Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Promise and Promises in the Presidential Election

            After weeks of trial balloons, alarums, and even excursions, the Muslim Brothers finally decided to nominate Joseph for the presidency of Egypt.   Well not exactly.  They’ve actually decided to nominate one of their most important leaders, Khairat Shater, for the presidency. Freshly printed posters identify Shater, imprisoned by the Mubarak regime, with the Biblical (and Quranic) Joseph who emerged from prison to govern Egypt.

            The decision to nominate Shater is widely described, especially outside Egypt, as a surprise although it has already been the subject of weeks if not months of intense speculation. 

One strong reason for not nominating Shater was that the Muslim Brothers have asserted continuously during the past year that they would not nominate a candidate for the presidency.  Shater was quoted a year ago as saying the MB would not support an MB candidate even if it was himself.    So the MB have, not for the first time, broken a promise about the elections.  And the reason they gave for expelling former leader Abdel Munim Abu al-Futouh was his insistence on running for the presidency despite that decision.  If the Brotherhood has broken promises (running for only 25% of the seats in parliament, for example) they are not alone.  The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces once promised a six month transition but it’s also become clear in the past few months that the Brotherhood, and their political party (Freedom and Justice), have quickly acquired the knack of all large parties in democracies of denying what they’re going to do until the moment they do it.

Some analysts have suggested that the MB is squeezed between the Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, variously described as the Salafi candidate, an ultra-hardline Islamist, or a populist, and the liberal Abu al-Futouh.  Much of the talk in Cairo before Shater’s nomination, however, was that he would draw at least the support of the Salafi religious and partisan leadership to his side.  This already is underway as some leaders of the Salafi Nour party, which has consistently declined to back Abu Ismail or any other candidate until the nomination period ends, have announced their support for Shater.  

Shater is part of a group of leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohammad Badie, Saad Katatny and Muhammad Morsi, who dominated the leadership after the former Supreme Guide stepped down in 2009.  With the departure of Abu al-Futouh and several other leaders associated with the liberal wing of the MB they have increased their control over the organization further in the last year.  Yet, if press reports are correct, they have not yet been able to bring the entire organization under their influence:  the vote to nominate Shater had to be postponed for a week and even then he was nominated with a majority of 56 votes to 52 in the organization’s Shoura Council.  There are also reports that a large majority of the members of parliament who nominally represent the Freedom and Justice party (rather than the MB) also opposed his nomination.

That the Brotherhood, in theory not a political organization, decided to take the decision to nominate Shater (who held no official position in the party) rather than having the FJP nominate him is worth noting.  It suggests an emergent gap between the MB leadership and the FJP both as parliamentary faction and as an electoral organization.  There are, as I will discuss below, reasons to believe that the MB leadership is having increasing difficulty controlling its own base as well as its parliamentary delegation. 

Accounts of why the MB (rather than its political wing, the FJP) decided to nominate Shater propose several possibilities whose contradictory nature suggests how little the world outside knows of the inner workings of the MB.  It has been suggested both that Shater’s nomination is the result of an agreement with the military council and is a result of the breakdown of any possibility of agreement with it.  Some have suggested that the MB leadership fear being displaced as the leaders of the Islamic trend in Egypt if either Abu al-Futouh or the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail win.  Yet another possibility posed by Egyptian scholar Ashraf al-Sherif is that the decision arose from Shater’s visceral dislike of Abu al-Futouh who may have had significant support among the losing 52 members of the Shoura Council.

I make no claim to know much about the internal (or even the external) workings of the MB.  Over the past year, however, various accounts of how they have come to make decisions that violate previous promises, coupled with what little we know about prominent leaders who have left, and the recent uproar over the presidential election are suggestive of a much more complex organization than appears in many popular accounts circulating in the US which frequently describe either an extraordinarily disciplined cadre organization dedicated to violently imposing Islamic law on Egypt or a group of democratic moderates barely distinguishable from the American median voter.  There is little doubt that the present leadership group (which may no longer include Shater who has formally resigned) is strongly attracted to power, that they are socially quite conservative and that they largely understand democracy to mean the unrestricted rule by the majority, at least as long as they constitute that majority.  There is, at present, no reason to believe that their preferences would be for an economic program much different than what dominated the past decade.  Shater is an astute businessman who has become quite wealthy. 

