The secular groups protesting on the second anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster share the blame for Egypt’s authoritarian drift under the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts assert.
The Islamist’s political dominance is a consequence of liberal and secular groups ceding the initiative to the Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafists by failing to unite and organize in the two years since they initiated Mubarak’s ouster.
“They were unable to transfer their popular demands to real political action when they had the opportunity,” said Robert Danin, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, won the most seats of any party in parliament and later propelled Morsi to presidency. Other political parties with varying views and demands have also burgeoned in popularity and public presence, and demonstrations and protests continue in the streets, revealing a consistently vibrant political arena.
The secular parties behind today’s protests need “to accept that, if they want a democratic outcome, they have to fight in the electoral arena,” says a prominent analyst.
“Secular parties have already wasted two years they should have devoted to organizing in squabbling among themselves and hoping that the courts could stop the rise of Islamist parties,” writes Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
With the economy in tatters and many Egyptians, including pious ones, worried about a possible Islamist overreach, secularists can get support. But they need to organize, develop a message, and show more respect for ordinary Egyptians, whose votes they need. It is not that Islamists do not share the blame for the present state of affairs. They have become arrogant and overly sure of themselves, but the only way to stop them is to show that they are vulnerable to competition.
Liberal and secular groups are well-placed to take advantage of Egypt’s new political space and energy, observers suggest.
“People have been mobilized politically in a way that didn’t exist previously,” said Middle East analyst Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York. “There is a different sense of relationship between citizens and government.”
Moreover, while there have been gains in procedural democracy, political mobilization and political life, these haven’t yet translated into institutional reform and a radical overhaul of public policy, he said.
Furthermore, despite the Brotherhood’s authoritarian drift, public opinion still shows notably liberal trends.
Egyptian citizens “consistently express lofty democratic aspirations,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll (above). Two-in-three believe democracy is the best form of government, while only 19% accept that non-democratic government may be preferable in certain circumstances.
“Moreover, there is a strong desire for specific democratic rights and institutions,” the Pew research finds. “About eight-in-ten (81%) considered it very important to live in a country with a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way, while roughly six-in-ten said it is very important to have a free press (62%); free speech (60%); and honest, competitive elections with at least two political parties (58%).”
“Liberal intellectual and media star Amr Hamzawy handily won his Cairo seat in the first round of voting, and several other prominent liberals such as analyst Amr Chobaky and young revolutionary Mostafa Naggar gained seats as well.”
“Islamist and liberal ideology in Egypt have converged over the years around a strongly held recognition of the importance of building democratic institutions and the rule of law,” they write in the JOD, a publication of the National Endowment for Democracy:
The primary difference between liberals and Islamists lies in the Islamist conception of the state as a moral actor responsible for social transformation. This belief is reflected in the post-revolution policies and behavior of Islamist groups and the Islamist-dominated government that promote and defend checks and balances within government, the right to protest, and political participation, but mostly within an Islamic framework that places limits on free speech and on the equality of women and non-Muslims, as delineated by shari‘a. The result might be a more intrusive state than what liberals advocate.
It will take time before Egypt is able to fashion its own distinctive blend of Islam and democracy, says a leading liberal analyst.
“The correct application of democracy and Islam requires a well-educated and politically mature society. This will evolve with time, and not by force,” writes Mohammed Nosseir, a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptians Party.
“Egyptian society is in dire need of a functional democracy and genuine Islamic values, based on a correct understanding of the dynamics of each, and a complete separation between the two,” he writes on the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source. ‘Egypt will progress faster and better standing on two legs (democracy and Islam); by crossing legs, however, we are certain to fall down.
Egypt’s liberals may be few in number, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their disproportionate influence on the country’s politics, say Dunne and Radwan, respectively director and associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“The dominant narrative that focuses on Islamist electoral ascendance ignores not only the increasing acceptance and even dominance of liberal political ideas in Egypt, but also the transformative and moderating effect upon the political scene exerted by liberals both before and during the transitional period,” they write in the Journal of Democracy:
Leading political figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Hamzawy have done yeoman’s work in assembling a public consensus behind liberal political ideas, and groups such as Kifaya have had an unmistakable impact on the changing political views of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Egyptians generally. Civil society organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (among many others) act as checks on the institutionalization of Islamist social conservatism. Liberal journalists such as television host Yosri Foda, newspaper editors Ibrahim Eissa and Hani Shukrallah, and publisher Hisham Kassem are a constant presence in the mass media and help not only to shape public debate but to raise difficult questions for Islamists.
“Egypt’s liberals, though they do not dominate political life and perhaps never will, remain the vanguard of change in the country,” but they have “helped to make the entire political space more liberal and to defend that space against regressive initiatives, forcing the peaceful (if heated) dialogue and negotiation necessary to resolve differences through a democratic process.” RTWT
Egypt’s current political polarization is characteristic of turbulent change, says one analyst.
“Often enough, when the dust of the revolution is settled, the various groups which had united for the sake of changing the regime become embroiled in protracted ideological, political and personal disputes which might bring uncertainty and even chaos. writes Elie Podeh, a professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Egypt has not reached that point yet, but the worsening economic situation and the continuation of the political stalemate might further antagonize the Egyptian people and lead to renewed cycles of demonstrations and violence above and beyond those which accompanied the presentation and passing of the constitution recently,” Podeh asserts.
Egypt improved its status from “Not Free” to “Partly Free” as a result of growing respect for political rights and civil liberties, according to the latest Freedom House survey.
But a crackdown on civil society, the judicial dissolution of an elected parliament and a power grab by President Morsi, and threats to freedom of expression have highlighted the fragility of recent gains.
“The future of the Middle East will depend in significant ways on the success of Egypt’s democratic experiment, which in turn rests at least in part on the ruling Islamists’ commitment to democratic norms,” the report said. “In light of the past year’s developments, the outcome remains very much an open question.”
The US and other external actors can only play a “limited” role in assisting or facilitating Egypt’s transition, says Ottaway.
“Transitions are always predominantly a domestic process, and Egyptians are hypernationalistic and oversensitive,” she writes in The National Interest:
Outsiders must not choose sides. They must reject both the secularist narrative of victimization and Islamist claims that elections have given them a mandate. Secularists need to be told that many of their problems are self-inflicted and that they need to stop dithering and take the task of organizing for elections more seriously. Islamists need to be reminded that an election victory is not a mandate for unlimited power; they face immense problems, particularly economic ones, and they cannot even start addressing them without broad cooperation from all political forces and a skeptical international community.
But the U.S. can do more in two other areas, other observers suggest:
First, it should resume negotiating a free-trade agreement with Egypt. The EU has had one since 2004, and while Egypt’s Salafists will probably balk, business people — including many in the Muslim Brotherhood — would welcome a U.S. equivalent. More immediately, the U.S. could increase the range of tax-free goods that can be exported to the U.S. from Egypt’s Qualified Industrial Zones.
Secondly, the U.S. administration can be more forceful on democracy and human rights. It has understandably soft-pedaled the promotion of stronger democratic institutions since the arrest of U.S. nongovernmental-organization personnel. A new Egyptian law on nonprofits, and trials, will probably follow the elections, clearing the way for this to change. The U.S.- Egyptian security relationship may be paramount, but the U.S. must also stand up for democracy and human rights if it’s to stand for anything.