Egypt's democratic phantasm

Egypt’s democratic phantasm

If Egypt now falls into a period of extended civil conflict, this will not be a new phenomenon driven by recently discovered popular democratic impulses. Instead it will be another episode in the country’s periodic struggles between the secular and the religious. 

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By Matthew Parish

A series of revolutions and civil conflicts, known collectively as the Arab Spring, have overtaken several countries in the Middle East since January 2011. It may be tempting to see these events through a collective historical prism of emergent democratic will: across the Middle East, popular masses are overthrowing oppressive autocratic governments that have encumbered the region for too long. Concealed within the folds of this modernist account lies a recurrent narrative. Arab states have traditionally been politically backward in not being more receptive to democracy before now, while the triggers for democratic revolt have been an unprecedented economic crisis and mass grassroots mobilisation driven by contemporary social media.

Yet understanding the causes of foment in the Middle East may require a less coarse analysis. Each country in the region that has suffered from unrest has harboured its own political dynamic. Some revolutions have been driven by overtly ethnic confrontation. This is what happened in the Levant. During the First World War the British and French governments carved up the buffer zone between Sunni Ottoman and Shia Persian Empires under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, without regard to ethnicity. In Shia-majority Iraq, a minority Sunni elite was installed to preside over a majority Shia population; in Sunni-majority Syria, the opposite was done. It is little wonder that democracy did not flourish in such circumstances.

When a US-led military force invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow the Ba’ath government in Baghdad, the western political leaders promoting that war failed to understand they were unstitching an Anglo-French compact to divide and rule that had inhered for some 80 years. The recent Syrian armed conflict has a tit-for-tat quality to it: if the majority Shias are now permitted to dominate in Iraq, the majority Sunnis have the right to do the same in Syria. The 100,000 deaths in Syria since March 2011 might be viewed as collateral damage for the political upheavals that commenced with the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his replacement with majoritarian rule in a country that has always been profoundly divided along sectarian lines. Conflict in Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy presiding over a rebellious Shia-majority population, may be viewed though much the same lens albeit on a far smaller scale.

The contemporary conflict in Egypt is different. The legacy of colonial occupation there also left a residual elite in power, but this elite did not identify itself in sectarian terms. From the reign of Mohammed Ali Pacha in the first half of the nineteenth century and throughout the subsequent British period of influence, military officers developed as a relatively well-educated and mostly secular class. Egypt’s status as a British protectorate was overcome in the 1952 revolution, led by the army. Military leaders ran the country ever since, and army influence permeated every aspect of civilian life. Perhaps most importantly, the Egyptian military continues to own the majority of the engines of the country’s economic output. Major businesses are owned by military officers, and cannot operate without the army’s blessing. The military is firmly in charge of the Egyptian economy. It also controls the country’s judiciary, infrastructure (such as the Suez canal) and bureaucracy. In the modern era, Egypt has always been a junta.

It is essential to appreciate this political backdrop if one is properly to understand the country’s current travails. Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011 owed less to the popular will than the fact that he was ailing, he had never appointed a military Vice-President to replace him, he preferred to work through an extensive network of police and intelligence officials rather than the military, and he was grooming his non-military son Gamal to replace him. The prospect of a “popular” revolution, orchestrated and managed by the military, was therefore an appealing tool for the army to divest themselves of a secession problem.

It would therefore be naïve to imagine that Egypt’s 2011 revolution against Mubarak was a democratic revolt led by the people against a military establishment. Far from it: the military has engrained itself in the mind of the country’s people as protectors of the Egyptian state and of its autonomy from outside influence. They have occupied this role in the popular mind at least since 1952 Free Officers Movement revolt against King Farouk and the British occupation. Instead the events of 2011 might more valuably be understood as engineered by the military, against a competing nepotistic national security apparatus created by Mubarak and his allies in the thirty years of emergency rule since the 1981 assassination of Egypt’s prior President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants. The 2011 revolution could never have taken place without the Egyptian military’s consent. In permitting this uprising to take place, the military was not ceding power; it was taking it back. It was engaged in a process of dismantling Mubarak’s institutional structure and removing his allies, while lending the purge an air of democratic legitimacy and popular approval.

Why then did the military make such broad concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow? The answer to this question is still more complex. While Egypt’s military is predominantly secular, a significant proportion of the country’s 82.5 million people are not. Egypt has always been a stronghold of religious conservatism. Both its Sunni Muslims and its Christians (who amount to 10% of the population, albeit of disproportionate economic influence and amounting to some 20% of the population of comparatively wealthy Cairo) are profoundly pious. Since its founding in 1928, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has sought to develop a brand of political Islam based upon the country’s conservative religious heritage.

The military has been fiercely hostile to this programme, presenting as it does a popular alternative power base to the military’s domination of Egyptian politics. The Brotherhood has therefore been fiercely repressed as a political movement on the grounds of its supposed extremist tendencies, even though by contemporary standards of political Islam it is not particularly aggressive in its agenda. Its members being having been unable to operate politically without fear of arrest, the Brotherhood has traditionally been relegated to a role of social work and support for the poor. This caused it to develop a pervasive grassroots network. This in turn explained the movement’s ability to mobilise supporters to win the country’s Presidential elections in May and June 2012, once the shackles of police repression had been temporarily loosened.