Shater himself has said that instituting Islamic sharia is the number one goal of his movement and presumably of his presidency.  What this means in practice, apart from significantly restricting a wide variety of relatively recently enacted women’s rights, is unclear.  Given the general stance of the current leadership it does not mean much good from a progressive point of view but just how broadly and severely it will impact Egyptian civil and penal law as well as social norms is uncertain.  About a month ago members of the Nour party proposed writing a law to transform the Quranic penalty for hirabah into law.  In the Quran the term means waging war on God or Muhammad.  In the Islamic Republic of Iran the term now covers a wide variety of vaguely defined offenses against the state and the Nour parliamentarians appear to have been thinking of a similarly broad statue that would cover political and economic crimes that affect society at large.  Whether it would be possible to write the text of a law that would be acceptable to the Egyptian judiciary is unclear and no working document has emerged from the Ministry of Justice nor is it clear whether most Egyptians would be willing to support a law whose penalties included the amputation of opposite limbs or crucifixion.  Egyptian constitutions have traditionally prohibited exile as a punishment (although the present Constitutional declaration does not contain this prohibition) which is another possibility mentioned in the Quran.  In fact most would probably be appalled.   Egyptian law has a significant number of crimes for which death is a penalty (armed robbery, murder, and rape to name but a few) and it has some laws criminalizing vaguely defined behavior (“ill-gotten gains” for example) but the two are not usually linked and there is historically well-grounded support for the idea of the rule of law that would resist the imposition of such laws whether under the color of Islam or not.

Shater and his political allies might be better thought of as devotees of state that will be both more punitive and more active whether Islamic or not. Historically the MB, like the Communist parties (and unlike the other European mass parties) have not formally allowed factions, but this does not mean that the MB had no factions.  Even in the 1950s there were clearly identifiable groups within the organization and there are reasons to believe that factionalization intensified with the generation that entered in the 1980s even if it remained formally unspoken.  Although it has been common to speak of the disciplined hierarchy of the MB and of both generational and political change within the organization these are usually presented as transformations of a relatively homogenous and disciplined organization.  It may be more useful to think of the MB as a kind of coalition—that is a rather broad array of people of social and political outlooks—which now has access to considerable possibilities of patronage and government decision-making.  Paradoxically it may make the present leadership stronger in relationship to other factions—which are still illegitimate as such—while also making more amenable to influence from the base.  Thus the decision to jettison the pledge to contest only 25% of the seats in parliament and run everywhere benefited the current leadership and the organization.  But it was widely reported (at least unofficially) at the time also to have been the result of pressure from the base where many members believed they could successfully run and resisted leadership attempts to limit their access to power.  So, too, the decision to dominate the constitutional committee has been described to me as having been the result of the desire of FJP and Nour parliamentarians to serve on the committee.  Seen in this light, the MB leadership may originally have planned to play a longer and more involved political game but are now having difficulty controlling their own members.  Lastly it is clear that the decision not to run a presidential candidate has evoked significant opposition within the organization for the entire past year.  Some of this came from Abu al-Futouh supporters; some from those who worried that Abu Ismail would cut into their own base; and some, obviously, from Shater and his faction.  Whether the MB splits, which is an ever-green hope in some circles, is less of an issue that its on-going transformation into a regular political party in which various groups vie for power in increasingly public and organizationally debilitating ways.

The Muslim Brothers are now on the verge of dominating the Egyptian political system nearly as completely as did the National Democratic party.  They have close to a majority in the Parliament and on a variety of issues have their pick of allies; they dominate the committee presently writing the constitution. Their same man, Saad Katatny, happens to be both speaker of the Assembly and chair of the constitutional committee. Should they also gain the presidency they will control both the legislative and executive branches and they will be in a position to determine, through the writing of the constitution, the distribution of power between them.    In early 2011 they may have wanted to re-assure Egyptians and foreigners alike that they did not intend to dominate the political system.  The parliamentary elections and the response of the electorate to the MB dominance of the constitutional committee suggests they no longer need to allay these fears.

