The Egyptian elections and their aftermath

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Gerard Prunier

It is a reality play , not a morality one , between one traditional Establishment (the Army , as inheritor of the old Turkish “hukum”) and an aspiring one basing itself on a highjacked vision of Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood) . The heart of the matter is that the deep Egyptian crowds want neither but are not capable of expressing themselves because they lack the organisational structures enabling them to translate their fundamental aspirations into a coherent political reality.


Egypt society and politics are basically built on an Ottoman pattern i.e. a command society/ economy where the State and the Army are the same, democracy is a foreign word and private business can flourish only when approved of and protected by the Army-State . This system has been in existence since the Turkish conquest in the XVIth century. It was adapted but not changed during the British colonial period (1882-1945) and was reinforced by all the Heads of State since independence , particularly after 1952 when General Nasser took power . Hosni Mubarak was the latest embodiment, in perfect line with his predecessors.
Since his overthrow we have had four types of aspirant successors:

1. A modern centre-left secularist group (popularly known as “The Facebook Generation”, but comprising a number of older more “serious” business types) which was roughly trying to promote the idea of a western-type democracy. Former Nasserites/ Socialists such as Hamdeen Sabahi (who got 20.7% of the vote in the Presidential Election) , Human Rights champion Khalid Ali , the liberal Wafd Party (7.1% in the Legislative elections) or former Foreign Affairs Minister Amr Musa (11.3% for the Presidential) also belong to that camp . If the “modernists” had been able to unify around a single candidate (an extremely unlikely proposition given their diversity), they probably would have won the election.

2. The centre-right Muslim Brotherhood got 47% of the vote in the legislative elections and its candidate Mohamed Morsi got 24.78% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential Elections. This rough quarter of the voters corresponds to the real weight of the Brotherhood at present meaning that the Brotherhood lost over 20% of the electorate during the last six months. This shows that, contrary to alarmist press reports, there is no “fundamentalist flood” in Egypt  . The MB stands for a conservative but moderate form of religiously-inspired government; it is business-friendly and corresponds roughly to an Islamic version of the conservative Republicans in the US.

3. A radical extremist fringe: This is embodied by the An-Nur party (18.6% of the Parliamentary vote) plus two or three micro-parties close to the illegal Jamaat Islamiyya terrorist group. Before the June 16th dissolution An-Nur had 107 MPs (out of a total of 508) plus two or three scattered ones who were considered a legal front for the Jamaat. These extremist and potentially terrorist micro-groups are negligible by their size but the existence of the larger An-Nur constitutes a useful protective cloud. This radical fringe can influence power (in case of an FJP government), can carry out violent acts if it is shunned, but in no circumstances can it take over the government.

4. Then there is the Army which is the embodiment /continuation of the long-standing Egyptian power structure. The Egyptian Army is a social body which directly exercises power, both political and economic, from within the State. The enterprises it owns and runs represent between at least 40% of GNP. It is present in all economic sectors, from the armament industry at Helwan to a bevy of construction companies, from printing presses to cookies and sweets manufacturing, all the way down to travel agencies, tailors, car rental companies and dry-cleaning shops. It employs hundreds of thousands of workers and its commercial structures faithfully reproduce the arborescence of the Army command structure. Many of the officers are “seconded” to “private” businesses and some have been released from the Army but operate within the Army commercial framework.

The companies they manage get massive orders from the State without any tenders being issued and their prices are not subject to scrutiny. Foreign aid distribution and military aid (mostly US) has to go through the Army business channels (transport, communication, warehousing), sight unseen and prices unchecked. The Army has always been a state within the State and it represents the core of Egyptian economic activities. Its companies are not state companies and the public often does not even know a given business is Army-owned. These businesses are legally private but enjoy a “special” relationship with the State.

