Egypt in Transition

Part I – The Historical Background

The origins of modern Islamic Fundamentalism can be found in the clash of cultures that accompanied Western imperialist intrusion into the Muslim lands in the 18th and 19th centuries.  That intrusion introduced Western and secular practices and outlooks into societies that had centuries-old Islamic roots.

Depending upon the area, Western control was direct or indirect.  Either way, economic interests encouraged elements of the indigenous Middle Eastern elites (business men, politicians, military men, intellectuals, etc.)  to adopt Western ways.  Increasingly alienated from their own culture and religion, some of these people came to blame Islam and Islamic practices for keeping the region weak compared to the West.  As a consequence, dictators, kings, prime ministers and parliaments of this period often attempted to secularize the law codes, courts, educational systems, and political structures of the Muslim lands as well as introduce capitalist free trade policies.

These elites, though politically powerful, represented but a tiny proportion of their populations.  Their behavior and policies often deeply offended elements of the majority who feared the introduction of materialism, gender mixing, Western dress and entertainment, etc. into their society.

Their disapproval would probably not have mattered if the Westernization process had brought widespread prosperity and justice.  But it did not.  Rather, the result was an increased gap between rich and poor and the establishment of one or another form of Western oriented autocratic rule.  And, along the way, a slow erosion of traditional (that is Muslim) values and lifestyles.

Islamic fundamentalist movements such as the Society of Muslim Brothers, established in Egypt in 1928, grew up in opposition to the Westernizing trend.  As these organizations grew they developed deep populist roots. They often began as public service and charitable organizations providing services not supplied by the state.  These could include welfare services, job training, medical care, recreation facilities, sanitation services, and even community security.

Along the way they taught their followers that the Middle East had entered into a new age of ignorance (of God’s ways) and paganism equivalent to that which existed in Arabia before the coming of Muhammad.  The only way to escape this age of ignorance was to struggle to bring society back to Islamic ways of living: to Sharia law, Islamic education, and the purging of Muslim society of Western cultural influences.

The logic of their vision, the need to return to the values and faith of what they saw as  true Islam in order to regain the favor of God, eventually led to the conclusion that the state itself had to be captured, either peacefully if there existed a democratic, electoral route, or violently if the state operated dictatorially.

In Egypt, the Society of Muslim Brothers became the largest non-government organization in the country by the 1940s.  Since its ambitions were ultimately political, the Brothers were looked upon with suspicion by the more secular Egyptian government.  In 1948 the Egyptian monarchy tried to suppress the movement by dissolving the Society and imprisoning its leadership.  That lasted until 1951.  However, not long after, in 1952, Gamal Abd al-Nasser and his “free officers” movement overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and the secular and socialist nature of the new military regime brought on another clash with the Brothers.  The Society was violently suppressed for a second time in 1954.  It was not able to operate legally again until the 1970s and even then it was constantly monitored, periodically harassed and often banned from engaging in any political activities.

Part II – Rebellion

This situation still persisted in the year 2011.  At that point Egypt had long suffered under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, an air force officer who took over the country after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat.  In 2011 a particularly brutal police murder of a young Egyptian businessman, Khalid Said, and the subsequent attempt at a cover up created widespread dissatisfaction in Egypt.  Some of this anger was vented in public demonstrations organized through electronic communications such as Facebook.  Though electronic and on-line social networking would facilitate the protest movement in Egypt, it is an exaggeration to say that it made these protests possible.  It was the material conditions of ongoing economic despair, repression and corruption that made them possible.  In terms of the latter, Wikileaks released U.S. government cables describing the depth of Egyptian corruption in January 2011 and this only increased the growing anger within Egypt. Activists were also spurred on by a recent successful rebellion that toppled the dictatorship in Tunisia.

On January 25, 2011, a day set aside in Egypt to honor the police, large numbers of citizens took to the streets in what they labeled a “Day of Rage” protesting police conduct.  Soon there were almost daily demonstrations in Cairo, centered at the now famous Tahrir Square, and also in Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia and elsewhere.

The Mubarak regime initially responded with tear gas and water canon in an attempt to control the crowds. Soon the authorities were also trying to disrupt internet communications. The regime started to target journalists, both foreign and domestic, for physical abuse and arrest.  As time went on police violence escalated. Toward the end of January, the Egyptian army was ordered onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez as a show of force, but did not take part in suppressing the protests.  None of these moves lessened the demonstrations.

At this point Mubarak began to fire and replace members of the regime in the hope that superficial changes would placate public opinion.  He fired his cabinet on January 29 and appointed Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief, as vice president in charge of handling the emergency.  On February 1 he promised not to run for reelection as president and to reform the constitution.  He also ordered a cut in food prices.  However, events had gone too far.  As Mohamed El Baradei, the Egyptian born Director General of the International Atomic Energy

Agency, said upon returning to Cairo, “what we started can never be pushed back.”   By this time it was clear that the primary demand was for the resignation of Mubarak and an end to his dictatorship.  His attempts at cosmetic changes would not work.

