“Western observers worried about the fate of Egypt’s attempted democratic transition are closely watching the new Muslim Brotherhood–led government for any signs that it will impose an illiberal Islamist straitjacket on the country,” note two leading observers.
“Yet the greater danger for Egypt’s fledgling democracy likely to arise from the Brotherhood’s new ruling position is not Islamist illiberalism but rather dominant party overreach,” according toThomas Carothers and Nathan Brown.
“The threat is not ‘one man, one vote, one time’ but the monotony of fair but repeated electoral victories” for the Islamist group’s Freedom and Justice Party, they contend.
The Brotherhood already controls the presidency and the upper house as well as the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution, while the group also dominates many professional associations in the absence of a coherent, credible opposition which currently comprises “a mix of politically inexperienced Salafi parties and a jumble of non-Islamist parties, leading personalities, and amorphous activist networks.”
“Unless future elections in Egypt are dramatically unlike those of the past year, the Brotherhood may easily be able to parlay its central, unified place in the middle of the political spectrum into an inevitable role in any future leadership,” Carothers and Brown warn.
But the Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi is already exposing his autocratic impulses and political bias, says a leading Egyptian liberal.
“He has yet to internalize the idea that the existence of an opposition is an important instrument of democracy,” says Amr Hamzawy, a Cairo-based political scientist. “He’s well on his way to creating a single-party system, just as it was under Mubarak.”
“The boundaries between the office of the president and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t defined,” he says.
More than 20 Egyptian human rights groups today highlighted Morsi’s failure to honor his promise to be president of “all Egyptians’ through a more inclusive approach to governance, complaining that the authorities excluded them at the last minute from meeting a European Union delegation.
“The rights groups said in a statement the decision to exclude them reflects the current government’s shunning of human rights – a continuation of the policy of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak and the country’s transitional military rulers,” Associated Press reports.
Some 220 civil society groups have initiated a Civil Par Excellence campaign, which rejects the current draft constitution and calls for an end to restrictions on civil society, reports suggest. The non-governmental groups want the constitution to stipulate that Egypt is a civil state and that citizenship is the source of individual rights and freedoms.
“It is most alarming that the entire draft constitution is without any mention of the civil state, and is completely devoid of any reference to UN and/or regional international human rights instruments as the international authority on rights and freedoms,” writes Magdi Khalil, a prominent rights activist, and Executive Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum. “All articles referring to rights and freedoms have been restricted either by Islamic law, or by resigning constitutional rights to be regulated by law, which likewise subjects them to the restrictions imposed by the same Islamic law.”
The draft constitution expands presidential power to such a degree that it could produce “a new Egyptian pharaoh,” says another leading rights activist, “allowing the president to appoint the prime minister and dissolve the parliament should he disapprove of government programs.”
Furthermore, individual rights and freedoms are not constitutionally enshrined but “deferred to the law,” in the former regime’s 1971 constitution,” writes Hafez Abu Saeda, the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “Therefore, laws can undermine these rights and freedoms, causing them to lose their constitutional value.”
He is also concerned that the draft does not draw on international charters of human rights and democratic constitutions; that the presidential prerogative to appoint the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court undermines the principle of an independent judiciary, and that limits to the court’s role in monitoring election law demonstrates “the partisan bias of the assembly toward the Freedom and Justice Party, …. the only party to approve it.”
Such concerns echo Carothers and Brown’s fear that the FJP will follow South Africa’s African National Congress in “the step-by-step conflation of the ruling party with the state—party loyalists gradually taking over powerful positions throughout the economic, political, legal, and social institutions of the country.”
That danger is amplified by the Brotherhood’s entrenched authoritarian attitudes and structures, analysts suggest.
The Brotherhood is “a deeply ideological outfit, with a historically anti-Western outlook,” writes Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Moreover, the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to exclude those who might be inclined towards ideological moderation.”
Contrary to a recent RAND report’s suggestion that the US and other Western actors could engage the Brotherhood through its relatively accessible youth section, the group’s “rigid hierarchy presents a second obstacle hindering American -policymakers from successfully engaging with its youth members—namely, the Brotherhood’s senior leadership,” says Trager.
