Prospects for Democracy in Egypt

There’s a conventional wisdom in the United States that Arabs are incapable of sustaining a true Western-style, liberal democracy. It will take them hundreds of years to acquire a “democratic culture,” the argument goes. And in the meantime new authoritarian regimes — either Islamist or military — will replace the ones that have been overthrown in the past year and give us all a lesson in “Arab democracy.” Advocates of this view were the first to announce, with all-knowing smiles, that the Arab Spring had become an Arab Winter. When Islamist parties won free and mostly fair elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco in recent months, the proponents of this view had an “I told you so” moment and they were quick to denounce anybody who said otherwise as hopelessly naive.

But this comfortable, superior, view of the dramatic developments that have swept the Arab world in the past year is based on ignorance rather than expertise. A recent visit to Cairo with Shadi Hamid (the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center), in which we were able to meet with a broad cross-section of the new Egyptian political class — from the head of the Salafi Al-Nour Party on the far right, to disaffected young revolutionaries on the far left, from presidential candidates to Muslim Brotherhood representatives, from newly-elected liberal parliamentarians to female Islamists — reveals a very different reality.

After a prolonged hibernation, politics has broken out in Cairo, the capital of the Arab Awakenings. For the first time in six decades people are acquiring a taste for freedom and, yes, Western-style democratic politics. The issues they debate so vigorously are critical to the shape of Egypt’s democratic future: What will be the residual powers of the Egyptian military? What’s the best model for dividing powers between the Presidency and the Parliament? What revisions should be made to the Constitution to ensure democratic rule?

At the same time, the newly-elected parties are busy engaging in the horse-trading necessary to coalition politics, since no one party gained a majority (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won around 47 percent of the vote; the Salafi Al-Nour Party won 25 percent, and a variety of liberal parties won the rest.). We were treated to an amazing sight: Salafi religious purists attempting to negotiate an alliance with liberal secularists. How did they justify such a pragmatic deal? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, one of them explained to us. They can both agree on a short-term political agenda: countering the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and getting the army out of politics. And what about the imposition of Sharia law? The leader of the Salafi Al-Nour Party noted that his party is comfortable with the conservative nature of Egyptian society so a campaign to impose sharia law is unnecessary. They can be satisfied (at least for the time being) with the existing language of Article 2 of the Constitution which states that the “principles” of Islamic shariah will guide the state.

This kind of pragmatic politics is deeply disturbing to the “Costa Salafis” — a young generation of Salafis whose makeshift headquarters is in a Costa cafe. They denounce their elders not so much for being willing to compromise, which they readily accept as part of the new politics, but of failing to articulate through “fatwas” the religious basis for those compromises. It’s as if the Salafi leadership, propelled onto the political stage for the first time, has become unplugged and feels able to do whatever is necessary in the political realm to protect its community of social conservatives. They reminded me of the religious parties in Israel!

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is busy making its own compromises with the military and with other liberal parties that would enable its Freedom and Justice Party to build a governing and empowered coalition (at the moment, they can control the parliament but until its powers are defined in the constitution and the military hands over power, they cannot control the government). Whereas the Salafis are looking to constrain the Muslim Brotherhood, the MB is focused on how to ease fears of its intentions. After operating for eighty years in the political wilderness, the MB has learned just how fragile this moment could turn out to be. That’s why its leadership is more willing to compromise with the military than the other parties to its left and right. Consequently, the other parties fear that the MB will sell them out to the military in some sweetheart deal that compromises the revolution and their abilities to use democratic rules of the game to constrain the MB and hold the military accountable.

This tension will likely manifest itself in the massive demonstrations that are expected on January 25 in Tahrir Square to commemorate the first anniversary of the Revolution. The military and the MB have called for a celebration, complete with party balloons and patriotic songs. Youth activists and some liberal parties, particularly exercised by the eighty some demonstrators who were killed by the police and the army in crackdowns in November and December last year, are calling for a demonstration against military rule. Some of the far-left revolutionary youth are calling for a campaign of violence.

The way the January 25 demonstrations play out will be only one of the ways in which “square politics” and “party politics” interact in Egypt’s newly dynamic democracy. All the parties feel that they can claim legitimacy from the people’s mandates that they have received in the elections. This empowers them to stand up to the military in demanding that it leave the political arena promptly and allow Egyptian democracy to have its day. If the military focuses only on protecting its narrow interests (e.g., retaining its business interests, claiming immunity from prosecution for past actions, demanding only responsibility for protecting the state’s borders), then a reasonable compromise can be fashioned. However, if the military insists on specifying reserve powers in the constitution and protecting its budget from civilian oversight, then the people know the way back to Tahrir Square. As one newly-elected parliamentarian put it: “We are legitimate now; the army is not.”

