Secular organizations do not appear ready to face the challenge of normal politics. There are two major reasons for this: structural conditions—secular parties are controlled by an elite with poor ties to the general population—and political choices—since Mubarak’s downfall they have not made the massive effort to create the political organizations they need to compete in elections, but have instead focused on getting the courts and the SCAF to curb the rise of Islamists
Eighteen months after the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak and opened a protracted power struggle between the old secular elite and rising Islamists, Egyptians are still struggling to accept the idea that Egypt’s future should be determined by democratic political contestation, rather than by the street, politicized courts, and the military. The alternative to normal politics is the continuing state of insecurity. This barely contained chaos has kept the country on edge, prevented progress toward a new political system, and contributed to worrisome economic deterioration, with foreign reserves plummeting from $36 billion in October 2010 to $15 billion in October 2012.
On a recent visit to the country, it was clear to me that Egypt is now inching closer to normal politics and that secularists will be forced to compete directly with Islamists for popular support in order to gain power or even to become a viable political opposition. But their resistance to normal politics remains high. They are finding it difficult to develop a message with broad appeal and to get organized, bringing together the different strands of a secular opposition that appears to consist largely of leaders without a structure to back them.
The secularists’ resistance to normal politics remains high. They are finding it difficult to develop a message with broad appeal and to get organized, bringing together the different strands of a secular opposition that appears to consist largely of leaders without a structure to back them.
Since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, secularists have tried, initially with some success, to leverage the role of the military and the courts, particularly the Supreme Constitutional Court, in order to contain the political advantage enjoyed by the undoubtedly better organized and probably more popular Islamists. Islamists won parliamentary elections decisively and, in the opinion of observers, fairly. But the Supreme Constitutional Court, in a decision that appeared as rooted in politics as it was in jurisprudence, declared the election law unconstitutional and disbanded the parliament. The military kept power firmly in its hand, until suddenly withdrawing, at least ostensibly, on August 12. Secularists also repeatedly turned to the streets to advance their cause, but so did Islamists, with neither side gaining a clear advantage.
The day is fast approaching though when secular parties will be forced to confront Islamists in a normal political process. The military has now withdrawn from open political fray, although it remains a matter of speculation how much power it still wields behind the scenes or under what conditions it might reassert an open political role for itself. The courts have become much more hesitant in issuing controversial decisions. An administrative court repeatedly postponed ruling on the legality of the Constituent Assembly before turning the decision over to the Supreme Constitutional Court on October 23, ensuring the draft constitution will be ready, and possibly approved in a referendum, before the court ever issues its ruling. And although both secularists and Islamists still turn to the streets to press their demands, protests are becoming more difficult to organize and more dangerous, with violence between secularists and Islamists becoming increasingly frequent and both sides losing out as a result.
Neither Islamists nor secular parties completely accept the primacy of the political process yet. Not surprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood is closer to accepting normal politics than secular parties. This is not because of superior wisdom or commitment to democracy, but because the political process has so far favored them. Islamists won the elections for president and the now dissolved People’s Assembly. Secular parties scoff at these victories, dismissing them as the result of machinations on the part of “an organized minority” rather than a sign of genuine popular support. There is no doubt that in the first round of the presidential election, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi only received about 25 percent of the vote and barely obtained a majority in the second round. But the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Al-Nour Party won 70 percent of the seats in the parliamentary elections—confirming the importance of organization and belying the idea that Islamists are a mere minority.
The battle for power between secularists (or liberals as they prefer to be called) and Islamists has been going on for decades in Egypt, and Islamists have always lost. But secularist political forces in the past did not win through normal politics. Rather, they enjoyed the protection of autocratic regimes that repressed Islamists but found an accommodation of sorts with secular forces—as long as they played by the rules and did not become too critical of the regime, as leftist parties sometimes did. Secularists have lost the protection of the Mubarak regime and are losing the backing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the courts. The question is whether secularists can hold their own politically without such protection.
The battle for power between secularists (or liberals as they prefer to be called) and Islamists has been going on for decades in Egypt, and Islamists have always lost. But secularist political forces in the past did not win through normal politics. Rather, they enjoyed the protection of autocratic regimes that repressed Islamists but found an accommodation of sorts with secular forces. Secularists have lost the protection of the Mubarak regime and are losing the backing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the courts. The question is whether secularists can hold their own politically without such protection.
