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Mr Morsi elected Egyptian President: challenges ahead for Muslim Brotherhood

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Mohamed Mursi of Muslim Brotherhood has been elected Egyptian president, bringing to a conclusion a long-standing process of transition from Mubarak’s regime.

The result represent a historic event, as he is the first elected president in Egyptian history as well one of the few Arab leaders to achieve that. Nevertheless, Mohamed Mursi has difficult tasks in front of him, international and internal affairs will require great attention as well as a good dose of luck.

Egypt concludes its transition from Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but is not yet the end. Egypt, a difference of Libya or Syria, did not have a bloody insurrection or a civil war, although the regime did not gave up without a fight and several protesters have been killed either during the repression or under detention. Egyptians have conducted their own revolution without seeking external assistance or interference from abroad. Two conditions distinguish Egypt from the rest. As Tunisia, they were at the early stage of the Arab spring, and western powers were not kin at the time for a regime change in Tunis and Cairo, being these two regimes pro-western. The silence of many western powers during the regime’s repression was criticised by many human rights organisation, and the reason was that a key ally was risking to be overthrown. Only when US pressure on Mubarak increased, due to a situation arrived at a stage where the silence could not be maintained anymore, the regime decided to give up and Mubarak resigned. The other element is internal. Egyptians started their own revolution, there was never a request for help from outside, they had a powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and several other groups. The silent hostility of western powers to the early stages of Egypt revolution was a clear sign of the discomfort of a likely Muslim Brotherhood succession. They were trying to persuade westernised profiles, such El Baradaei, to enter the political arena, but once again, they demonstrated the total ignorance when dealing with these countries, the only real and powerful alternative to Mubarak was the Muslim Brotherhood.  Egyptians therefore, at least those related to the Brotherhood, did not ask for help from those same countries that for decades have permitted Mubarak to stay in power.

When Hosni Mubarak stood down, and was replaced by a military junta, the Muslim Brotherhood knew, and feared, that this was a stratagem to buy time and try to form a different opposition likely to win an election. Loyalist generals and the army tried desperately to retain power and find a suitable candidate to reassure their privileges, but all have been vain. Obviously, the Brotherhood knew, and still knows, that the fight is not over, and the hard part will come now, when you will have to dismantle an apparatus that worked for over 50 years.

Here will start the new path for Egypt and our analysis will concentrate on the following: Egypt transition to democracy, President Morsi and internal/external affairs.

Is Egypt a democracy?

Has Egypt successfully now become a democracy? The answer is obviously no. I was reading recently an article by the former British PM Tony Blair on Middle East, and he came up with a wonderful assumption. Although, we all know his questionable position on Iraq and other issues, we cannot be blind and leave our judgement be motivated by preconceptions. Mr Blair, talking on the Arab spring and Egypt, said that ‘democracy is not a matter of voting, but is a way of thinking’. This excellent quote is the answer at those who believe that simply having a multiparty system, or casting ballot will make a country a democracy. Egypt has obviously, along with Tunisia, given way at the Arab spring and both now have now popular government elected. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait just to remember how far they are from even the concept of universal suffrage.

However, Egypt is not a democracy yet, because the thinking is not there yet either. How to rebalance power between the political forces? How to deal with the old regime apparatus? How to include them in the new state’s structure? How to deal with the religious minorities and ethnic groups?  What role for women?  Civil liberties? The new president should answer these and many other fundamental questions. Egypt has never been a democracy:  under British rule, passed back to the King, and then one man party in control from 1952 until 2012. Egypt has been however, a secular country, a key in the Arab world, a bridge between African and Asia, and most importantly a step stone in the Arab struggle for a free Palestine state. The activism of the Nasser period left space for the Sadat era and the Israeli peace, leaving then Mubarak at the top. The Arab spring in Egypt was initially not welcomed in the West, especially in Washington; we all remember clearly the silence of Hilary Clinton during the first days of the military repression and only when Tahrir Square was reaching the inevitable the point to be cleared by force, they finally convinced Mubarak to step aside. This initial position is the symptom of how afraid they are of removing an ally, although questionable, and leave space to an unknown power such the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Arab spring in Egypt, has these peculiarity: was not pushed by foreign pressure and was truly a revolution made by people.

A difference of Syria and even Libya, Egypt has always had a powerful opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood, and although in the West were trying to buy time to create a foreign lobby of Egyptians to take part in the election, it soon became clear that only the Brotherhood could oppose a military rule. The tentative to buy time was vain, and even recalling old regime figures have been useless in prevent the victory. The military rulers knew that any fraud or even a suspension could have left Egypt to a destiny similar to that of Algeria in 1991, when the Islamic Front won the election and were annulled, starting a civil war and years of terrorism.

