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Egypt: The Incomplete Revolution

29 December 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Overall questions concerning the impact of revolutions in the Arab world during the course of 2011 are difficult to answer but one element stands out – Islam is the dominant element. Egypt, the most populous and most powerful state in the Arab World provides the greatest proof. Egypt as opposed to most countries in the Arab World can be seen as possessing the characteristics of the nation state whether one is a member of the Muslim majority or Coptic Christian minority. In essence life on the banks of the Nile is the overall determining factor. Egypt is not a tribal nor multi-ethnic, multi-religious society even with the differences separating the Upper and Lower Nile populations. The question is whether Egyptians view themselves in the secular nation state definition or whether religion will be the overall determining factor. Egyptian rejection of the nation state will lead to radical change in the Middle East as concerns identity, loyalties and policies.

With a Muslim majority of some 90% in a nation of over 80 million, Egypt is the litmus test for revolution in the Arab/Muslim World. Where Egypt leads, many will follow. If we are truly speaking of revolution, where is Egypt?

In the recent elections it is clear people are voting their identity and not just their pocketbooks. Egyptian identity as a people and nation is at stake. Who and what is Egyptian? Are they Sunni Muslim Egyptian Arabs or Egyptian Arab Sunni Muslims? It always comes down to the noun – "Arab" or "Muslim", all other terms being adjectives of description. Most in the liberal democratic West are oblivious to such ideas, certainly if one speaks of a religious identity. Not only has the separation of religion and state blinded Westerners to Middle Eastern realities but the distain for religion among these European and American secular elites leads to the consistent inability to read the changing map of Arab Muslim realities. Although the economy and corruption play a role in electoral decisions they are not the dominant factor. Here the questions are more of "What does one live for? And what does one die for?" The answer is the same for both queries is Islam. Forcing a change in identity brings about a change in societal rules, meaning the choice of the social contract – Islam or state, democracy or Islamic Sharia law. Some in the West are beginning to understand the magnitude of these shifts and are hoping that hybrid systems and loyalties will be possible.

At the moment this is a delusion, commitment to Islam and democracy are not complimentary. Liberal democracy demands loyalty – in particular to a system defending minorities and awarding equal rights, especially to women. Elections are a tool for an Islamic victory but not part of the system. Holding elections is not a value in itself. Elections are a consequence of an understanding. Do elections serve a purpose to "obtain power" and then the process is to be discarded? Or are elections a permanent pillar in the assurance of expressing "the people's will" and therefore a permanent feature?

The last round of demonstrations was held on Dec. 17 (representing more liberal democratic elements than previous, even if smaller) and was crushed with overwhelming force with barely a word of criticism by Islamists. This certainly represents failure of the more democratic parties and/or the tiny percent supporting the communists (Revolution Continues 2.35%).

As mentioned previously in these columns it is possible to use ideas as pertains to revolutionary theory in an attempt to gauge how far and to what extent an upheaval will impact a certain society. A word of caution is necessary – such theories are neither math nor science, each society has its idiosyncrasies but the general outline takes one from the point of collapse of the old regime, transitional arrangements, the rule of the moderates, the height of the revolution through the rule of the extremists or what is often referred to as the "reign of terror" and finally a return to a semblance of normalcy known as Thermidor, a term taken from the French Revolution.

In Egypt the up front representatives of the old regime are gone, having lost legitimacy due to corruption and repression of the popular will. Hosni Mubarak & Co. are banished and now on trial. But transition still involves elements of the old order and they are plenty in abundance, led by General Tantawi and the newly appointed PM Dr. Kamal al-Ganzury, a former prime minister from the Mubarak 1990s era. Both are seen as holding back the revolution despite certain shifts in policy since the January-February Tahrir protests led to the establishment of a transitional regime pending elections. Polling is under way and the Islamists, whether the hard line Muslim Brotherhood or the fanatical Salafists, are on their way to taking power. Or are they? And just how quickly and with what level of violence can the move be made?