There were the elections and then there was a coup. It occurred on June 16th and 17th when the ruling SCAF (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces):
• Dissolved the Parliament which had been painstakingly elected in three stages between November 2011 and January 2012 and had started to work in March.
• Issued a Constitutional Declaration which gave the Army the right to nominate the next Prime Minister, prepare the next budget, vote laws, abrogate legislation and freely arrest anybody deemed to be a threat to national security.
• Issued a so-called Supplementary Constitutional Declaration which sharply limited the powers of future democratically-elected president (whose name was by then unknown but which was accepted to be the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi [officially 24.78% of the vote] rather than Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq [officially 23.6% of the vote])?
What were the reasons for this coup and what did it try to achieve? The coup is presented in the western press as the Army acting as a kind of rampart of secularism, as a bulwark against religious extremism. But this was a minority factor only. This approach was used as marketing device by the Army to
• Capture the sympathy of the secularists (and the Christians) who, particularly those who could not bring themselves to vote for Ahmed Shafiq, given his unsavoury Mubarak-associated past. Many secularists consider that given the results of the presidential polls , they did not have a dog in that race (the second round)
• Remind people of who it is that wields the real power (guns and business)
• Wink at the Americans and, through them, at Israel. The Army counts on the Israelis to act as a lobby in its favour in Washington, given the fear caused in Tel Aviv by a potential Muslim Brothers government.

The Army and the Muslim Brotherhood were partners during the last ten years of the Mubarak regime and now , with Mubarak out of the way , the Army feels that the Brotherhood might want 100% of the pie and that it “bets on the revolution” to piggyback the Facebookers (who were the real insurgents in February 2011 and who took most of the losses) and brandish “democracy” (which it doesn’t really like) as a useful tool to sidetrack the Army ……and progressively take over its assets . The Brotherhood would of course use a civilian “democratically elected” government and the Egyptian Army thinks that the Brotherhood, detested as it can be in Washington, can now use its “democratic status” as a political shield to wrestle the Army off its dominant economic position.

So the struggle is not so much over religion and democracy but over power in the post-Mubarak State.

The “Tahrir crowd” which carried out the revolution is hostile to the MBs but hates the Army even more because it knows this is the seat of real power. And the actions of the Army are now threatening to re-create the old Tahrir trans-class multi-generational alliance because the Army now embodies what everybody in Egypt rejected: the paternalistic domination of a state bourgeoisie using the American alliance and the fear of religious radicalism to solidify a two-tier society where over half the population lives on $800°° a year per capita while the rest enjoys a European standard of living, spiking at nearly Californian levels.

After his election Morsi tried briefly to use these difficult allies when he issued a couple of decrees trying to reverse the June 16th/ 17th “Army legal coup”. He declared that he had reinstated the Parliament dissolved by the Army. His bluff lasted 48 hours. And then he backed down, showing openly the defeat of the democratically-elected government when faced with the old and age-tried power structure. The mistake would be to see the face-off as kinds of morality play between evil al-Qaida type Islamists and an Army embodying either “secular democracy” [the probable State Department view] or “fascism” [the probable liberal view]. In fact it is neither. It is a reality play , not a morality one , between one traditional Establishment (the Army , as inheritor of the old Turkish “hukum”) and an aspiring one basing itself on a highjacked vision of Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood) . The heart of the matter is that the deep Egyptian crowds want neither but are not capable of expressing themselves because they lack the organisational structures enabling them to translate their fundamental aspirations into a coherent political reality. It is a deficit of democracy, which two obsolete political Behemoths are hoping to turn to their advantage.

Therefore the situation remains very fragile. The various political forces see it as breathing space which they will use to try organising. The Facebookers will attempt to create a structure , probably in partnership with moderate older secularists ; the radical Muslims will radicalize away from the MB ; the MB will wear itself out in a largely futile exercise of empty symbolical power ; the Army and upper business circles (the present so-called Kotla [“the Centre”] will keep the reality of power in their hands ; multi-faceted agitation will continue and the economy will falter , particularly because tourism will be painfully hit .



Last Updated on Sunday, 22 July 2012 06:17



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