By February 3, the regime was attacking protesters with live ammunition.  The army now moved tanks onto the streets.  It is in the period between February 3 and 10 that the Egyptian army leaders must have made the decision that they were not willing, or possibly just not able, to command the troops to attack the protesting crowds.  Egypt’s army is a conscript one.  The troops are of the same general background as the protesters.  This decision probably played a part in Mubarak’s February 11 decision to finally resign and give over power to a military council (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) .  The SCAF commanders quickly announced that a process leading to democratic government would begin.

Part III – The Chess Game

However, the old dichotomy between the secular (represented since the 1950s by  Egypt’s military officer corps) and the religious (represented by the Society of Muslim Brothers as well as an  even more conservative  group, the Salafis), now on-going in Egypt for well over a century, could not just disappear.  Mubarak was replaced by SCAF and it insisted on holding power until elections for a new parliament and the writing of a new constitution.  In addition, SCAF saw itself  as an institution that had interests separate from and more important than any civilian government.  Essentially, the officer corps saw itself as the foundation of the modern Egyptian nation and had done so since its overthrow of the monarchy.  Since that time it had functioned independent of any civilian government and its leaders had no intention of altering that situation.  As far as SCAF was concerned, it was the military that would oversee the civilians, and not the other way around.

For the rest of the year 2011 periodic demonstrations continued in Egypt as the populace came to the realization that getting rid of Mubarak did not mean getting rid of military oversight of civilian affairs.  Significantly, these demonstrations were small or large depending on the participation level of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Of course, the Brothers were not the only ones in the streets.  Indeed, the rebellion against the Mubarak regime had been initiated by secularist/liberal groups seeking political freedoms.  The Muslim Brothers, made gun-shy by decades of repression, decided upon participation in the demonstrations only after assuring themselves that there was real potential for success.  But the Brothers were not really seeking the same thing as the secularists, a factor that would play into developments by the end of the year.

The election for Egypt’s post-Mubarak parliament was held in stages between 29 November 2011 and 11 January 2012.  This was the first relatively free and fair election held in the country since the 1920s.  The results were surprising only to those, mostly in the West, who never paid attention to the Egyptian masses.  It was the Hizb al-hurriya wa al-adala (Freedom and Justice Party), affiliated with country’s Muslim Brotherhood,  that got 47% of the votes, while the even more conservative Salafi Muslim group, al-Nour (the Light) party got 29%.  The Westernized secularist/liberals did poorly–the liberal Egyptian Bloc Coalition only managed 8.9% of the vote.

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brothers confirmed Egypt’s status as a country where the majority sought to preserve Muslim heritage in the face of a centuries-long incursion of Western culture and influence.  It also set in motion a delicate chess game between the Society of Muslim Brothers and a military establishment long subsidized by the United States.  The game was one of position looking toward the maximization of political influence.  It was also a process that substituted for civil war.

The parliament, or People’s Assembly, that resulted from the election was overwhelmingly controlled by Islamic fundamentalists.  This frightened not only SCAF and the civilian secularist/liberals but also the Egyptian Christians, mostly Copts, who made up between 15 and 20% of the population.  Their position in the evolving chess game was complicated.  They did not favor military rule, but were afraid that their civil and religious rights would suffer even more under an Islamic government.

By the end January 2012 the new parliament was meeting as was a hundred member committee chosen by the parliament to draft a new constitution.  At this point SCAF, supported by the secularist/liberals and religious minorities, turned to the Egyptian court system to undermine the authority of the newly elected government.  On 12 April 2012 an “administrative court” made up of judges appointed by the old Mubarak regime, suspended the committee fashioning the new constitution, observing that it did not reflect the diversity of the citizenry.

This was just the beginning of the legal assault on the new government.  On 14 June the Egyptian “Supreme Constitutional Court,” another still functioning holdover from the Mubarak era, declared the election that had created the new parliament invalid because it violated the old regime’s  electoral rules.  It ordered the legislature dissolved and new elections held.  Immediately, SCAF claimed full legislative authority and said it would also appoint the members of the committee charged to write a new constitution.  SCAF also announced that no future civilian government would be able to supervise the military or the defense ministry or control their budgets.

In the meantime, also in June of 2012,  voting took place for a new Egyptian president.  Once more the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood was demonstrated when their candidate, Mohammed Morsi,  was declared the winner in what again appeared to be a relatively free and fair election.  In an important symbolic act Morsi took his oath of office in Tahrir Square, the  center of the rebellion in the capital city of Cairo.  He declared that “the people are the source of power which they grant and withdraw.”  Simultaneously, SCAF declared that it would assume important powers of the president in an effort to emasculate Morsi.