Gaza Hamas PM Ismail Haniya was just in Cairo as a guest of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood urging the rule of Islam and Jihad as the answers to all problems facing the Arab/Muslim world. Haniya is the leader of the Palestinian faction. With the election results below as any indication of the overwhelming support for Islamic solutions, we can certainly expect a radical shift within a few months.

Projecting future events is quite difficult; looking for trends is more useful. The tallies for the first and second round of elections at the end of November and middle of December gave the Islamists a popular vote landslide. The Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party) took 48.32%, the Salafists 23.83% and al-Wasat 2.35% (moderate Islam) for a total of 74.5% so far. The Egyptian Bloc (social democrats) took 7.72% while the Wafd liberals polled only 7.38%. (Tallies reported in Jadaliyya.) Together these two democratically inclined parties managed less than the two-thirds the support given to the extremist Salafists. One can only expect the third round to bring in even more support for the Brotherhood and Salafists as the more liberal districts voted in the first round.

The Muslim Brotherhood will be the senior coalition partner in any government unless the military attempts direct rule – an unreasonable possibility. The big question will come down to who will be the junior partners or whether they will rule outright on their own? How much influence will the military wield? The Brotherhood is in a dilemma with the need for some democratic fig leaf, at least for international legitimacy. We can expect an alliance with either the Wafd liberals or Egyptian Bloc social democrats to help form a coalition. This way the Brotherhood will have someone to discredit when much goes wrong, which they will. Stabilizing the Egyptian economy is a Herculean task. To ensure their objective of continuing Islamization the Salafists need to remain in the opposition. They may very well be the next group to lead the street against the administration-to-be. The last thing the extremists need is to be associated with the everyday decision making and dysfunctioning of Egyptian society.

The next government can be expected to begin with fairly moderate policies, certainly in comparison to what the Brotherhood truly believes – such as the imposition of Sharia or Islamic law. The moderates are known to share a sense of morality and common decency within their ideological frameworks, at least when first gaining power. However, the economic challenges are already insurmountable and the army will continue to be a player in policy decisions. It will not take long before the people become restless again demanding immediate solutions. In such situations moderate governments cannot deliver as the people become increasingly desperate for "the answer" or solutions to their problems. The "rising expectations" gaps will grow at a quickening pace and lead to the next round of despair, a sense of betrayal and in this case the fanaticism represented by the Salafists or possibly al-Qaeda leaning types will rise to the fore making an even stronger case for those who believe Allah's emissaries have all the answers. It is just a matter of following His directives, these being found in Sharia law and the wisdom of the clerics.

Under such pressures once the street explodes, the more radical forces generally make their moves and in this case the ultimate battle for the heart of Egypt will be engaged. The Brotherhood may very well split between the more liberal types and those shifting towards the Salafists or the entire movement may shift to the right. With Islamization sweeping the Nile the sentiments of the average soldier will count for more than those decisions made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the military brass at large. Armies generally reflect their societies, Egypt is no different. The officer corps will need to take the loyalties of the lower ranks into consideration, thereby curbing themselves from taking on the more radical Islamists. The military could declare themselves neutral, not wanting to face the danger of insurrection or at least partial disintegration. In the end they will settle for a hybrid arrangement with the Islamists if they manage to avoid a purge, Iranian style.

Islam will dominate Egyptian and Arab politics for decades to come. We are at the beginning of a process, much more dramatic than Egypt's 1952 secular Nasserite Revolution and the Arab nationalist sweep throughout the Middle East the world witnessed sixty years ago. The difference between now and then is that nationalism of whatever stripe is not a universalist ideology, but is constrained to the national group in question. Border issues and wars over territory are almost always an element in national self-assertion but there is no world revolution for export.

Islam in the hands of the fundamentalists is a religion and revolution for export. Jihad is not just a rallying call but a value. Hence world wide ramifications are expected from the great Arab "Awakening" or "Upheaval" of 2011.