In the vein of such speculation another possibility also arises:  the MB leadership realize (perhaps more than any other forces) that their dominance based on popularity alone may be a wasting asset.   The MB claimed support from 77% of the voters in the March 2011 referendum.  In recent parliamentary elections the Islamic trend overall received 70% of the vote but the FJP (the political arm of the MB) received less than 50% although their coalition came close to that mark.   Contesting the presidency five (or more) years in the future after former Mubarak foreign minister Amr Moussa (the front-runner) or any of the other competitors may seem much less desirable now than it did a year ago.  I leave to connoisseurs of choice theoretic approaches whether it is more “rational” for the MB to wait to capture the presidency in the future, but the given the uncertainty surrounding this presidential election (let alone those five or ten years in the future) patient forbearance may look like a fool’s game.

There are some intriguing possibilities ahead that make the Egyptian presidential campaign resemble the American collegiate basketball playoffs in the variety of possible opponents.  There are certainly risks involved.  Shater as nominee would have likely picked up much of the Salafi vote that Abu Ismail hoped for.  The stunning decision by the Electoral Commission on April 4 to deny Abu Ismail’s candidacy leaves Shater more clearly the preferred nominee of those voters.  Abu Ismail’s candidacy was negated on the technicality that his mother appears to have had an American passport.  Under the constitution amendments approved in the March 2011 referendum and incorporated into the Military Council’s Constitutional Declaration no one whose parents have accepted foreign citizenship may serve as Egypt’s president.  And the decision of the Commission is, by the same Declaration, without appeal. 

There remains some question as to whether Shater’s candidacy will survive a challenge.  Shater’s parents and grandparents are, as far as anyone knows, Egyptian born but he has been convicted of a felony in a sufficiently recent period that his political rights (including the right to stand for public office) may be in abeyance. No doubt this will be brought before the Electoral Commission which could decide that his candidacy, like that of Abu Ismail, is invalid. It is not clear whether the Military Council can or would pardon him and restore his rights. 

More intriguing is what happens if Shater wins.  Although Shater has resigned from the MB (and thus also as deputy supreme guide) he, unlike Abu Al-Futouh, remains closely identified with it.  After all it was the MB that nominated him.  If he wins, then, what is the relationship between the Supreme Guide of the MB, Muhammad Badi’, and his former Deputy, the President of Egypt?  Is the president still bound by, or will he feel himself bound by, the rule of obedience which characterizes the relationship of members to the leadership in the MB?  Or will he, as president, now be in a position to demand compliance from his former superior?  Either way the MB will have to adjust to an uncomfortable new reality in which it either is quite literally the ruling party or the transmission belt for government.

Shater’s entry into the presidential race may also affect the writing of the constitution.  The committee has six months to conclude its task.  I will address some of the substantial issues in another post but writing the constitution itself is less of a problem than deciding the allocation of power that it enacts.  Until last week it had been widely assumed that the MB continued to prefer a parliamentary system with a weak president as they had long claimed.  There were some doubts that this was the case and the MB have routinely not carried out their routinely frequent threats to withdraw confidence from the Ganzoury government appointed by the Army Council.   They may now wish to wait until the outcome of the election to see what division of powers they wish to enshrine and how much control over the Egyptian government they parliamentary delegation wishes to assert.

Two final points are worth pondering.  Joseph had seven good years to prepare for seven lean; Khairat Shater will be coming into power with the reserves of the last decade of intense (but unevenly distributed) economic growth having been dissipated.  He may be in for a more difficult time.  The other point is drawn from the historical sociology of revolution and refers us back to the question of how to conceptualize the kaleidoscopic Egyptian reality of the past year in which the pace of change continues to confuse and amaze.  For the last century successive periods of revolutionary upheaval and political change have brought new governments to power and cemented the idea of republican democracy as the appropriate mechanism of rule.  What they have never brought forward, despite many claims to the contrary by rulers and external observers alike, is a party sufficiently disciplined and dedicated to the pursuit of power to make an elected parliament function as a system of rule.  The Wafd was a popular mass party with no significant local organizational participation.  The military rulers after 1952 tried successive experiments with the Liberation Rally and the Arab Socialist Union before finally settling on the National Democracy party as a mechanism to occupy political space.  The MB and their political party, the FJP, may finally (if perhaps only briefly) manage to create a system of electoral institutions that allow a party not only to participate in ruling the country but to govern it.   Unfortunately such an experiment will not be, to paraphrase Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid’s famous book, liberal.  But it will be one on which Alexis de Tocqueville will be smiling from whatever heaven shelters those who cast a cold eye on revolutions.

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