Now Is the Time to Watch Egypt

If there were a moment in time when I was going to pay particular attention to what’s going on in Egypt, and trying to predict how its future will develop, it would be now. It’s a Monster’s Ball and the only couple dancing is the military and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I and others have been warning about the coming Islamic tide and what happens in the next few weeks could be the deciding factor. The elections are today. The public and the protesters in Tahrir square seem to have strong democratic impulses coursing through their veins. They are calling for the military to leave power, civilian control of the military, and limitations on the MB. At the moment, the military seems to be the biggest problem. They have tried to assign themselves special powers and protections under a Constitution including refusing civilian control of the military. How far beyond high school civics does one need to go before they understand the importance of civilian control of the military? Violence against protesters must cease, and security must come under clear civilian rule.

Both the MB and the military are naturally conservative and hierarchical. If Egypt is not careful they will end up with some version of Saudi Arabia – religious conservatism and authoritarian politics. The Central Security Forces have overreacted when trying to clear some protesters and incurred the wrath of many. The protesters have reason to be fearful. The military has been particularly recalcitrant and difficult mostly because they believe they have the support of the Egyptian people, but that support is waning. The military’s attempt to grab sweeping powers and maintain independence above the law is inconsistent with the Arab Spring. Still, the Egyptian “silent majority” may make it possible for the military to prevail. The protesters may have the strongest democratic impulses but their numbers are exaggerated by media coverage.

The MB clearly holds the upper hand and is easily the most influential political party. Their new Freedom and Justice party is well organized and financed and ready to reap gains stimulated by the brotherhood’s outreach and efficient organization. The MB can certainly be hierarchical and conservative but Islam is woven into the fabric of Egyptian society and no future state can ignore it. The brotherhood wants quick elections so that they can consolidate their strengths and begin to work on the nature and structure of the new constitution.

But the future of Egypt will not be represented by the military or the Central Security Forces and certainly not by a dominant controlling Muslim party. If the birth pangs of a new Egypt in Tahrir square are going to bring forth anything viable, than the protesters and the liberal political parties must have sufficient influence when writing a new constitution. The liberal parties want the military to delegate decision-making and to establish a temporary civilian government whose job it will be to put itself out of business; that is, the temporary civilian government will be charged with maintaining order and beginning the process of transitioning to the permanent government.

The structure of today’s elections is one problem. Many liberal voices will be drowned out by the rules of the elections. Groups representing women and minority rights have been pushed to the background and election officials in Egypt have denied the United Nations and other groups access to the election that could help guarantee fairness. The party list technique will mean that smaller groups such as Coptic Christians and liberals will be overwhelmed by larger groups such as the MB. Even smaller Islamic parties, which are often more liberal, will be silenced. Moreover the election reserves a certain number of seats for “workers and farmers” which means that even if smaller more liberal groups managed to win elections they could be sidelined because their seats are guaranteed to other constituencies. This is an election manipulation that has been used in the past to manipulate results.

American historians often point out that the period after the American Revolution is most important because that is when the infrastructure and foundation of America was established. Revolutions are quick, violent, and ideologically eruptive but the legislative processes that follow determine the true nature of the political culture. The same will be true in Egypt. Keep your eye on what is happening now.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on November 28, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Now Is the Time to Watch Egypt.

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