Dodging Normal Politics
The confrontation between Islamists and secularists after Mubarak’s fall started openly in March 2011, when the SCAF called for a referendum on a set of amended articles of the 1971 constitution. Islamists urged their followers to approve the amendments, while secularists opposed them because approval would pave the way for early elections in which the better organized Islamists would have an advantage.
This disagreement over the constitutional referendum set the tone of the battle to this day: Islamists favored a democratic process and secularists sought to annul the results of the parliamentary elections through the courts and at times stooped to direct appeals to the military to nominate an interim president from their ranks and postpone elections.
The SCAF and the Courts
Egyptians initially welcomed the takeover of governing functions by the SCAF as a stopgap measure between the collapse of the old regime and the return of a normal and hopefully more democratic political process. But as the transition stretched on for months, and the courts’ intervention threatened to prolong it indefinitely, questions arose whether the military truly saw its role as temporary or Egypt had simply traded an autocratic regime with a civilian façade for an equally autocratic military one.
After much uncertainty about the transition process, Egypt appeared to be making clear progress in early 2012. By the end of February both houses of parliament were inaugurated and in March they had elected a 100-member Constituent Assembly, as required by the SCAF’s 2011 constitutional declaration. But the parliament was dominated by Islamists and not surprisingly the majority of Constituent Assembly members were also Islamists. The appalled secularists turned to the courts. The courts undid the result of elections in a sweeping set of decisions that has been likened to a judicial coup. This reversed progress toward normal politics, leading the SCAF to reassert its control and leaving many Egyptians fearful that the military wanted to remain in power.
In April, a first decision by a lower-level administrative court declared the Constituent Assembly illegal because of its composition, including the presence of members of parliament. This postponed the writing of the constitution. A new Constituent Assembly was formed on June 8 after much negotiating among political forces, but the legality of that body was again called into question because parliament had elected some of its own members to the assembly. Politically, the standing of the new Constituent Assembly was also undermined by a Supreme Constitutional Court decision that on June 14 declared the parliamentary election law to be unconstitutional, leading to the dissolution of the lower house of parliament on June 16 (the upper house continues to meet with court cases challenging its legality still undecided). The second Constituent Assembly was not dissolved by the ruling, but it was left in limbo with dozens of court cases asking for its dissolution pending in front of administrative courts.
The military is back in its barracks, bringing the secular parties one step closer to needing to stand up to Islamists on their own and only by political means. Parallel to the military’s withdrawal from politics has been a growing unwillingness of the courts to take on decisions with major political implications.
Initially, it appeared that the courts had dealt secularists and the SCAF a major victory. Indeed, the SCAF moved so quickly to reassert its own position as to raise questions about its stated commitment to surrender executive power to the president once he was elected. With the presidential election run-off scheduled for June 16 and 17, the SCAF on June 17 issued an addendum to its 2011 constitutional declaration. This essentially strengthened its own power vis-à-vis the soon to be elected president, particularly concerning all things military, and confirmed that it would continue to exercise legislative power until the election of a new parliament. The SCAF, it seemed, wanted to make sure that if Mohamed Morsi won the run-off over Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the old regime, the president’s power would be curbed.
Then the unexpected happened. Morsi won the elections by a narrow margin and the SCAF accepted the victory after much speculation that it would declare Shafiq the winner instead. And on June 30, Morsi was inaugurated as president to the consternation of many Egyptians.
Even more unexpectedly, only a month later on August 12, the transfer of power from the SCAF to the elected president was completed. First, President Morsi announced the retirement of the head of the SCAF and minister of defense, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. He was replaced by another career officer, General Abdel Fatah Said El Sissy, in a maneuver that had clearly been agreed with the military in advance as it generated no complaints. On the same day, Morsi nullified the SCAF’s June 17 addendum to the constitutional declaration, thus reacquiring full presidential powers. He also took on legislative authority until the election of the new parliament, as well as the authority to appoint a new Constituent Assembly if the current one fails. The SCAF accepted both the new appointments and the loss of exclusive control on all things military.
