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Islamic tide washes over Egypt

Tags: Columnists Feb. 9 print issue
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For as long as he was Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak never tired of telling foreign visitors that he was a force for stability and that Islamic fundamentalists would be the chief beneficiaries were he to be violently overthrown.

In hindsight, he was right.

Mubarak, who is currently under house arrest on charges of corruption and ordering the deaths of about 800 protesters during the18-day uprising that ended on Feb. 11, is probably saying, “I told you so.”

A year after his ignominious ouster, Egypt has entered a new, uncertain political era. With three rounds of free parliamentary elections having taken place, two Islamic parties, both of which are anti-western and anti-Israel, have emerged as the big winners.

The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, banned by Mubarak and his predecessors and now known as the Freedom and Justice party, has emerged as the strongest political party in the land, having won 47 per cent of seats in the first democratically elected parliament in decades. And in a sign of the times, the new speaker of parliament, Saad el Kantani, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Nour, a more orthodox Islamic party whose platform calls for the strict application of sharia law in the public domain and the segregation of sexes, ended up in second place, with 25 per cent of seats.

This means that nearly three-quarters of Egypt’s new parliamentarians are Islamists, who were regarded as outcasts under the old regime.

The remaining seats were captured by the New Wafd, a nationalist liberal party that champions multi-party democracy and whose roots predate the fall of the monarchy in 1952; the Egyptian Bloc, whose partners include liberal, social democratic and leftist parties; a coalition of socialist and communist parties, and the National Democratic party, the now-disgraced vehicle of Mubarak’s corrupt political machine. 

Tellingly enough, the tech-savvy, western-oriented, middle-class youth activists who played a vital role in igniting the Jan. 25 uprising by means of Facebook and Twitter won only a handful of seats.

Whatever its composition, Egypt’s parliament remains subordinate to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power after Mubarak’s downfall.

Led by Mubarak’s former defence minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and composed of self-serving generals who supported and propped up Mubarak until he was deemed a liability, the council has promised to turn over its authority to civilians by the end of June, when a new constitution has been ratified and a president has been elected.

The council, whose members enjoy enormous economic privileges and prerogatives, is unlikely to submit to full civilian control after June, no matter who is nominally in charge.

Although it has partially lifted the despised emergency laws – which were enacted in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War and gave the regime sweeping powers to do as it pleases – they remain effectively in force.

The military’s monopoly on power prompted one of Egypt’s most respected figures, Mohamed El Baradei, to drop his bid for president. A Nobel Prize peace laureate who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, he was one of the founders of the National Association for Change, which assumed an early role in calling for Mubarak’s resignation.

Prior to announcing his decision not to contest the presidential election, he claimed that precious little had changed since last winter – “the former regime did not fall,” he was fond of saying – and accused the military of cracking down on like-minded protesters.

According to human rights organizations, some 12,000 civilians have been tried before military tribunals since last February, charged with “thuggery,” and more than 80 demonstrators have been killed.

Charging pro-democracy groups of hewing to a “foreign agenda,” the military claims they have accepted foreign funds, attacked government buildings and fomented chaos.

Last spring, the interim government, chosen by the military, launched a formal investigation into the foreign financing of non-governmental agencies.

Two months ago, police officers raided the offices of these groups, some of which, like the National Democratic Institute, are funded by the United States.

These raids, having stoked tensions with Washington, may jeopardize U.S. aid to Egypt for the first time in three decades.

Nonetheless, the United States, in a historic foreign policy shift, has initiated contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always opposed U.S. interests in the Middle East, including its alliance with Israel.

(Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt proposed a secret dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the idea died on the drawing board).

Recently, the chair of the U.S. Senate’s foreign relations committee, John Kerry, and the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, met the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The United States needs to deal with the new reality,” said Kerry, comparing the Obama administration’s outreach to the Islamists with Ronald Reagan’s arms negotiations with the now-defunct Soviet Union in the 1980s.

By all accounts, the Muslim Brotherhood has assured U.S. diplomats that its objective is to build a moderate Turkish-style Islamic democracy in which human rights, free market principles and Egypt’s international commitments and treaties are respected.

Muslim Brotherhood politicians, such as Mohamed Beltagy, claim that its Islamic agenda is broadly focused on creating social and economic justice, this in a nation where corrupt practices are common, crony capitalism is the norm and poverty engulfs the majority of the population.

All rhetoric aside, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood, and particularly Al Nour, want to reshape Egyptian society in their own deeply conservative image.

But while both espouse traditional religious values, their constituents could not be more different. While the Muslim Brotherhood generally appeals to middle-class voters, Al Nour caters to working class and rural Egyptians.

Despite the parties’ differences, secular Egyptians live in fear that the Muslim Brotherhood  and Al Nour might well form a coalition to push through retrogressive domestic policies. 

For a number of reasons, this imagined union may never materialize. The level of mistrust between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour is considerable. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a broad-based government representing all Egyptians. Al Nour has engaged the New Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc in talks to counter the domineering influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Understandably, Israel is concerned by the rise of Islamists in Egypt’s unfinished revolution.

Rashad Bayoumi, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has described Israel as a “criminal enemy” and has said that his party will never recognize the Jewish state. Yet it would be surprising if an Egyptian Islamist government disavowed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

What realistically can be expected is an even colder peace between Israel and Egypt than has been the case until now.

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