I’m back in Cairo and when I asked a young friend recently what she thought would happen next in Egypt she gave me a wry smile and said she wasn’t even sure what was happening now. Anybody who’s paying attention feels that way and anyone who doesn’t feel that way, which includes most of the pundits in the US and Europe, isn’t paying attention. That lots of people with strong opinions about what’s going to happen, let alone what is happening, have very little insight or knowledge about this large and diverse country seems to be a basic fact of life.
I’ve been reading the stories in the foreign media about how unexpected the victories of the Islamist parties are and how no one predicted that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis would dominate the elections. The Salafi success was indeed unexpected but inside Egypt I think for different reasons than outside in ways that are consequential for trying to understand what’s going on.
Accounts like that of Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) recently in Bloomberg suggest that many Americans were spending far too much time with random contacts they met in cafes around Tahrir Square. If Tahrir isn’t Egypt, then the Hurriyeh Café in nearby Midan Falaki where you can buy a beer and play pick-up games of backgammon with fluent English speaking liberals, isn’t even Tahrir.
More seriously, the very well-known and highly respected student of democratic transitions, Professor Alfred Stepan, visited Cairo frequently in the spring and made some guesses about the elections. Stepan. A professor at Columbia University, is a very smart man with considerable experience in writing about politics and democratic transitions and more relevant to the field of political science than I will ever be. His work has been profoundly influential in how American academics and (to a lesser extent) policy makers think about transitions. But when he confidently asserted during a trip to Egypt in March that the Muslim Brothers and Islamists would not take more than 30% of the votes (and seats) in a parliamentary election it was hard to avoid, at least in private, rolling my eyes.
Goldberg and Stepan go it wrong, but when people say that, during the days of the massive demonstrations in Tahrir, no one predicted the dominance of the Muslim Brothers, they’re wrong. I’m pretty sure I wrote about it at length back in March and April. And I wasn’t alone: almost every serious Egyptian political analyst understood this was the likely outcome of free elections. My deep oracular powers of prediction and mystical connection to the currents of Egyptian politics were based primarily on simply reading what Egyptians were arguing about in op-ed pieces every day and talking to different people (including, I must admit, the occasional taxi-cab driver).
What most Egyptians had expected was that the remnants of the old government party, the National Democrats, would share dominance of the new parliament with the MB. So the elections in the past three weeks have brought about a double surprise: the strong showing of the Salafis and the nearly total rejection of the remnants of the NDP by voters. In retrospect it is clear that the attempts to exclude the NDP members from running was not only politically short-sighted and possibly dangerous in the longer-term to Egyptian democracy but also unnecessary. (It was dangerous because it doesn’t seem like a good idea to establish the precedent that individuals can be denied political rights simply because of their former partisan membership; unnecessary because they turn out not to have been a danger).
Because it’s now clear the NDP had no existence as a party, the Salafis didn’t prosper by picking up its supporters. Their voters, like those of most electoral parties, are something an impromptu coalition. Some, especially in Upper Egypt, are probably extremely prejudiced about Christians and fearful of their demands for equality (which to be honest is pretty much what the call for a secular state is about). Some may be attracted to the populist policies that several Salafist currents espouse which strongly resemble some of the left parties programs in terms of wages, subsidies, and government support of the poor in the name of social justice. Others may see in the Salafis the “real” Islamic alternative to the Muslim Brothers who many now see as hopelessly opportunistic in their search for political power. Without adequate studies we don’t know but these are some of the guesses I’ve heard. What we also don’t know is how strongly different sections of the Salafi voters are attached to them. The ideologically anti-Christian vote will stick with them but some of the others might vote for other parties if they become unhappy with the Salafi performance in the parliament or if the economy worsens.
For better or worse, however, the fate of Egypt’s political future is clearly in the hands of the Muslim Brothers and SCAF. One temptation for the MB will be to compromise with SCAF and insert themselves into the system in the place of the old NDP but as a functioning party. Another will be to step back and let SCAF and some other set of leaders attempt to deal with what will undoubtedly be the difficult problem of re-igniting the economy over the next couple of years. Given that the Freedom and Justice party, now routinely described in the Egyptian press with the nearly Homeric epithet “political arm of the Muslim Brothers”, has a membership and a political appeal largely skewed to conservative professionals and urban residents, it is unlikely to make a sudden changes to the economic policies of the Mubarak era and it has announced its intention to honor Egypt’s treaties (that is, the Camp David accord with Israel) albeit to seek some alteration. But it can achieve many of its ends by using its parliamentary role rather than necessarily dominating the government for now.
