• Reports
  • December 1, 2005
  • 7 minutes read

Battling with illusions

Battling with illusions
There is both less and more to the struggle between the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood than meets the eye, writes Samir Morcos*

Following the first two rounds of elections the political scene appears to have been reduced to a competition between the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Perhaps one of the most prominent features of this scene is the unprecedentedly high profile of MB candidates. The group entered the elections alone, without forming coalitions as had occurred in 1984 with the Wafd Party, and in 1987, 1990 and 1995 with the Labour Party. It acted independently of the United National Front for Change, whose candidates lost out to it.

National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates contested all electoral districts, the MB a majority, meaning that the electoral battle boiled down to a competition between the Brotherhood and the NDP. This is a continuation of the historical struggle between the Brotherhood and the ruling regime. But how so?

The primary political struggle in Egypt since the 1952 Revolution has been between the regime on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The political and intellectual currents that began to orbit around that struggle — blazing at one moment and characterised by concord the next — all became hostage to it in various forms.

During the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser the nature of the struggle revolved around the right of rule. Nasser’s political regime concentrated on securing social justice and meeting the needs of the middle and lower classes and the masses, supporting this approach, turned a blind eye to restrictions on political activity, freedom of expression and pluralism, and then later to the marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the creation of a special kind of pluralism within the framework of a single organisation.

During the time of President Anwar El-Sadat the regime opted to open the economy and allowed the MB to operate within closely demarcated boundaries. The MB fully exploited this new room for manoeuvre, winning the support of the middle and lower classes as it began to provide them with direct social services at a time when the state was withdrawing from the levels of service provision provided under Nasser.

From 1981 onwards the MB became a player in the democratic game, largely through the coalitions mentioned above. The relationship between the MB and the regime was thus transformed from one of conflict to one of competition between it and the political parties, specifically the ruling party.

That this is now the status quo has been underlined by the MB’s insistence on entering the elections alone. Acknowledgement of the new reality has come in several forms, not least the weak showing of the legal opposition parties and the admission, within the ruling party that the Brotherhood can no longer be ignored in practice. One ramification of the latter is the NDP’s failure to put new faces forward, or nominate a reasonable number of Coptic candidates. The ruling party is in a significant quandary when it comes to change, a dilemma that must be addressed while taking the following into consideration.

Despite the qualitative change in the political environment that has transformed the historical struggle between the political regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to the field of democratic competition the concepts that fuelled that historical struggle remain in place. One need simply review the statements issued by the leaders of the Brotherhood and the NDP to realise the truth of this statement.

The irony of the current competitive relationship is that the ruling party has begun to take an interest in service provision and in promoting the government as acting in the interest of the masses. It is attempting to regain the support of the middle and lower classes that the regime enjoyed in the 1960s and which it lost as it embraced the market economy. At the same time the MB is raising absolutist slogans that cannot be challenged without it seeming that the sacred is being denigrated, alongside a political programme that is vague to the extreme.

Whether intended or not, mobilisation under the umbrella of religion lends a sacred colouring to the public arena and political life, replacing the civil with the religious. It implies a re-drawing of political and civic life along religious lines. The irony here is that the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a public authority, echoes that of the totalitarian regime of the 1960s: the capital of both derived from what they could offer the middle and lower classes in terms of services.

In short, we are entering a phase of political plurality that has attracted only two players, one striving to regain the support of the masses it forgot in pursuit of a market economy, the other seeking to capture the masses in the interest of applying its absolutist slogans.

Change is the victim of all this. The price that will be exacted will be to delay the reforms needed to build a modern, civil state founded on citizenship, the law and a productive economy.

As it has grown more aware of its strength the Muslim Brotherhood has obstructed change in a manner that will have far more significant repercussions than just winning a few more parliamentary seats, a view confirmed by Fahmi Howeidi in his analysis of the groups, coalitions and movements promoting reform.

In Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper last July Mohamed Habib published a detailed statement on the MB’s position on Copts and the rights all citizens should enjoy. Such talk, though, has yet to be turned into action. The status quo has remained in place, and the process of reform delayed.

Despite attempts at mass mobilisation on the part of both the NDP and the MB less than 25 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote. Competition is effectively to an electoral minority who can choose between two parties whose policies actually differ only marginally. Compare the NDP’s position towards the market economy to, say, the position outlined by Habib in an article in Asharq Al-Awsat of 27 November 2005. It seems as though there is congruence between the rich and the religious.

The languages of money and religion now represent the primary means of communication between candidates and the limited portion of the electorate who actually vote. There is no longer any need to talk about ideas or policies, to present coherent electoral platforms that address the real concerns of the electorate, be they economic, political, cultural or social. Hardly surprising, then, to find some constituencies split evenly between the NDP and the MB — one can hardly force a razor blade between them.

Calls to integrate the Islamists into the democratic process have been heard for some time. Egypt’s long-term future, though, depends rather more on integrating the 75 per cent of the population who have opted to watch from the sidelines.

* The writer is a political researcher