Military leaders were always aware that the Brotherhood could win a natural mandate in a genuinely democratic election. Nevertheless, permitting the Brotherhood a brief spell in power was an inevitable consequence of harnessing popular will to remove Mubarak and his allies. Although what really happened to the Mubarak regime was a military coup against a military leader, it could not look like this for fear of rupturing the army and incurring the wrath of the country’s international democratic supporters. Hence it was wiser politics for the regime to suffer a period of Brotherhood influence. The institutions of state would not be given over to the Brotherhood. The secret police of the Mubarak era would be conveniently dismantled or weakened, leaving the army as the principal effective organ of the security apparatus. The courts would remain loyal to the army. The Judiciary dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament in June 2012, forcing Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi to rule by decree and thereby undermining his legitimacy. The new interim President appointed by the army is a former jurist.

The military successfully gambled on Morsi making missteps through political inexperience, that would alienate a substantial proportion of the population and in particular the Cairo middle classes. His enactment of a constitution based upon religious principles was perhaps the most substantial error in this regard. The country’s economy would inevitably suffer severely after the deposal of Mubarak because it is so heavily dependent upon tourism, and tourists are the first to flee in the face of civil disturbance. Although he ostensibly appointed a new army chief in August 2012, Morsi had no loyalty from by far the most influential state body. That same army chief, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, appeared on national television on 3 July 2013 to announce that Morsi had been involuntarily removed from office and his theologically-inspired constitution suspended.

Hence it was always unrealistic to perceive Egypt as undergoing a democratic renaissance after Mubarak’s fall. His demise was engineered by the army, and a brief spell of Brotherhood rule was understood as a tolerable and controllable price to pay to secure a sustainable transition. Once Morsi had proven to have failed then the military would, one way or another, remove him. Viewing on television vast crowds of demonstrators in Midan al-Tahrir, one may be tempted to view contemporary events in Egypt as an unpredictable affair driven by the mob. But that would be to underestimate the all-pervasive role of the military in Egyptian political life. No crowd would be formed or sustained in the centre of the city, so close to the principal institutions of the state bureaucracy, without the sufferance and approval of the military. Outside Brotherhood circles, respect for and deference to the Egyptian army is such that these events are unthinkable without the military’s approval. The army’s security apparatus is far too powerful.

Mr Morsi therefore emerges as a pawn in the military manipulation of Egyptian politics, and those in the west who defend him as representative of a nascent democratic Egypt are naïve. Mr Morsi never stood a hope of engineering a Turkish-style transition from military rule to democracy because, unlike in the period of office of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (2002- ), the circumstances are not propitious to the monolithic economic growth that made Turkey’s prior secular military rulers appear incompetent. Quite the opposite is true: after a year of chaos since Morsi’s election in June 2012, in which crime has soared in a hitherto peaceful society and the economy has collapsed, a large part of the Egyptian public now yearns for a return to the security and stability of military rule. Even those secular liberals who in principle would like to see genuine democracy know that they are insufficient in number to prevail against the Brotherhood in elections. Hence they recocile themselves to a modest civilian role in a government that will remain indefinitely dominated by the military.

Egyptians are a diverse nation of temperamental people with strongly divergent world views. Many of them profoundly religious in outlook, and they sometimes clash acutely in their philosophies. Between secular and modernising, devout and conservative, and the schism between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority, Egyptians have so far proven unable to muster the requisite social consensus to live within democratic institutions. Indeed they have never been obliged to do so. Morsi was condemned as a Pharaoh; but the Pharaonic influence of the military throughout recent Egyptian history is decisive in understanding the recent failure of democracy in Egypt. The immediate future will now be a return to state repression of the Brotherhood, a task of which the military has many decades of experience; and an ostensibly civilian government behind which the respected and all powerful army will pull many of the strings. Genuine democracy is forestalled at least for now, because that would entail the Brotherhood dominating power and this is something the military will never permit.

What can, and should, the west do in response? The answer may be that there is nothing it realistically can do, because any measures taken to harm the military will undermine the country’s role as a western ally in the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics. The Brotherhood is not a natural supporter of western ambitions in the region. Its support for the Palestinian cause has traditionally been unequivocal, and promotion of conservative Islamic theocracy is hardly a popular cause in western capitals. By contrast the Egyptian military wishes primarily to secure Egypt’s borders, keep the country out of daunting regional conflicts that might pit it against Israel (against whom the military previously suffered humiliating defeat), and keep this boiling and explosive country tolerably stable. It is hard for any pragmatic western government to withdraw support for an institution with goals of this kind, when faced with an inevitably less stable alternative.

It is conceivable that a continuing cycle of violence between those who support military rule and advocates of government by the Brotherhood is shortly to bring Egypt still lower. Since the Brotherhood was founded eighty-five years ago, both sides have periodically resorted to violence in their continuing struggles over the governance of the country. Yet if Egypt now falls into a period of extended civil conflict, this will not be a new phenomenon driven by recently discovered popular democratic impulses. Instead it will be another episode in the country’s periodic struggles between the secular and the religious. The country is embarking upon the same sense of crisis that followed the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 or the Six-Day War in 1967. If the prior record is indicative, the domestic domination of Egypt’s institutions and society by the military will ensure victory by the army and repression of Islamic political dissent.

After the events of the last two years, the legacy of military domination of Egyptian politics is no further towards being broken in favour of a genuine democratic polity. We are observing but another stepping stone in the transition from one regime of military government to another. If Egypt ultimately makes progress towards developing genuinely democratic institutions, that development will be gradual rather than revolutionary. Egypt is an ancient country, in which acceptance of elite authoritarian rule comes naturally to a perennially divided populace. The political landscape to which Egyptians have been inured over millennia may subsist for some time further.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and a scholar of international relations based in Geneva. He frequently writes on topics relating to civil conflict, international intervention and post-war peace-building. He formerly lived in Cairo where he worked with the El Oteifi Law Office. His third book, Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law, will be published by Edward Elgar later this year. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and Bilan magazine named him as one of the 300 most influential people in Switzerland. 

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