Egypt’s political conflict has almost fully reverted back to its traditional form after the ephemeral changes seen over the past three years. Should a full circle be completed, the development of the country would falter even if the next president has superhuman powers.
The situation predicates the importance of taking a fresh look at the situation and devising a way forward through the conflict.
The form of the Egyptian conflict as we know it dates back to the creation of the contemporary Egyptian state, following the army’s toppling of monarchy in 1952. The roots of the conflict can also be found in 1954’s dispute among the ruling military over democracy.
Egypt’s progress has been hindered by relations between the three sides of the triangle which represents society and the political spectrum. Invariably, two sides of the triangle often ally against the third. Sometimes, the conflict would expand to involve a fourth side, for example, foreign lobbying.
The first side of the triangle is represented by the army, the backbone of the state, an institution espousing a traditional project that believes in reform, but along inflexible lines.
The second side represents democratic and liberal forces that advocate reforms with modern features. Such reforms are always out of sync with society’s set of values and complicated realities.
The third side is that of political Islamism whose forces champion an alternative alien to society’s identity and strive to make Egypt an Islamic caliphate.
For 60 years, the first side was able to switch alliances and pit the two other sides against each other. At a crucial moment in Egypt’s history, the latter sides forged an exceptional alliance that resulted in the 2011 upheaval that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down and plunged the first side into a major existential crisis.
Despite their vast ideological contradictions, forces of liberalism and political Islamism kept their alliance alive until the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt. They first commanded a landslide win in the parliamentary elections held in late 2011 and later saw success with the inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi as Egypt’s first Brotherhood president.
Traditionalists are not an adversary of democracy and renewal and democrats are not foes of nationalism and the Egyptian stateAbdullah Kamal
Ostracized by the Brotherhood, forces of the second side had no other option but to join hands with those of the first side with the aim of ending the Brotherhood’s monopoly of power. Had this monopoly persisted, the Brotherhood would have tightened their grip on the country for decades and banished the forces of the two other sides.
On June 30, 2013, Egypt’s traditional forces threw their weight behind the state institutions - mainly the army, police and intelligence service. They forged an alliance that eventually resulted in the Brotherhood’s ouster on the first anniversary of Mursi’s presidency. Soon, this alliance showed cracks. It became clear that the coalition was based more on political tactics than on a well-thought-out joint project. In other terms, both allies concurred on rejecting the ruling theology and its attempts to alter the country’s identity. However, they did not provide a joint or solo alternative that met society’s post-Mubarak needs. Practically speaking, neither side had any choice other than to join the alliance, boosted by an overwhelming public rejection of the Brotherhood project. Had the state institutions failed to take the lead, the country would have fallen apart, triggering a civil war. Accordingly, the pro-democracy group thought it would benefit from joining and motivating the anti-Brotherhood camp. Inaction would have exacted a heavy price from the democratic forces, as they would have been accused of assisting the Brotherhood to reach power and doing nothing to respond to the public demand for ending the Islamist group’s inept rule.
A fragile alliance
The alliance has been fragile for a host of reasons:
The social make-up of the pro-state powers that joined the anti-Brotherhood protests was too narrow to assimilate the democratic forces. Generally speaking, the former back a type of rule against which the liberal and democratic forces took to the streets in January 2011. Therefore, an alliance between both sides on June 30 was socially and ideologically inconsistent.
At heart of the June 30 alliance was the military establishment, an alliance that is not traditionally in the democratic forces’ lexicon. This is especially so as the military’s move against the Brotherhood drew international backlash, verging on branding it as a coup.
The democratic forces paid attention to international feedback on the Egyptian scene and were keen to maintain links with foreign powers that adopted specific standards of democracy and human rights.
Over the past months, the failure of democratic forces to undermine the relationship between the state institutions and their traditional backers has stood to their benefit.
While sustaining unprecedented political losses, the Brotherhood has, meanwhile, tried hard to drive a wedge between the other two sides. To this end, the group has manipulated all emotional, tactical and media means, attempting to blackmail liberals by accusing them of betraying the anti-Mubarak upsurge. These efforts have gone nowhere.
Yet a chance recently reared its head when liberals lost the government, seen as a largely representative of these forces, by sacking Prime Minister Hazem al-Bebalwi, a liberal economist, and replacing him with technocrat Ibrahim Mahleb.
What is going on?
Nine months into the post-Mursi transitional period, the situation in Egypt can be summed up as follows:
The first side—representing the pro-state forces—brace themselves for a new era in power with Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s bid for presidency. These forces have repeatedly announced boycotting the Mubarak-era figures, although they have not wholly repudiated the system that has prevailed in Egypt since 1952. In other words, the 1952 state pattern is set for a sort of revamp but without compromising traditional considerations of national security. The democratic forces could be accepted within this pattern, provided they toe the line.
The second side—liberals and democrats—appear at a loss and confused. Its forces have not achieved a full political victory nor does their future look certain, given they are unlikely to garner a sizable portion of parliamentary seats due to an unfavorable voter mood. In addition, these forces stand no strong chance in the upcoming presidential polls.
The third side—the Brotherhood—is politically left out in the cold. Its presence is only felt through violent protests and terrorist acts. This side keeps trying to win over the second side into a fresh alliance, or at least to induce them to shun the post-Mursi political process.
A worst case scenario, albeit still remote, is that the democratic forces would rush into animosity towards the new rulers. If so, these forces would become a covert substitute to the third side, i.e. Islamists - a likelihood that would take Egypt back to the pre-January 2011 situation and dent hopes for setting up a civil state.
Events of the past two years—before the Brotherhood’s removal—have illustrated that the real threat to Egypt and its geographical definition is the “religious political project” that proved to be diametrically at odds with democratic values and national security. Proponents of this project showed they were ready to go to great lengths to fulfill their ideological objectives, even if this means sponsoring terrorists.
With the security and legal crackdown being mounted by Egyptian authorities on Islamists, mainly the Brotherhood, Egypt, while formulating its future, needs to re-define its political and social problems in view of the following:
Whatever the differences may be between the first and second sides of the political triangle, both stand out as interdependent in espousing the “civil state project.”
Neither side can monopolize the political landscape, given that the first side received an additional boost during the anti-Brotherhood protests on June 30, while the second figured prominently during the 2011 anti-Mubarak upsurge.
The new constitution, overwhelmingly approved by Egyptians in January, links the legitimacy of the new ruling system to acknowledgement of changes that took place in 2011 and last June.
Interaction between both forces should not necessarily result in an alliance. At hand is a historic moment to forge a formula between two rivals.
Such interplay should prompt traditional forces to bow to changes dictated by renewal and modernity. At the same time, democratic and liberal forces should lend their political project local reference points.
This point is a major bone of contention between the first and second sides. The pro-1952 state traditionalists do not prioritize democracy, while democrats always make the mistake of giving the impression that their political project has a foreign cover and is inspired by other capitals than Cairo.
The gap between both sides will be greatly narrowed when they come to terms with this fact: traditionalists are not an adversary of democracy and renewal and democrats are not foes of nationalism and the Egyptian state.
Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)