What transition for Egypt?

Hicham Mourad , Saturday 16 Nov 2013

What is the fate of existing religious parties in Egypt, which have real popular support? And are we seeing the return of the former regime?

Mohamed Morsi is in jail and Hosni Mubarak was released from prison. This highly symbolic double movement, and oft-repeated soundbite, news of which toured the world, was for many evidence of the return of the old regime, overthrown by a popular uprising in February 2011. Although the facts are slightly different (Mubarak is still detained awaiting retrial for the murder of some 850 protesters, while Morsi has not been convicted), the headline was widely spread to emphasise the reversal of the political situation in favour of the officials of the Mubarak regime, the famous feloul, remnants and profiteers of the authoritarian old regime, often accused of corruption.

This feeling was reinforced by the removal, by the Committee of 10 — legal experts appointed by Interim President Adly Mansour to amend the 2012 Constitution, established under the Muslim Brotherhood — of the political and electoral ban on senior officials who belonged to the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP).

The problem with the question of whether or not there is a return to the old regime lies primarily in the definition of feloul — an elastic term that critics of the former regime tend to expand to include all those who seem to them potential political rivals, or belonging to the opposing liberal camp. Thus, former foreign minister (1990-2000) Amr Moussa, the current head of the Committee of 50 responsible for drafting the new constitution, was often the target of attacks by Islamist and revolutionary groups for his past links with the Mubarak regime. The appointment of Nabil Fahmi as the new foreign minister has also been criticised because he had served as ambassador to the United States under Mubarak.

The National Salvation Front (NSF), whose constituent parties are now the majority in the interim government, has often been criticised for having integrated former officials of the Mubarak regime. Khaled Daoud, the former NSF spokesman, rebutted such attacks, noting that for the NSF, the feloul are NDP members who participated in the elections of 2005 and 2010, or those who are prosecuted for corruption and that, as such, the NSF does not contain any.

However, we should ask the question properly. A return to power of the leading figures of the old regime is excluded, because they have lost all credibility in the eyes of the population. What about the policies of the current interim government, which remind some of those of the Mubarak regime? The interim government, as its name suggests, is transitional. It is expected to leave after the holding of legislative elections, scheduled in principle in Spring 2014. We should not therefore overestimate its role.

No one knows, however, the composition of the next government, which should be the product of the results of the upcoming legislative elections. One thing is certain: the Muslim Brotherhood, in total popular disgrace and subject to fierce repression, should be severely shaken. The interim government will have, however, laid the foundations of the new regime by drafting, via the committees of 10 and 50, dominated by liberals, a new constitution, free of the religious mark stamped by the Islamists under Morsi. But wasn't this the wish of those who made the revolution in 2011, who wanted a civil and democratic state?

Civil, yes, but democratic? In the current situation, it is difficult to say that Egypt has made significant progress. However, the question has to be analysed on two levels. The first is the legal texts governing the exercise of this right. Certainly the constitution being written, as also that of 2012, and the laws that would result on the formation of political parties and the exercise of political rights, would be a significant advance over the situation that prevailed under Mubarak, where the political space had been locked in favour of the dominant NDP and the president.

It remains the practice. It is safe to say, as experience has shown since 2011, that the texts are not sufficient and that attitudes must follow, as well at the level of voters, politicians and leaders. All were raised, lived and impregnated with a highly authoritarian political culture incompatible with the exercise of democracy. And it is certainly not overnight that these attitudes and mentalities will change to comply with democracy.

In short, Egypt can have a democratic legal structure, but in terms of true democrats, it fails. Democracy is something to build. Just cite the example of the United Kingdom, "the mother of democracies," which has built for centuries its democratic experience, without even having a written constitution.

The second level concerns the major problem of the relationship between the State and Islam or politics and Islam. It refers to religion-based political parties belonging to the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is subject to a campaign of fierce repression, which to its supporters and to various foreign countries, including the United States and the European Union, is an infringement of the nascent democracy. That may be true. It must, however, be qualified.

The original sin is undoubtedly that of those who were in power until 3 July and who turned against democracy in their conduct in power. Their incitement to violence and its use by at least some of their supporters, after the dismissal of Morsi, led the country into the acute crisis it still faces today. Although Salafist parties are not directly affected by the setbacks and the unknown fate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the crisis that started with the latter poses the problem of a blurring between politics and religion.

The new constitution will prohibit the creation of political parties based on religion. But the problem remains: What will happen to the existing religious parties, including the Salafist El-Nour Party, which have a real popular support? Would they be prohibited, at the risk of depriving an entire part of the electorate of its political representation? Would they be tolerated in defiance of the constitution and the law, as was the case — relatively speaking — with the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak?

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