“RAND’s report acknowledges that Brotherhood leaders prevented a young member from attending a conference at a U.S. think tank, and that Brotherhood youth typically decline to meet with U.S. officials without explicit permission,” he writes.
Other analysts suggest that the Brotherhood’s apparent determination to monopolize political institutions betrays an underlying fragility and lack of confidence.
“In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, there is every indication that the Brotherhood feels deeply vulnerable in spite of its apparent strength. They seem to fear they may have peaked too early, and won’t be able to replicate their strong victories in future elections,” writes Hussein Ibish. “And they appear to recognize that while they may have secured the cooperation of, they have not yet gained control over, the greatest sources of government power: the military and police.”
This is what An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was trying, apparently in vain, to explain to Tunisian Salafists in his embarrassing video comments urging them to be patient while his party worked to seize control of the army and security forces to forestall “a secularist comeback.” Ghannouchi says he fears that if Salafists push the Islamist agenda too far or too quickly, they could experience a repeat of the bloody backlash against them in Algeria in the 1990s.
“At one register [the Brotherhood and the Salafists] are the strongest of allies, while at another the bitterest of enemies. They are the closest of frenemies,” Ibish suggests.
But other observers believe the current draft constitution reflects a compromise that enshrines “the principles of Islamic law” in the legislative and judicial process, but confers the authority to interpret and apply those principles on the elected Parliament and civil courts.
“The more interpretation, the better off we are,” said Manar el-Shorbagy, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo and a liberal delegate who signed the deal. “You are no longer putting everything under one interpretation — the Salafis’ or whoever else.”
If literal-minded ultraconservatives — known as Salafis and who currently hold about a quarter of the seats in Parliament — gain more influence in the legislature and eventually the courts, they could someday use the provisions to try to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. If Islamists gain more power across the Parliament, courts and religious institutions, “I would see a real possibility for evolutionary change,” said Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Egyptian law at George Washington University.
But by keeping power in the hands of elected officials and civil courts, the agreement should also dispel, for now, the fears here and in the West that Egypt might follow the path of Iran’s 1979 revolution toward a theocracy where religious leaders have the final say on all matters of state. And liberal delegates who signed onto the deal noted that the guidelines were broad enough to leave substantial room for debate over just what Islamic law should require in the context of modern Egypt.
Sharia only “polishes morals, through persuasion and education, with no coercion whatsoever,” said Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide. “Sharia totally rejects the concept of a theocracy.”
Carothers and Brown relegate any illiberal aspects of political Islam to secondary status.
“Democracy’s prospects depend on Egypt escaping dominant party malady,” they write:
Signs of the blurring of the party-state line, such as the migration of senior Brotherhood officials into state-protected areas of the economy or into influential nonpartisan positions such as senior judgeships, should sound alarm bells. Signals that key state institutions—particularly the military and the security apparatus—are overly submissive to the Brotherhood should spark concerns. And diminished space for independent civil society organizations, the use of the state bureaucracy to produce electoral victories, and the absence or smearing of opposition voices in state-owned media would also indicate that democratic deterioration is beginning.
Egypt’s new government is dependent upon international aid to address its pressing economic crisis. But as the United States and other Western states offer assistance, “it is vital not to forget about both independent civil society and political opposition groups,” Carothers and Brown assert. “A strong independent civil society and a capable, assertive opposition are the most effective potential antidotes to the dominant party malady.’
This does not mean that outside aid for civil society and party development in Egypt should take on a pro-oppositional cast. It will do neither civil society nor the opposition any good if they are seen to be instruments of Westerners taking political sides. And sensitivities in these domains are especially high in Egypt, as evidenced by the ongoing legal case against Western democracy activists and Egyptian NGOs. But it does mean that Western governments seeking to support Egyptian democracy should go beyond sounding the alarm on any apparent early signs of growing party-state conflation and on key rights issues. They should make it a priority to address civil society and political party development issues with the new government and keep looking for ways to offer assistance on a whole range of areas such as constitutional reform, electoral system development, judicial strengthening, public interest advocacy, human rights, and other related areas.