The SCAF and the military have not weighed in on political issues since that time. The military’s official line is that its withdrawal from politics is complete and permanent, since it only intervened to save the country from chaos in the transitional period. There is no doubt that the military’s attention is presently focused on the difficult task of re-establishing security in the Sinai Peninsula. It is impossible to say at this point what, if anything, could cause the military to flex its political muscle again. But the military is back in its barracks, bringing the secular parties one step closer to needing to stand up to Islamists on their own and only by political means.
Parallel to the military’s withdrawal from politics has been a growing unwillingness of the courts to take on decisions with major political implications. The administrative court, after postponing the decision on the fate of the Constituent Assembly several times, ruled on October 23 that it did not have jurisdiction on the case, because the composition of the assembly had been decided by a law voted on by the parliament before it was dissolved and later signed by President Morsi. This meant that only the Supreme Constitutional Court could rule on the constitutionality of the law establishing the assembly, although other aspects of the case might revert to administrative court afterwards. Since a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court is bound to take time and the Constituent Assembly has announced that it is close to completing the draft of the constitution, there is a definite possibility that the constitution will have been submitted to a referendum before a decision has been issued. This will make it difficult for the court to undo.
At present, secular parties have failed to develop a new language to reach out to broad constituencies. Furthermore, some secular leaders, inexplicably, openly dismiss lower class Egyptians as hopelessly ignorant, a poor tactic for parties that will need to get votes.
The withdrawal of the judiciary from the political fray is not complete yet, although the courts appear more reluctant to take on issues with far-reaching political implications than they did in the early summer. On the same day as the administrative court decided that it could not rule on the Constituent Assembly, the prosecutor general called for an investigation into President Morsi’s election on suspicion of fraud. Yet, the writing is clearly on the wall that the military and the courts are no longer willing or able to halt the return to normal politics indefinitely.
Coalitions Round Robin
Secular organizations do not appear ready to face the challenge of normal politics. There are two major reasons for this: structural conditions—secular parties are controlled by an elite with poor ties to the general population—and political choices—since Mubarak’s downfall they have not made the massive effort to create the political organizations they need to compete in elections, but have instead focused on getting the courts and the SCAF to curb the rise of Islamists. The structural causes are hard to address since they are rooted in the character of Egyptian society. The political weaknesses are largely self-inflicted and could be corrected relatively easily, although this does not appear likely to happen.
Structurally, Egypt is a deeply stratified society, with a small, well-educated, rather Westernized upper class and a large, poor population rife with illiteracy. The upper class tends to be secular, although it does not like to be defined as such, and the mass of the population is conservative and pious. The social distance between the elite and the rest of the population is large, and social mobility seems to be frowned upon. Members of the elite, for example, look down on Morsi for coming from an uneducated family and having a traditionally-dressed wife, rather than expressing appreciation for the fact that he managed to rise from humble origins to get a doctorate from an American university, teach in the United States, and eventually ascend to the Egyptian presidency.
The theme of the ignorance of the majority is constantly used by members of the elite to explain the Muslim Brotherhood’s success. Similarly, members and even leaders of the Brotherhood tend to be written off as ignorant by definition—the Islamists, a critic told me, have packed the Constituent Assembly with toc-toc drivers, a reference to the three-wheeled motorcycle taxis that provide cheap transportation in poor neighborhoods.
Some organizations are turning to the Nasserite legacy in trying to develop broader appeal. This represents the best chance secular parties have to break the Islamists’ monopoly on the ideas historically at the center of mass political parties in most countries: the condemnation of social inequality and injustice.
There have been periods in Egypt’s modern history when the secular elite reached out successfully across class lines by appealing to common interests. The leaders of al-Wafd were members of the elite, but could reach out to a larger segment of the population by mobilizing widespread nationalistic sentiments against the British. And in the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s mixture of nationalism and socialism also mobilized people across class lines. At present, secular parties have failed to develop a new language to reach out to broad constituencies. Furthermore, some secular leaders, inexplicably, openly dismiss lower class Egyptians as hopelessly ignorant, a poor tactic for parties that will need to get votes.
