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Middle East and Africa

The protagonists on the Egyptian scene

The protagonists on the Egyptian scene

 

 

On 25 January 2011 an invitation to demonstrate issued by the non-Islamist opposition and the youth movements succeeded beyond all expectations, mobilizing tens of thousands of persons in various large cities. At the same time an uprising inflamed the town of Suez. The demonstrations continued on the 26th and 27th, at a lower level of intensity but still very impressive. And then, all of a sudden, on the 28th in the afternoon, this uprising became a Revolution, with the irruption onto the public square of millions of people whose participation led immediately to the collapse of the police. On that same 28th January, the regime called the army to the rescue, putting its own destiny into their hands. But the army stayed aloof, refusing to fire at the protesters. The protest gained in consistency and the generals forced the President to resign. He entrusted the government of the country to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (CSFA) – a move that was generally accepted (though with a few exceptions) by the revolutionary forces.

 

 

Today it remains difficult to assess the significance of this earthquake, nor can we predict the outcome of the revolutionary processes that have been launched. Here is what we know for sure: a) there has been an uprising involving different classes of the population; b) millions of people have made their voices heard for the first time; c) the main supporting pillar of the Mubarak regime, the police, fell with him (or perhaps the other way round); d) a real revolution in mentalities can be observed; the “people” have discovered their power, their constituent power. Politics are discussed systematically. A rejection or a questioning of all authority relationships can be observed; e) the social contract is to be remade and political pacts rewritten. f) Evidently there is a contrary movement in that power has been assumed by another pillar of the regime, just as it is quite clear that forces which are not only not reformist but actually hostile to the revolution remain powerful and influential – and they have discovered the slogan of a power that is cognitively real: the regime may have fallen but the state must not. It seems that important sectors of the provincial middle class may identify with this camp.

 

 

The CSFA read the situation as follows. Two demands have been formulated, involving two types of process that need to be kept distinct: a) a democratic transition with the organisation of free elections – in other terms, the delivery of the keys to power and the apparatus of the state to a government chosen by the majority; b) a revolutionary demand promoted by active minorities who organise demonstrations and who may or may not be supported by the “street”, calling for a radical revision of social relations, an acceleration of the restructuring of services and the liquidation of the structures and even the leaders and the cadres of the old regime.

 

 

The CSFA decided to encourage the former and oppose the latter. To set the two against each other, at the risk of delegitimising both. To this end: a) in agreement, tacit or not, with the Muslim Brotherhood, it set out a programme consisting in the organisation of legislative elections and in the attribution to the Parliament resulting from these elections of the right to nominate a Constituent Assembly and to complete the process with the election of a president of the Republic. This programme actually consisted in allowing the majority to draw up the Constitution. At that moment, the Brotherhood stated that it would be content with a quarter or a third of the seats in the Assembly. b) It tried to “defend the apparatus of the state and its authority” and to put a brake on changes. The state of emergency was not abolished, more than 13.000 persons were subjected to judgment by the courts martial, the police force was not reorganised… President Mubarak was indicted only under enormous pressure from the street, and, probably from young officials.

 

Moreover, at the end of June, the CSFA realized that this programme was equivalent to handing to the Islamist camp the right to draw up the Constitution on their own and that the non-Islamist camps, though divided and a minority, could still mobilise supporters consistently and were very influential in Cairo (it should be borne in mind that we are in a very centralised country). The CSFA then began to explore various ways of trying to prevent or direct a future Islamist domination of the Constituent Assembly. At the same time, or from time to time, it tried to put forward its own constitutional text, to impose an agreement on meta-constitutional principles, to reserve for itself the right to nominate the majority of the members of the Constituent Assembly, or indeed a right of veto on the design of this latter. None of this worked: in the face of pressures (not only Islamist) and it had to take a step backwards every time. It was still however refusing to exclude from the electoral plan the former officials of the Mubarak party, considering that they had the networks, the support, and the money necessary to obtain seats, preventing or at least limiting the extent of an Islamist victory. This analysis proved to be completely mistaken and the electors went on to dump these members. In the end, the CSFA tried to prolong the period of transition.