This morning’s news brings a report that the MB and SCAF have agreed to a division of spheres in which the MB will dominate parliament and the SCAF will control the presidency. Whether this particular report is true, it is clear that the two major forces will have to come to some agreement about how, in practice, to work together. The MB have whatever legitimacy comes from electoral dominance and SCAF has both raw coercive power (which it has shown repeatedly it will not shrink from using) and the appeal to many Egyptians who fear that continuation of the revolutionary process will lead to a complete collapse of public order and the economy. There is a third force, of course. Not the hidden hands both SCAF and the MB frequently invoke—whether Israeli, Qatari, or American. The third force is the apparently still irrepressible spontaneous force of Egyptian society, sometimes manifested in Tahrir and sometimes elsewhere.
It will not be easy for the MB and SCAF to reach a stable agreement. I am not one of those who think they have been working hand in glove since February. There are important differences especially over the division of power in the country. SCAF cannot look at what has happened to the Turkish army and feel very secure about actually creating civilian control of the Ministry of Defense. The MB leadership have spent enough time in the regime’s prisons to know that as long as the Ministries of Defense and Interior are not under their control they remain vulnerable. The MB can bring hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets and the Army can bring out the tanks. Whether either can actually command sufficient authority in the face of adversity to persevere in making the country work is a different matter entirely and here they both face the constant danger of that unpredictable third force.
It is quite possible that SCAF is more afraid than many suspect of spontaneous social unrest. They may have watched it bring down the Mubarak regime with mixed emotions as it destroyed a clique they were willing to be rid of but that left the institutions of the state wholly at risk for weeks, culminating in a week when the entire Ministry of Interior including its most redoubtable fortresses fell before waves of popular unrest. SCAF may have felt that the events of November and December were far more threatening than they appeared to be to those on the Tahrir side of the barricades. They were able to contain mass discontent once but they may not be so sure they can do it again.
Yet SCAF and the MB have many things in common. They probably both share many of the widespread prejudices and preferences that are certainly widespread in society. They are partisans of order and discipline.
Christians have a place in their society and it is a distinctly subordinate place enforced by social pressures rather than legal measures. Whatever orders were actually given at Maspero in October when dozens of Christian protesters were killed, it marked the willingness of the army to deploy violence against Egyptians with the support of other sections of the popular in a frightening way. The events at Maspero deserve more attention but the generals must have been noticed a widespread unwillingness by many of the political parties, notably the MB, to declare those who died at Maspero martyrs of the revolution as has routinely been the case with others who fell to violence in demonstrations. Indeed they suggested in public that the demonstrators may have threatened army officers. Neither the generals, the soldiers at Maspero, nor the Muslim Brothers have given much public attention to the lives they took that day. Nor has the army ever identified the soldiers that it claimed were killed, presumably because there were none.
Women, in this view, also have a role in their society but their primary task, especially in their 20s and 30s, should to provide a wholesome family environment. The disrobing and beating of a woman wearing a headscarf in Tahrir two weeks ago which was so widely recounted in the international press is suggestive. So too the response within conservative political quarters here questioning why exactly she was in Tahrir. Of course it's not right to attack women nor to leave them struggling half-naked in the dust, but what exactly do they expect. And besides it wasn't the soldiers who did it but unnamed and effectively invisible hidden hands. And I don't know the exact Arabic equivalent for "who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes" but the existence of video footage showing exactly what happened (as at Maspero) has been dismissed by the armed forces and their supporters.
SCAF and the MB remind me a bit of the so-called country club Republicans of two generations ago in the US. It was almost impossible for them to imagine that those who did not share their religious, class, and (in the US where this matters) racial background had any important role to play in politics. They believed in law and order and respect for government as well as the free enterprise system. They may have been hypocrites and narrow-minded but they made up the backbone of conservative America. Comparing them to the Muslim Brothers will no doubt seem harsh and a bit absurd to many Americans (and too obvious to others). The country club Republicans and their Democratic opposite numbers thought of themselves as decent, moderate and rational. They were sober and unprejudiced in their own minds. They never blew up churches. But in Birmingham in 1962 they made excuses for those who did because they claimed that the protesters, threatening as they were to the social order, essentially brought disaster on themselves. This is not incompatible with a functioning electoral democracy but it leaves a lot to be desired.