Internal affairs

1. Relation with political forces

President Morsi and Muslim brotherhood will have difficult task in balancing their power with the other opposition parties and especially the ruling party. We cannot forget that this was a victory but not an overwhelming one, symptom that some sectors of the Egyptian society are still wary about Muslim Brotherhood. One of the key points for Muslim Brotherhood will be how to ensure that opposition parties, especially the westernised, will be allowed to voice their concerns and contribute into shaping the new constitution, whilst the other one will be how to deal with more radical movements and even with some radical wings within the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

Westernised parties obviously are backed by strong financial support outside Egypt and linked to foreign enterprises. Their idea of a secular Egypt, modern and open to everyone could encounter a strong resistance from Muslim Brotherhood members or other radical parties. However, their weakness is the lack of support among common Egyptians.

President Morsi will have to reassure these parties as well, even though the most difficult task will be how to deal with the ex regime figures. Although the National Democratic Party has been dissolved, there is still a strong élite beaten but not knocked out. This élite will not give up easily its share of power, especially in key sectors such defence and economy, and could find unexpected sponsors abroad if Muslim Brotherhood will turn up to be a radical group. President Morsi knows that a stronger Islamic stance will reinforce their voice and will turn western powers to back again the old regime in a new outfit.

2. Society and civil liberties

Muslim Brotherhood will have to respond to those who are questioning the ability of the party in ensuring that the secular character of the society will be preserved. Muslim Brotherhood has always put its slogan ‘Islam is the answer’ as the only solution to Egypt illnesses. Mubarak was seen as better off in the West mainly because of his ability to counter effectively terrorist organisations and ensure security. Even Christians are now marking the departure of the regime as something worse than the actual “democracy”. President Morsi will have to reassure the other half of Egyptian society that the country will not become a new Taliban state or, like Libya, putting the Sharia Law at the top of the state. A path to democracy will need to include respect for religious minorities, rights for women and civil liberties. These three steps could be the key to historic achievement for Muslim Brotherhood but a passport to self-destruction if a more radical stance will prevail. Again, as Blair said, democracy is was way of thinking and many will question if Muslim Brotherhood is thinking about that or even starting to do it.

3. Corruption and old regime

How to fight endemic corruption and to deal with a regime that ruled Egypt for nearly 60 years? Egypt is marred by corruption, an illness that affects many Arab countries and even some powers in Europe such Italy, Greece or Spain. Muslim Brotherhood has always put a slogan against corruption, but on the reality will be hard for the party to dismantle a well-oiled machinery that guaranteed to the regime’s élites privileges and money. These groups are probably leaving direct power in politics but likely, they will not leave the grip on key sectors such the army, the administration and key economic sectors. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will have a difficult task in deal with the armed forces, widely seen as hostile to the Brotherhood and still linked to the Mubarak regime. A revenge style or a purge will put the Muslim Brotherhood on the verge of a coup or a bloody uprising; a laissez-faire stance will undermine their authority ensuring a certain defeat at the next election. A path to democracy will require probably a diplomatic overture and reintegration for those who have not committed crimes against Egyptian people. The recent inclusion into the government of political figures not related to Islamic areas, although welcome, advanced a serious question: is this just a strategy to buy time and transform Egypt once more political support will be achieved or is a permanent solution? On the first case, the Muslim Brotherhood will collaborate with adversaries only until a stronger support will be achieved and the party able of governing alone; the second case will open the way to a good path to democracy but the question stays on whether all the party will follow this compromise. We do not need to forget that Egyptian society is still polarised and any unwelcome change of direction can be a risk for the president. Sadat was assassinated by unsatisfied sectors of the armed forces as well sectarian groups.

 

4. Economy

Egypt has enjoyed an open market and was commonly seen as safe for tourism and for external investment. This is now back to be a question mark especially in the western markets, anxious to see if the Muslim Brotherhood will honour the same openness as Mubarak. However, the party have on its side the fact that this wealth was most of the time ‘hidden’ from common Egyptians and corruption made impossible an effective redistribution of resources. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will need to reassure markets that Egypt will continue to cooperate but not to be colonised again, and on the other fight unemployment and corruption as to ensure that Egyptians can really benefit from the potentials of the country’s economy.

External relations

Egypt has always been a key country in the geopolitical system between Africa and Asia, and this change in regime will open questions about the relation with key players: Israel, the Middle East, Western powers, Russia and China.

  1. 1.       Israel: Time for a change?

A one time enemy and now ‘friendly’ border country, Israel will be one of the key issues for the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi. After the initial activism and the pro-Palestine stance of the Nasser era, Sadat used constructively the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to regain control on the Sinai Peninsula and bring Egypt to a negotiating table in a stronger position. Sadat paid the peace treaty that ensured stability in the area and locked the two countries in three decades of peace, with his life. Mubarak ensured the continuity of this treaty, and this was one of the main reasons why his dictatorship was accepted in the West and especially in Washington. Tel Aviv could not have survived Hamas, Hezbollah, Olp, Syria and Lebanon crisis over the past 30 years without a key negotiator behind the curtains like Egypt. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, and many Egyptians, now consider this treaty a betrayal of Muslim values, an abandon of their Palestinian brothers and call therefore for a more active stance against Israel. It must be said that Israel has continued its politic made of arrogance and accompanied sometimes by military aggressions that on more than one occasion resulted in fatalities along the Gaza strip border for Egyptian military personnel and civilians. If during the Mubarak regime these incidents were widely covered, after its fall it appears clear that this will not be tolerated anymore. We all remember the attack of the Israeli embassy during the Arab spring following a similar incident in the Gaza strip border. These alarming signals lead many to believe that a Muslim Brotherhood victory could bring Egypt back to a war against the old enemy. Morsi will have to balance carefully any decision: keeping the treaty and the status quo will irate not only many Muslim Brotherhood members and radical parties but also some sectors of the armed forces tired to be pushed around; on the other, breaking the treaty could cost a war for which Egypt may be not ready and that could isolate the new regime. Morsi will have probably to use the same Sadat strategy: a more political aggressive stance to renegotiate the treaty and bring back Egypt in the heart and minds of Palestinians.