And what about the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty? We didn’t raise the issue — they did. It came up in most conversations in the following way: “We have been elected by the people. We’re responsible to them. The people want stability, above all. They want the police back in the streets and calm and predictability restored to their daily lives. We don’t like the way Israel treats the Palestinians. We don’t like the price that Israel pays for Egyptian gas. But we’re not going to mess with the peace treaty.” That sentiment is so widely shared that one of the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood could declare to the New York Times last week that the peace treaty is a “commitment of the state,” and therefore will be respected.

The sense of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of those who would govern 87 million people is palpable. They know the severe economic straits that they will have to confront. They know that neither tourists nor foreign investment will return to Egypt unless there is a clear commitment to stability. And they know the people will not forgive them if they fail to address their basic needs for order, jobs and housing. In short, newly-elected Egyptian politicians — the Muslim Brotherhood first and foremost — understand that they have to make a choice between feeding the people and fighting Israel, and for the time being they have made a conscious choice of bread over bombs.

The fact that Palestine is not a priority for the Egyptian people has been manifest since the early days of the revolution. It was underscored for me during a lecture I gave at the American University in Cairo, just off Tahrir Square. A Palestinian student, draped in a Palestinian flag, stood with a makeshift banner in silent protest at the front of the hall. Despite this prominent reminder, during the ensuing ninety-minute Q&A session with students and journalists no-one asked a question about Palestine.

To be sure, there’s always the risk that populist politicians will outbid each other in their demagoguery on the Palestinian issue, especially if Israeli-Palestinian violence flares. But Israel is particularly sensitive to this possibility and the Muslim Brotherhood is apparently signaling its Hamas branch to keep things quiet too. (With 350 trucks a day passing from Israel into Gaza, and smuggling of weapons through the tunnels continuing apace, Hamas has its own reasons for maintaining the current de facto ceasefire with Israel.)

What was perhaps most striking to me, however, was the attitude of the new political class to the United States. I had expected to encounter hostility — after all the United States had been Mubarak’s staunch ally through the three decades of his Pharaohnic rule. I had assumed that the Islamist politicians in particular would be antagonistic towards American influence in post-revolutionary Egypt, just as the Iranian clerics have manifested intense antagonism towards the United States since their revolution. Yet Egypt’s Islamists all seemed keen to engage with the United States government. The Muslim Brotherhood was trying to understand President Obama’s intentions in demanding that the military hand over power to civilian (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood) rule, “expeditiously.” They weren’t sure how to deal with the fact that Bill Burns, the Deputy Secretary of State, had just met with their leadership. But one thing they were very certain about — they need U.S. economic assistance and U.S. help in mobilizing international assistance. They were therefore quite anxious to know how Congress would treat them.

Because of this new U.S. Government engagement with their arch-rivals, the Salafis too are seeking American recognition. Their leaders are keen to come to Washington to explain their intentions. They even appear willing to engage with Israel to establish their bona fides — one of their leaders recently gave an interview to Israeli Army Radio.

Ironically, the Egyptian military government (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is manifesting much greater hostility toward the United States, despite the fact that its troops are armed, trained and paid for by the American taxpayer. Apparently, stung by Obama’s demand that the generals relinquish power forthwith, the SCAF government is harassing American democracy-promotion NGOs and feeding an anti-American campaign in the state-controlled press.

To be sure, among Islamists there is still a good deal of suspicion about American intentions. If Egypt had the oil resources of Iran or Saudi Arabia their attitude would probably be quite different. But they are conscious that nobody else is rushing to bail them out. They ask anxiously what has happened to the billions of dollars pledged by their oil-rich Gulf Arab brothers. They play with the idea of turning to Iran before admitting that it probably has little money to spare and asking why the United States isn’t intervening militarily in Syria to protect Sunnis there against the brutality of the Iranian-backed Assad regime.

In short, what is happening in Egypt confounds expectations and renders dismissive assumptions about its democratic revolution at best premature, at worst both wrong and misleading as a guide to appropriate American (and Israeli) policy. Free elections and dire circumstances have quickly generated a surprising pragmatism among Egypt’s newly empowered political actors. They understand that they need the goodwill of the United States. At a time of supposed decline in American influence in the Middle East, we suddenly find ourselves with new possibilities in democratic Egypt — the largest, military most powerful, culturally most influential, geostrategically most important country in the Arab world.