 

 

Each of the approaches cited, considered in isolation, is comprehensible and even defensible. Together, they produced a disastrous impression (at one point it was believed that the army wanted to hang on to power) and contributed calamitously to aggravate the situation. Even worse, from October, the army opted for ferocious repression of the demonstrations and many tens of demonstrators were killed in encounters with the military police between October, November, and December. But the CSFA stuck to the route of elections.

 

 

The latter were held in December and January. Together, the two Islamist parties won more than two out of every three seats. But are they really together? None of these forces has an absolute majority, although the coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood fell only a little short of it (235 seats, i.e. 47% of the seats for a little less than 40% of the votes). The impressive performance of the Salafites (121 seats, or 24%, probably for a little less than 30% of the votes) was a half-surprise. Notwithstanding their weakness, the results achieved by the non-Islamists are a pleasant surprise, because they are (with the exception of Wafd) quite recent creations and do not have access to the institution central to the life of the local areas that is the combination of the mosque and the Islamic networks of associations.

 

 

The voting method was as follows: two thirds of the seats on a proportional basis, a third of the seats assigned through a one-person-one vote system in two rounds, in constituencies much larger than usual. It is very difficult to provide accurate and trustworthy accounts of the result of the elections, the behaviour of the electors, or the vote. We will have to limit ourselves to the following, which closer analysis will either confirm or invalidate: a) the Islamists, and above all the Muslim Brotherhood, won almost all of the one person-one vote seats. These latter, in the second round, benefited from all the possible transfers of votes: in fact, in the case of a Brotherhood/Salafite contest, the non-Islamists voted for the Brotherhood. In the case of a Muslim Brotherhood/non-Islamist face-off, they benefited from a Salafite transfer. Ultimately, in the few cases in which a second round set Salafites against non-Islamists, the Brotherhood voted for the Salafites. b) On the other hand it is difficult to know whether the result would have been the same with smaller constituencies. c) Leaving aside the “reservation” (about the dimensions of the constituencies) that I have just suggested, it seems obvious that proportional voting offers greater opportunities to all the enemies of the Brotherhood, whether they be Salafites or non-Islamists. d) It is very difficult to know how the electors were distributed between the Brotherhood and the Salafites. If it is argued that in the case of the latter the vote was clearly an anti-elite one, this still only accounts in part for the complexity of the problem. In the course of conversations with colleagues, militants, and electors, I have discovered that many electors who would have voted for the Brotherhood if the latter had drawn up their list of candidates without entering into an alliance with anyone, in fact opted for the Salafites because they did not want to vote for a list that included Christians, militants of the left, and liberals. In other words, opting for a coalition certainly cost the Brotherhood votes. It remains to be seen whether this loss was greater than the electoral gains achieved by the alliance, and I believe it was. In my opinion, those within the ranks of the Brotherhood who say that they would have obtained a better result if they had presented on their own, are not necessarily mistaken (indeed I am inclined to agree with them). On the other hand, I do know Salafites, for the most part middle-class or lower middle-class, who voted for the Brotherhood simply because they thought the Salafites too lacking in political nous and too inexperienced, and so capable of putting in jeopardy the project of constructing an Islamic state by their lack of realism about what was possible. e) The Coptic vote accounts for a third of the non-Islamist vote, perhaps a little more. f) The vote, and above all the vote for the Brotherhood, is not intended as a blank cheque. Many wanted to give them a chance, manifesting a desire to found public order on the precepts of Islam, sharî‘a, and democracy. However they do not really trust the Brotherhood, or else are not disposed to accept the consequences of a rigorous Islamisation (in the area of tourism, for example). Moreover the expectations of these electors are multifarious and contradictory and many of them will certainly be disappointed.

