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The Case for an Islamic Egypt

September 5, 2011

At the beginning of the uprisings, and after the resignation of Mubarak, I wrote and said on several occasions that I thought that an Islamic Egypt as the outcome of the revolution was unlikely. I’ve been questioned about that by several students, as well as some Egyptian readers of my blog.

While I continue to hold that opinion, the situation has changed and an Islamic government is certainly more plausible than it was, although only under certain circumstances.

The crux lies in the fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces implemented only a small, though significant, set of constitutional reforms, and had these approved in a national referendum. The SCAF refused to supervise the revision of the Egyptian constitution, leaving that for the first elected government.

The fear, then, is that should an Islamic party, or a coalition of such parties, gain the majority of seats in parliament and form a government, they would be able to establish the conditions under which constitutional reform went forward, and dominate the process by which it is written. In a worst case scenario, the new constitution would root itself in interpretations of Shari’a law that would undermine aspects of free speech, reduce religious minorities to second class citizens, and subordinate secular courts to religious courts.

While this is a very real possibility, there are also a large number of factors that mitigate against it: the fissions within the Muslim Brotherhood, the disagreements between various political groups claiming an “Islamic” way forward, the relative unity of purpose among many of the secular, “liberal” parties, and the efforts by some in the current government to prepare the way for an equitable process in writing the new constitution in advance of elections.

Here’s a brief explication of each of these four factors:

1. Fragmentation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood has some 500-000 to 700-000 members, making the largest organized political body in the country. But the uprisings have not been as good for it as many, including myself,originally expected it to be. There are strong disagreements between the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the leaders of its Youth Movement not only about how to move forward as a political party, but how the organization should operate now that it is no longer an illegal, and hence necessarily secret, organization. The women’s branch has developed considerable leadership and bureaucratic expertise, as well as popular support and credibility running the organization’s multimillion dollar charitable wing, and is not likely to easily accept any platform that limits women’s roles in these domains. The Brotherhood has been very responsive to both these groups, but that very responsiveness may be hurting them with some of their fundamentalist base, who are increasingly seeing the Brotherhood as too moderate and compromising with modernity for their tastes. Even in the middle the organization is facing problems with leaders unhappy that they were passed over for political positions in the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party. Thus we find the Renaissance Party,established by defecing Muslim Brotherhood leader Dr. Ibrahim al-Zaafarani. He was later joined by one of the deputies of the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Mohammad Habib.

2. Inability of many Islamist parties to work together.

The slogan that galvanized the 2005 elections and led to the election of a large minority of independent candidates was “Islam is the Answer.”  Then, the Brotherhood was the only credible party to claim to speak, politically, for Islam. Today, the Brotherhood has many rivals. The Hizb al-Wasat party broke with the MB back in 1996, and now that it is an independent party, is unlikely to work wih the MB unless promised political plums. The Al-Tayyar al-Masry party, founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood youth wing also has a negative history with the Brotherhood, since founders Mohamed El-Kassas and Ahmed Abd El-Gawad, were expelled from the organization for joining a different political party than the official Freedom and Justice Party. The Al-Nur Party apparently has strong ideological differences.

3. A strong and growing coalition of secular democratic parties.

While secular democratic parties have mushroomed since the fall of the Mubarak regime, and there have been many splinters and defections (e.g. Amr Hamzawy was a founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, only to resign to form the Freedom Egypt Party), there is good evidence that they can work together toward winning an electoral victory and constitutional reform. The al-Masreyeen al-Ahrar (Free Egyptians) party, headed by telecommunications magnate Naguib Sawiris, has announced in August that party membership exceeded 100,000. While still only a fraction of the Muslim Brotherhood’s membership, it is remarkable for a party that had not existed six months before. Moreover, the Free Egyptians party joined a coalition with 13 other secular,  mostly liberal political groups, that has agreed field one list of candidates and raise funds and campaign together.

4. The proposal for a “constitutional decree”

The government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has proposed a “constitutional decree” that would define the rules under which the new constitution would be written, reducing the risk that the first elected government of Egypt would have unilateral control over drafting the constitution. If this goes forward, it would alleviate some of the concerns of an Islamic takeover of Egypt.

None of this is to say that Egypt will not have strong Islamic parties within its new parliamentary system, and that these may win elections and form governments. But if the constitution is not written in consultation with a broad coalition of the groups that arose during and after the uprising, additional uprisings will likely be inevitable with devastating effects for Egypt.

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