The potential for civil war was now clear.  Morsi initially proceeded as if the Islamist dominated parliament that the court had invalidated was still legitimate and functional.  He called it briefly back into session and had a new constitutional committee selected to write the constitution.  However, he also agreed that new elections for parliament would be held within 60 days of the promulgation of the new constitution.  The Egyptian courts have declared Morsi’s actions invalid, but he and his party have only a superficial regard for their judgments.  He says he will respect the courts, but it is SCAF (which says it only seeks to assure “constitutional continuity”) that he and the Islamists fear.  Simultaneously, Morsi has proceeded to form a government.  He has named ministers who are mostly technocrats.  But there are two notable exceptions.  The defense ministry remains in the hands of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is also head of SCAF.  This move postpones any direct clash between the new government and the military.  The other exception is the appointment of Ahmed Mekky as  justice minister.  Mekky is a long standing champion of an independent judiciary.  Right now the judiciary is dominated by old guard Mubarak appointees tied to the military.  Mekky will attempt to break that alliance.  For the Morsi government the strategy appears one of incremental change, taking things one step at a time.  The first step might well be reform of the Egyptian court system.

Part IV – The Dual Power Factor

For a very long time the Society of Muslim Brothers has evolved as a parallel governing power in the social sphere of Egyptian society.  Many of the what in the West would be considered areas of governmental responsibility in terms of social, health and welfare services are carried out by organizations that, for all intents and purposes, are under the authority of the Society.

However, as we have seen, the Society of Muslim Brothers has always had real political potential.  It is through the events of the Egyptian rebellion of 2011 that this potential has begun to be realized in a way that, so far, has defied suppression.  Thus, at the time of this writing the country’s newly elected president is affiliated with the Society.  If, as seems likely, the parliament is to be replaced through new free and fair elections it too will have a strong plurality of Islamists.

In other words, directly or indirectly, the Society of Muslim Brothers now controls not only a large number of Egypt’s social institutions but also the institutions of civilian government.  What it does not control are the courts,  police and the military.  These instruments of state coercion are still in the hands of a more secular, old guard element who represent a distinct minority of the Egyptian population. (There is this caveat, can assume that an unknown number of regular policemen and soldiers are sympathetic to the aspirations of the Islamists).  Thus, as of this writing, what we have in Egypt is a situation of dual power.

It was Leon Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, who first made clear the problem of dual power.[1]  According to Trotsky a “single government” is a “necessary condition of stability in any regime.”  Where there is a situation of dual power, there must be underlying tension which, over time, leads to instability.  This is all the more so when one element of the duality has “focused upon itself the hopes of intermediate classes and layers, dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs…”   Essentially, what you have here is a “splitting of sovereignty.” Trotsky’s description fits well the evolving Egyptian situation. The Islamists reflect the popular will as is clear from the electoral success of the Freedom and Justice Party affiliated with the Society of Muslim Brothers.

As noted, this unstable situation has in it the potential for civil war. Yet neither side is rushing to start such a war.  Both sides have recent precedents in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, Libya, Yemen and Algeria to look to and see just what civil war will do to Egypt. The leadership of the Muslim Brothers also has its own recent history to give it pause.  Under decades of military rule the Society has been repeatedly suppressed and its leaders killed or cast into prison. Yet, this time around, with millions of Egyptians in the streets and elections held, that sort of repression will be harder to accomplish.  So we are in a period of careful maneuver during which, as Trotsky puts it, “both sides may feel compelled for quite a long time to endure, and even to sanction, a two-power system.”   Nonetheless, sooner or later, this “double bookkeeping” will have to end.

Part V – Conclusion

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has come down to a three way competition between Islamists, secularist/liberals and old guard forces which, more often than not, are the military elites or secular minded dictators.  It is possible that, under the auspices of democratic elections and parliamentary coalition building, the Islamists and the secularist/liberals can find ways of compromising and thereby cooperating with each other.  This appears to be what is happening in Tunisia and perhaps Libya as well.  However, this process of compromise under democratic auspices requires the secularist/liberals to have a sufficiently strong constituency that they can stand as an independent political force.  Where they cannot, as appears to be the case in Egypt, the Islamists will sweep the electoral field.  At that point the secularist/liberal element either fades into impotency or throws its support to the old guard forces in order to stave off Islamist rule and the cultural and social changes it entails.  Something like this alliance might be in the works in Egypt.

The reason why the Islamists come forward as the most popular and electorally powerful force in the region is not a complicated one.  The Middle East is an Islamic religious and cultural place, and organizations like the Society of Muslim Brothers have deep populist roots.  In the long run the old guard forces, be they the military or the secular minded dictators will fail in their efforts to hold back the Islamists.  The only question is will they give way relatively peacefully, as has been the case in Turkey and Tunisia, or will they risk civil war, as was the case in Algeria, Yemen and elsewhere.  Current events in Egypt should be seen in this context.

As to the secularist/liberals, if they want to play a political role in the evolving Middle East they must learn a lesson from their religious competitors.  Even as they promote civil and political  rights, they must look to the economic needs of their all citizens and not just the middle and upper classes.  They must accept, rather than fear, the popular religious symbolism of their societies.  In other words, they must work to meld two worlds: the world of liberal tolerance and the world of religious faith.  Not an easy task,  particularly in today’s Egypt where the Islamists can win every free and fair election that takes place.



[1]Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. I, Chapter 11.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1