 

 

With respect to transition to democracy, the CSFA has already transferred its legislative powers to the new Parliament. The next few months will see the redaction of the Constitution and the transfer of executive power to the government elected by the majority. In addition to the foreseeable constitutional conflicts and the imminence of a great economic crisis with the exhaustion of Egyptian currency reserves, the chief problems are the following: will the CSFA restore all powers to the civilians? What will the place of the army be in the new Constitution? What will the Muslim Brotherhood do in the absence of an absolute majority? What coalition will they put together?

 

 

There are not many certainties: a) we know that today the CSFA wants a transfer of power. What we do not yet know is whether it can actually do so and whether its demands and those of the Brotherhood and the Parliament will prove to be reconcilable; b) we know that there is a grave incompatibility between the imperatives of economic development and the conceptions of the state and society current among the Islamists, not least because Egypt depends very greatly on tourist activity and foreign investment. Much will depend on the capacity of the Brotherhood to demonstrate pragmatism, finding sufficient incentives to maintain cohesion and secure the support of its members; c) I personally do not see how it is possible simultaneously to convince all the political forces not to encourage instability so that they can exploit it for their own ends.

 

 

Much will depend on the balance of power between the army and the Brotherhood. This is difficult to assess. The best observers have come to different conclusions. Let us consider the two opposite ones. For some, the CSFA has been gravely weakened: its political balance sheet is in the red and its security gravely threatened or perceived to be so. It has alienated numerous essential elements in the non-Islamist arena, beginning with the youth movements. The violent repression of October, November, and December has shocked some sectors of opinion, even among those who were not favorable to the repeated demonstrations. Its policies are probably not acceptable to all, either within its own ranks or within the armed forces at large. Every time that the Islamists have shown their teeth, it has taken a step backwards. Now that they have the legitimacy of the polling booth they will be even more difficult to oppose. According to other analysts, this is an optical illusion: the army continues to be the holder of legitimate power. Its networks remain intact at the heart of the “deep State”, at the summit of the state bureaucracy, and in the local collectivities. When the non-Islamists have real choices to make, many will not opt for the Islamists after what the latter have taken the liberty of saying about them and about their attitude during the transfer of power from army to revolutionaries. Already now many senior officials, politicians, members of the intelligentsia, and the middle-class media are calling on the CSFA not to leave. The army has demonstrated its capacity for organising elections and maintaining order in recent years: its “physical power” is intact and the electorate is already grateful to it for having played the democratic game. Independently of its multifarious internal divisions, which after all are quite natural, and of the various electoral preferences of its members, the CSFA knows that at the end of the day the Brotherhood wants all the power and wants to exclude it from the political arena. In the ranks of the army there are many who believe that it has been poorly rewarded for its support for the revolution, and therefore they tend either to support the CSFA or to criticize it for its “inaction”.

 

 

Much will also depend on the choice of allies made by the Brotherhood. None of the options open is without great disadvantages: the fact of having to deal with the economic crisis and reassure Western capital, the key operators in the economy, and the most enlightened elements in their membership, pushes in one direction. The desire to satisfy their provincial or ‘Salafised’ troops, to take votes from the Salafites, and to ensure that the latter do not exploit problems for their own ends is a great incentive to move in the opposite direction. Trying to keep everyone happy by swerving to the right and then veering to the left, or vice versa, does not look to be a sustainable policy.

 

 

Whatever the outcome of the democratic transition, the system of national representation has been weakened because it has been conceived as an antidote to oppose the revolutionary processes and because it has excluded the youth movements who originated the revolt against Mubarak and which are not really represented in Parliament. They have not disappeared. The militants are tenacious, they are exceptionally courageous, and as we have seen, they are not afraid to die. The human casualties they have suffered and the notoriously defamatory campaigns aimed at them have not stopped them (or at least, not yet). Indeed it is rather the opposite that has happened. The memory of the deaths and the martyrs and the logic of vengeance, but also the need to safeguard the internal unity of these movements, requires permanent activity and does not predispose to compromise or to the acceptance of an unsatisfactory world.

 

 

For the moment, the population is no longer following these young people. But what will happen should the goods are not delivered?

 

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