What Decides Fate of Egypt: Ballot Boxes or Powder Keg?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Gholamali Khoshroo
Senior Editor and vice president of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam

The ongoing developments in Egypt are evolving into more concerning dimensions with every passing day, causing doubts about the future outlooks of the North African country. To analyze factors involved and reasons behind the Egypt’s developments and also to depict the future outlooks of the country, there are a few important points which should be born in mind.

1. With a population of about 85 million people, Egypt is the most populous and the most influential Arab country in the world. Cairo has traditionally played a determining role in the important developments in the Arab world and Africa. This is a country with an ancient history and rich civilization, which has played a great role in shaping the Islamic civilization. Egypt is also a hub for the attraction of foreign tourists with tourism industry accounting for over 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). About 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Muslim. Based on the existing estimates, two-thirds of the country’s population is made up of people under 30 years old. As a result, Egypt has been facing major challenges in such areas of job creation, provision of housing, and facilitation of marriage. As a consequence, more than three million Egyptians are working out of the country, especially in the rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

Egypt is a country consisting of big uninhabited deserts in addition to a huge river around which most of the Egyptian people live. Due to the burgeoning of the population during the past few decades, Egypt has become increasingly dependent on importing foodstuff from other countries. Wheat, which is the staple food for most people in Egypt, is imported and the water, which comes from the Nile, has been subject to various claims and allegations by countries where the Nile River originates. These challenges have joined hands to face the country with a critical outlook. At the moment, the main challenge facing the Egyptian people is not just the absence of freedom, but inability to make the ends meet and get such bare necessities of life as water, bread, fuel, healthcare, and jobs.

2. During the past 60 years, Egypt has been practically ruled by its powerful military. The government of the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was greatly dependent on the United States and the West, has been toppled by the people. Although people were united in their struggle against dictatorship, foreign dependence and economic stagnation, they were divided on how to resolve those problems. On the one hand, the demands and priorities of the Egyptian people were diverse while, on the other hand, many political groups were playing a role in the country’s developments. Those groups were weak in terms of structure while lacking coherence and necessary steadfastness in terms of ideology.

3. Following the Egyptian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood won by getting a relative majority of people’s votes in the country’s first elections in order to gain the upper hand among all the political currents. The group had fought against the government for more than 80 years and had succeeded to establish social and organizational contacts with the society in the meantime. However, the background of long struggles did not help the group to succeed in meeting the people’s demands and engaging in constructive interaction with the Egyptian elite and other political parties and groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood chose to enter Egypt’s political scene by inviting people to respect religious norms. This, per se, faced the group with a major challenge. On the one hand, they came face to face with threats posed by religious radicalism as preached by the Salafist elements while, on the other hand, they were at loggerheads with the nationalists, liberals, leftists, and the supporters of the former regime who were opposed to any form of the integration of the religion into the state. By and by, the issue of the role and the extent of the intervention of religion in state policies and lawmaking turned into an important problem in Egypt’s post-revolution discourse. The radical Salafists believed that the Muslim Brotherhood did not respect religion while the nationalists and liberals considered them radical Islamists. The same conceptual and executive conflicts were also witnessed during the formulation of the constitution, and turned out to be a major challenge. As a result, the representatives of the Coptic Egyptians and liberal parties withdrew from the process and this paved the way for the creation of a wide gap in the Egyptian society.

4. It was on the background of these differences that the one-year rule of Mohamed Morsi gave birth to frequent bouts of street protests incited and supported by most political groups and parties. The government of Morsi, on the other hand, lacked necessary efficiency to give a proper response to people’s economic and social complaints. Mohamed Morsi had won the election with a narrow majority of votes. In the course of the subsequent political developments, especially when it came to the formulation of the constitution, setting the limits of the president’s powers, defining the new position of the army, and elucidating the status of the Sharia law in the country’s lawmaking system, differences gradually came to the surface. Morsi's weak presidential vote in addition to severe polarization of the political atmosphere, the government’s failure to improve the country’s economic and social conditions, and widespread popular protests paved the way for the intervention of the Egyptian army and the overthrow of the country’s legal government;

