Hussein Ibish

Spring or winter in Egypt’s future?

One can begin to discern the outlines of a plausible power-sharing arrangement in Egypt emerging from the current transitional period, in which all major players secure their minimal objectives. It would essentially be a three-way division of authority between the existing military establishment, the new presidency and the new parliament.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is dominating the transitional period, but also has strong roots in the old regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Therefore, the military establishment is used to having de facto control of the most important elements of national security policy. Issues such as control and management of the borders with Libya, Sudan and, above all, Hamas-ruled Gaza; security arrangements with Israel pursuant to the peace treaty; and close military ties to the United States are all traditionally perceived as within the purview of Egyptian military authority.
It is hard to imagine the Egyptian military, now more or less in control of the process of transition, relinquishing authority on these matters to civilian control, particularly during a time of uncertainty, amid an evolving new system. Therefore, in one form or another, it is likely that defense and national security policy will continue to be dominated by the armed forces after the upcoming elections, whichever constitutional system emerges in the medium term.
Foreign policy, especially diplomacy and Egypt’s relations with the Arab world and the West, are more likely to be the domain of the new president, who will almost certainly be the former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. Moussa has long cultivated a populist appeal in Egyptian society and is the only established and experienced professional politician presently operating on the Egyptian scene.
The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is refusing to run a candidate for president, and is expelling members who put themselves forward for that post, is partly due to the desire to avoid a humiliating loss to Moussa. His long experience in Arab politics and with international relations generally makes Moussa well suited to establishing the presidency as a primary vehicle for articulating Egypt’s foreign policy.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also deliberately avoiding the presidency because it does not wish to alarm much of Egyptian society by seizing too much power too quickly and too publicly. The organization is concentrating its efforts on securing maximum representation in parliament, especially by building alliances with other parties and organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood is setting itself up as a domestic power-broker. In fact, it doesn’t have a defense policy to oppose that of the military. Apart from its generalized affinity with other Brotherhood parties and Islamists in the region, it doesn’t have a specific foreign policy to oppose that of a veteran like Moussa or others in the existing Egyptian foreign policy establishment.
For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have an economic or development strategy either. Islamism isn’t exactly a political ideology with a comprehensive vision of social relations and structures of governance. But what the Brotherhood does have is very strong views on the role of religion in society and, of course, a profoundly conservative and reactionary agenda.
An Egyptian parliament that is largely excluded from national security and foreign policy will be left to address domestic issues. These will include the social and cultural matters that are the main focus of the Muslim religious right such as the Brotherhood. It will also include crucial questions of fiscal, development, environmental, infrastructural and other policies which Brotherhood ideology, such as it is, does not address in any coherent manner.
Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties are likely to perform well in the upcoming parliamentary elections and will probably have a powerful bloc. Indeed, the current prime minister, Issam Sharaf, has suggested possibly delaying the scheduled September elections to give other parties a greater opportunity to organize themselves and possibly offset the Brotherhood’s existing advantages. That for now the Brotherhood will have to be content with domestic issues will not come as a huge disappointment to an organization founded on the mission to “Islamize” Egyptian society.
To protect the rights of minorities, women and individuals from the excesses of a potential Islamist-dominated or -brokered Egyptian parliament with broad powers on domestic issues, the other two centers of power – the military and the presidency – will also have to play the role of watchdog, drawing red lines around a parliamentary majority that begins to exhibit extremist tendencies. It is therefore essential that the emerging Egyptian constitution and system allow for the full participation of such religious parties, but not their use of possible legislative powers to abuse or oppress vulnerable groups.
The broader Arab world could not have higher stakes in Egypt’s ability to develop a functional power-sharing system that includes the division of authority, the participation of all peaceful parties including reactionary religious ones, and the protection of the rights of individuals, minorities and women. Egypt’s influence on the political direction of much of the rest of the Arab world will be enormous, if not decisive. If the Egyptian experiment disintegrates into chaos, direct or indirect protracted military rule, or the emergence of a tyrannous Islamist parliamentary majority, the “Arab Spring” will have well and truly become a winter of discontent.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.