  1. 2.       The Middle East theatre: from spectator to actor

Egypt has always been a focal point for Muslim awakening and Palestinian struggle. Having itself freed from colonialism first and from monarchy after, the young officers that staged the coup in 1952 developed a country that they put at the forefront in the struggle for a free Palestinian State.  Nasser, emerged as leader, was seen as the only Arab leader able to counter first France and Britain in the Suez crisis of 1956 and after to start a war against Israel in 1967. Unfortunately, for him the Six Days War ended with a humiliating Israeli victory and the loss of the Sinai Peninsula but Egyptians always thought was their duty fight against Israel. This activism of the early years was confirmed by Sadat, Nasser successor, who with the Yom Kippur War demonstrated that Israel was not invincible and regained the Sinai Peninsula. However, this victory then led to a peace treaty signed by Egypt in 1979 and finished with the assassination of Sadat. Egypt since then eclipsed itself from the struggle, and although its role remained central in the Palestinian cause, no new military adventures have been pursued. This inactivity during Mubarak years created the ground for the growth and accusations from islamist groups and especially from Muslim Brotherhood asking for a hard stance against Israel.

Egypt will need to regain activism and Morsi can give back to Egypt that prominent role and not being only a spectator such the Arab league. However, he must be careful in not dragging Egypt in a total war against Israel. On the contrary, Egypt will need to avoid following the inert example of the Arab league in dealing with Palestinian cause and could use its political and military weight to pressure Israel and the West to open new negotiations.

Concerning Iran, Egypt could represent a valid countermeasure in creating a new equilibrium in the Middle East, due to its force and could constitute a valid support even for western diplomacy. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood see Egypt as strongly belonging to the Muslim world, but at the same time they should be careful in not linking Egypt with islamist organisation or terrorist groups. If they balance a new active policy towards Israel with a new hard-line strategy towards the inactivity of many Arab countries, Egypt could lead and become again a central player in any change of the status quo in Middle East.

  1. 3.       Relations with foreign powers: one door will probably close and another will open

The relation with foreign powers is where Morsi will have to work hard. Paradoxically, his election although welcomed on word by diplomatic etiquette, is not so welcomed in the secret rooms of foreign chancelleries. Muslim Brotherhood has always been seen as dangerous to western interest for the following reasons: is an islamist radical group, against secularism, supporter of a radical solution for Palestine, linked with several other islamist organisations. Western powers, that for decades have accepted Mubarak regime as a valid support against any Islamic radicalisation, now have in front what they were afraid of: a Muslim Brotherhood government. However, they know that President Morsi has not a full power, as the army is still made of Mubarak loyalists and although has won the margin has been thin. The West will pressure Morsi to continue in the peaceful policy of Mubarak concerning Middle East, but in this they also show how far they are from the reality on the ground. Egypt could represent a valid support for the West in resolving Palestinian stalemate, it could be the link between the extremist propaganda and violent struggle of Hamas/Hezbollah and the arrogance of Israel on the other. President Morsi knows that the Unite States, especially, will watch how Egypt will deal with security, and how he will guarantee the country will not become a safe terrain for terrorist groups. President Morsi is not preoccupied by UK and France, whose interest in the area sank during the Suez crises in 1956, but from the US that are likely to be a former ally in stand by watching how the country will chose its foreign policy. The US will keep an eye on Egypt, but should isolated it because could push the country towards Iran as well to a renewed relation with position Russia.

Russia and China are the other two countries interested in Egypt’s new course: the first for long-standing relations and interests in the area, the second mainly for economic investments. Whilst China’s role will be probably maintained at the current levels and even see an increase, Russia’s relations could be different. During Nasser years, although Egypt decided to stand on a non-aligned movement, it received strong diplomatic support from Soviet Union, as well generous provisions of military equipment. This has been maintained over the years although the Soviet Union was cut off with Sadat administration. Since then Russia remained practically at the window, barred from US policy on Israel and friendly relations with Mubarak.

This could now change. President Morsi knows that Israel and the US are hostile to his government and will watch closely every step. Russia could be again a valid support to keep at bay interference and to guarantee for Egypt a free space of manoeuvre. Egypt could represent for Russia another important card on the table to counter US interests in the area, avoid their aggressive policy towards the change of the status quo in Middle East, as well as a possible solution to the Palestinian stalemate.

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Written by Matteo Figus

07/07/2012 at 18:17

15 Responses

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