5. The supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, however, did not leave Egypt’s streets.

6. The strategic mistake made by the government of Morsi with respect to regional developments was his explicit interference in the ongoing crisis in Syria by insisting on the overthrow of the government of the Syrian incumbent President Bashar Assad. Perhaps, in a bid to regain its traditional status in the Arab world, the new Egyptian government had reached the erroneous conclusion that by supporting the opposition groups in Syria that were affiliated to the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be able to bring about regime change in Syria. In doing this, Morsi also aimed to create a new regional political alliance pivoted around the Muslim Brotherhood in cooperation with Turkey and through financial support of Qatar. To achieve these goals, the Muslim Brotherhood had actually joined hands with the Salafist elements and foreign-backed terrorists in Syria. For this reason, Morsi tried to fan the flames of sectarian differences and, for the first time, just stood by and watched as extremists attacked a small group of Shias in Egypt. As for his opposition to the government of Syria, Morsi went as far as closing down the Syrian embassy in the Egyptian capital of Cairo a few weeks before his own downfall.

Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister of the interim Egyptian government [which came to office after the overthrow of Morsi] lost no time to announce that the new government will review the relations between Egypt and Syria. He added that Egypt would no longer encourage jihadist forces in Syria, but would show respect for the rights of the Syrian people and calls for a political solution to the ongoing crisis in the Arab country. He also took Morsi to task due to his support for the call issued by a number of religious leaders who encouraged people to engage in jihad in Syria and also fight Shias. This had happened only a month before Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian army.

When it came to Morsi's relations with the United States and Israel, most Egyptian people were skeptical of Morsi. Many people and political analysts believed that Morsi had established clandestine ties with the United States in order to guarantee the security of Israel and ensure continued siege of the Gaza strip. They argued that this was why the oversized secret service of Egypt continued to operate with no meaningful change under Morsi. The suppression and terror system of Egypt’s secret service had dominated all the domestic and foreign relations of the country in such a powerful way that any step taken to improve the relations between Egypt and Iran was brought to a standstill by Egypt’s secret service.

7. The fact that the first democratically elected president of Egypt has been overthrown by unlawful means through military action by the army has already dealt a serious blow to the process of democratization in the Egyptian society. During the past years, Egypt had gradually succeeded to establish a relatively powerful civil society with a growing middle class. The fact that instead of forming an alliance to promote cooperation, the rival parties in Egypt decided to ask the army for help and are trying to establish a so-called democratic society under the influence of the military is quite odd. The new government has been claiming that it would reform the constitution and hold elections for the parliament and the next president. The same process had been already completed in less than a year by the Egyptian people. Now, how a small group whose members are appointed by the interim president would be able to do such reforms to the constitution which would satisfy the multipolar society of Egypt? How a government which is the result of a military coup d’état can give in to democratic rules and regulations?

The Egyptian army does not seem to be able to manage future developments of the Arab country according to its premeditated plan. The least costly option for the Egyptian people would be a return to the ballot boxes, not recourse to the powder keg. The army, on the other hand, should reserve its ammunition to defend the country’s borders and territorial integrity. Egypt needs stability, security, and improvement in social and economic conditions. Such important goals cannot be achieved unless through peaceful interaction among all political groups and meaningful participation of people in all democratic processes while showing respect for Islamic ideals and goals.

*Gholamali Khoshroo is the Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam and Former Deputy Foreign Minister for legal and International Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran (2002-2005). Khoshroo is assistant of President Khatami on “Alliance of civilizations” and Dialogue among Civilizations”. He has served as the Dean of the School for International Relations (1983-89); Ambassador to the United Nations (19890-95); Deputy Foreign Minister for Research and Education,  Member of OIC Commission of Eminent Persons on “Enlightened Moderation”. In recent years, he has extensively worked on the development of contemporary political Islam and its implication for western societies. As a sociologist he studied at Tehran University and New School for Social Research, New York, He has published several articles and books on political and cultural affairs.

Key Words: Fate of Egypt, Ballot Boxes, Powder Keg, Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi, Egyptian Army, Islamic Ideals, Khoshroo

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