The exception to the absence of a popular message in the past have been the parties on the left that are ideologically inclined to reach out to lower class Egyptians, but still unsuccessful in developing a real following. More recently, and particularly since the presidential elections, some organizations are turning to the Nasserite legacy in trying to develop broader appeal. While it is too early to know how successful they will be, it is a development worth watching. In fact, it represents the best chance secular parties have to break the Islamists’ monopoly on the ideas historically at the center of mass political parties in most countries: the condemnation of social inequality and injustice.
This possible Nasserite revival became evident during the presidential elections. Hamdeen Sabahi, founder of the al-Karama Party and a former leader of the Nasserite Party, unexpectedly emerged as one the foremost vote winners in the first round of the presidential elections. Sabahi’s success, apparently due to his personal appeal, ideological stance, and deep roots in the Delta region, revived interest in Nasserite ideas, showing their potential to attract voters. In a striking development in recent weeks, the image of Nasser has appeared with increasing frequency at political demonstrations organized by secular parties.
Whether or not some secular organizations will be able to leverage Nasser’s legacy into a message with broad popular appeal today, it is clear that they are not making much progress in organizing. Secular organizations are aware in theory that to compete against the Islamists they must unite and organize, but so far they are doing neither. Secular leaders will not defer to each other and none of them brings to the table a real organization. In fact, several of them may be dismissing the importance of organizing after receiving millions of votes in the presidential elections on the basis of their name alone.
It is quite possible that as a result of their inexperience and arrogance and the intractability of Egypt’s socio-economic problems, Islamists will lose some support in the coming elections. The weakness of secular parties, however, may keep them from taking advantage of the opportunity.
In addition to Morsi, four presidential candidates did well in the first round of the election: Ahmed Shafiq, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Amr Moussa. Buoyed by their success, all of them still have political ambitions. With the partial exception of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who as a former Muslim Brother is conscious of the importance of creating a structure, none of the former candidates has a strong grassroots constituency at this point, which is a real handicap in parliamentary elections where the personal charisma of one man cannot carry an entire party to victory.
Nevertheless, all of them have formed their own political organizations, and Mohamed ElBaradei, who did not run for president believing the system was not sufficiently democratic, has done the same. In theory, secular parties and personalities are trying to join together in broad coalitions. The problem is that the same parties and personalities tentatively join several coalitions, creating a truly bewildering landscape. It is virtually impossible to know for sure who is allied with whom on any particular day.
Al-Wafd has joined in the Egyptian National Alliance with Amr Moussa, but Moussa also has his own Egyptian Conference Party that has reached out to many liberal organizations and personalities, which ElBaradei’s Dostour is also courting. In the meantime, al-Wafd wants to join with others, but does not want to let its name be subsumed in any other organization, because it sees its historic name as a major asset. It is never clear whether Sabahi is concentrating on his own Egyptian Popular Current or wants to form a new Nasserite party that would bring together all Nasserite and pan-Arabist organizations under his leadership. Perhaps the most consistent parties are those on the left as they are less dominated by big name personalities and less inclined to shop around from coalition to coalition. Yet the Democratic Revolutionary Coalition leftist parties formed has not shown any signs of life beyond its launch.
In general, secular parties are making little progress in uniting and organizing. As a disenchanted al-Wafd leader explained to me, in order to become effective secular parties would need to go through three steps: agree on a common program and message, form an electoral coalition, and finally merge into a single party. Thus far, they are barely beginning to tackle the first step. Instead, they are still playing round robins in a game of coalitions.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking. If the Constituent Assembly completes its work soon, as currently expected, parliamentary elections could be held early next year. But the secular parties are still a long way from being ready to contest an election. It is quite possible that as a result of their inexperience and arrogance and the intractability of Egypt’s socio-economic problems, Islamists will lose some support in the coming elections. The weakness of secular parties, however, may keep them from taking advantage of the opportunity. And that would be bad not just for them, but for the future of Egyptian democracy, which cannot thrive in the absence of at least two competitive political forces.
Marina Ottaway works on issues of political transformation in the Middle East and Gulf security. A long-time analyst of the formation and transformation of political systems, she has also written on political reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and African countries. Ottaway is the co-author, with Amr Hamzawy, of Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World (Carnegie, 2009)