The Egyptian transition

Following the ouster of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has taken the first step toward building a modern democracy.  Last Sunday, it proclaimed the first-ever democratically elected civilian president in the nation’s history. It is not easy to read from the outcome of this closely contested election what urgent hopes and needs the people were expressing through their votes.

By refusing to fire at the youthful demonstrators who camped out on Tahrir Square, the military signaled its willingness to play the role of overseer of the transition to the post-Mubarak era. Because of this, Egypt avoided a bloody civil war of the kind that ended Moammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya and that continues to haunt Syria till now. But, danger lurks at every point of the political transition. Until the Egyptian military accepts the reality that it is in no position to govern a nation aspiring to join the modern world, the threat of a civil war will always be at Egypt’s doorstep.

In 1986, Cory Aquino rose to the Philippine presidency as a result of the Edsa People Power Revolution. While soldiers played a key role in that uprising, they would not have been allowed to preside over the selection of a transitional president. As far as the masses that trooped to Edsa were concerned, Cory won over Marcos in the fraudulent presidential election held just a few weeks before the uprising.

The military leaders had little choice but to recognize Cory’s mandate. But they persisted in the belief that it was their right and duty to see to it that the country would not go back to traditional elite rule. Cory did not share their view. She expected them to quietly return to their limited role under a civilian political order. They responded by mounting seven military coup attempts in the first three years of her presidency. Nothing is more difficult than to order soldiers who had had a taste of political power back to their barracks.

Compare this with what is happening in Egypt today, and we may find many reasons to thank our lucky stars. A few months ago, Egypt held parliamentary elections. Nearly half of the seats were won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized and disciplined force in Egypt today outside of the military. Recently, the new parliament was ordered dissolved on the ground that some of those who had won should not have been allowed to run at all. There were moves to postpone the scheduled presidential election until these issues were threshed out. But so strong was the people’s desire to elect a new president that a postponement would have triggered another upheaval.  In the runoff last Sunday, Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, prevailed over Ahmed Shafik, a former general whom Mubarak had appointed as prime minister. Morsi’s victory was not unexpected. But the outcome showed a sharply divided nation: Morsi got 51 percent, and Shafik 49 percent.

Many of the young people who became the faces of the Arab Spring on Tahrir Square opted to boycott the polls. Between Morsi, who is known to rail against movies and music deemed too liberal, and Shafik, a Mubarak aide, there didn’t seem to be much of a choice. The young revolutionaries wanted Mohamed ElBaradei, the prominent scholar diplomat who had served as director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency, to seek the presidency. But he refused, saying that the military had too much control of the transition process.  In the end, he too boycotted the election.

The transition has indeed been from the start a deeply flawed process. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi rules Egypt today. Anticipating the entry of a civilian president, the Council submitted a list of constitutional amendments aimed at restricting the powers of the president. The first of these provides that the president will not be the commander in chief of the armed forces. When a constituent assembly is convened, the military will wield veto power on the draft constitution. It also reserves the right to dissolve the constituent assembly if the latter is unable to surmount obstacles to its work. To all intents and purposes, what the Egyptian military wants is to hold political power behind a civilian façade.

Any self-respecting democrat would not think twice about rejecting this arrangement. But the Muslim Brotherhood who fielded Morsi does not operate on impulse. Far from accepting the role of military stooge, it will however not pass up the chance to be in government. Its leaders are aware of what they are up against, and they will not provoke a direct clash with the military. But they seem to know how to work within the democratic space that has opened up. I suspect that their model is Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which, even as it draws its basic vision from Islam, seeks to build a modern and inclusive society.

The AKP was in exactly the same position when it took the reins of government in 2001.  Its prime movers had to contend with Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of a fiercely secular order presided over by the military. Yet, in the short span of a decade, Turkey’s new leadership, while derided by the West as an “Islamist” regime, has shown that a society can draw powerful impulses from religious belief in order to develop a prosperous and democratic society. Max Weber had pointed this out in his classic work, “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” but who would have thought that Islam could be a carrier of modernity?

Egypt has embarked on a crucial experiment fraught with danger. If it succeeds, it will light the way to the future for the rest of the Arab world.