Egypt: A New Road Map to Where?

Forty eight hours prior to moving in to take power in Egypt, the military led by General Abdel Khalil al-Sissi had given an ultimatum to President Mohamed Morsi to transform the government to meet “the will of the people” or the military would take power and impose its own “road map”.  Morsi insisted on his “legitimacy” as an elected President.  After, no doubt, negotiations with other political leaders and the representatives of governments with interests in the situation such as the USA and Saudi Arabia, the military moved claiming that it wanted to prevent violence between the two masses of protesters in the streets, those shouting “Irhal!” (Go away!) and those supporting the President. It is probable that the army would have moved even were there no massive street protests as there had been growing unrest for several months.

After one year of governing, Morsi’s government was falling apart.  Even prior to the army’s move, eight ministers had resigned, as well as other high officials who knew that the ship was sinking.  President Morsi and the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Freedom Party, had tried to rule largely alone without bringing in people from a wider political spectrum and had tried to expand the powers of the president.  Morsi was weakened on his “right” by ultra-religious Salafist factions claiming that he was not Islamic enough and on his “left” by liberals, youth, Coptic Christians and secularists. Sectarianism, in particular Sunni-Shiite tensions had grown, in some cases fanned by persons in or close to the government.

Economic expectations were not fulfilled, neither the expectations of the working class who faced rising prices and shortages of food and fuel or the growing Middle Class who expected more opportunities and greater liberty.  The older business milieu linked to the 30 years of rule of Hosni Mubarak, while not displaced, no longer felt privileged. Moreover, the military had its own economic interests to protect. Tourism which helps to oil the economic wheels had fallen sharply.

Morsi, an engineer by profession, was without governing experience. The socio-political challenges he faced would have been difficult even for a person with more political skills.  He made a number of unwise appointments drawing on a narrow range of Muslim Brotherhood members.

Events in Egypt have an impact on the wider Middle East and thus on world politics. President Obama said that he had directed his administration to review the legal implications of July 3rd’s events on US aid to Egypt. He added “ I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process” and the military should avoid any arbitrary arrests of Morsi and his supporters.

If the Israel-Palestine “road map” is any indication of the nature of road maps in the Middle East, it is not clear where the Egyptian military road map will lead.  The “inclusive and transparent process” that President Obama calls for is the least likely of elements of Egyptian politics.  The US, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, whose financial weight in Egyptian policy is real, are already seeing what cards they have in hand.

In practice, there have already been arrests — arbitrary or not — especially the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood was created with French Masonic Lodges as the model.  There were some French-led Masonic lodges in Egypt in the 1920s, and some of the early Egyptian members had spent time in France.  Although Egypt was largely under English control, France had an important cultural role in Egypt prior to the Second World War.  As with Masonic orders, membership is not “secret” but discrete. There is loyalty to the “Grand Master” and strong solidarity among its members. The current Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie and his chief deputy Khairat el-Shater are among those arrested, and it is reported that some 300 persons are on a “wanted” list.

Although having influence on government — or taking over the government — was a Muslim Brotherhood aim, when they were finally able to control the state, they had few ideas of what to do or confident contacts with other constituencies. Under Mubarak, a man with an iron fist, there was little room to develop a politically-conscious civil society.  Open discussion on the nature of State and Society was discouraged.  While people discussed socio-political issues within their own groupings, there was little cross-group discussion.  The society was pluralistic, but there were few people who were able to build bridges between groups.

Although the Brotherhood had spoken of an “Islamic renaissance”, once in power they had no clear policy as to what to do beyond the charity — handouts of food and medical services — which they had done traditionally.  “Islamic law” was seen as a series of restrictions but not as a positive policy of governing.

Judge Adli Mansour of the Constitutional Court has been named interim President with a mandate to organize new elections and to set up a committee of experts to write a new constitution.  However, a constitution needs to reflect a wide agreement on values and institutions.  There is no such agreement in Egypt.  The model of Turkey — a secular reformist state with a prominent role for the army — once held out as a possibility — is now under strain even in Turkey.  An Islamist state based on restrictions on personal matters but without a coherent socio-economic policy is under strain even in Iran.  The political debates of Egypt have an impact on the wider Middle East and need to be followed carefully.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.