of the Egyptian people. Within hours of the military coup troops were shooting pro-Morsi demonstrators and closing down news outlets.
It is not the social conservatism of Egypt’s majority that is, again using Steele’s words, “the biggest and most immediate danger to the country and the political rights that all Egyptians won with the overthrow of Mubarak.” But rather, as Steele warns, it is the military, the police, and other entrenched reactionary forces which are the greatest threat.
Having created the conditions for the military to reenter the political arena, the secular parties may now find it beyond their power to push them out a second time. So what are the probable consequences? It looks as if Egyptians face two overlapping possibilities: renewed military dictatorship and/or civil war. They are not the only possibilities, just the most likely.
About the Author
DR. LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.