What’s Next for Egypt: Democracy or the Fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood?

What’s Next for Egypt: Democracy or the Fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Wahid Abdel-Majid 

At a small party to mark the 60th birthday of Egyptian novelist Gamal Ghaitani on 9 May, Naguib Mahfouz was asked what he expected to happen in Egypt, in view of the rapidly developing events there. “It looks like Egypt wants to try the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mahfouz responded.

The greatest Arab writer was not just expressing a passing fancy, but wanted to warn about what might happen if slow democratic reform leads to a political crisis and radical change. Mahfouz is not alone in imagining “Brotherhood rule” in Egypt; he is joined by many politicians and intellectuals who believe the scenario to be plausible, if the reform process is not handled well in the coming months.

Either reform will expand and embrace change that is already underway in the country politically, guaranteeing a safe and smooth transition to a clearly democratic regime, or it will fail to do so, with the resulting impact taking place outside the political system, which could open the door to the unknown.

If this unknown leads to a political vacuum, many observers and concerned parties believe that the Brotherhood will be most able to fill the vacuum, due to its organizational superiority.

Rule by the Brotherhood could result from an inability to form a consensus on free elections, based on measures that enjoy a general agreement, and not on these elections themselves. However, some believe that rule by the Brotherhood could result from such elections. But this notion involves a great exaggeration because it assumes that Egypt is headed toward fundamentalism or rule by the Brotherhood in any case, whether or not reform is achieved. This exaggeration, which involve a “phobia” of one type or another, is one of the reasons for the slowness of the reform process that is underway in Egypt, along the lines of “one step forward, one step back.”

The constitutional amendment to change presidential elections from referendums to multi-candidate elections is one expression of this policy. A step forward came when President Husni Mubarak asked Parliament for the amendment, and a step back came when the elite of the authorities and the ruling party imposed difficult conditions on would-be presidential candidates. The insistence on these conditions regarding independent candidates resulted from the fear that a Brotherhood candidate would be in the running.

It’s actually a weak assumption, since the Brotherhood’s strategy has been based on “grass roots” politics. The group has been committed to this strategy in Egypt’s professional associations, where it does not contest the presidency of such organizations, despite controlling their executive councils, but rather backs candidates from outside its ranks. The success of this strategy makes it likely that it will be continued, and not overturned, i.e. the Brotherhood will not contest presidential elections.

Even if the Brotherhood changes its tactic and seeks the presidency instead of change from below, it will not be a negative development. A fundamentalist candidate will prompt other political and social forces to mobilize against him in a battle of “life or death.” When these groups, which nothing has been able to gather together, rely on the power of state institutions and civil society, the Brotherhood candidate will suffer a sound defeat. This will define the Brotherhood’s true size, allow the completion of democratic reform and see Egypt experience the transition safely. Truly competitive presidential elections would be the best transition point toward reform that would absorb the dynamic change that is taking place in Egypt today, whether or not a Brotherhood candidate runs.

If this opportunity is squandered, we continue to debate the true size and strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether justified or as a pretext to halt the reform process. Halting reform would give this movement a great opportunity to reap popular sympathy, as it is the group most subject to oppression during the current atmosphere of crisis produced by “snail’s pace reform.”

This sympathy could undergo change, depending on how the process of heading toward serious reform plays out regarding details and time-tables over the short term. The Brotherhood could be caught out by a public awaiting the groups’ political program, which it lacks until now. Moving toward serious reform, and seeing people convinced of this direction, would lead to a rollback of desperation and disgust, which have led the public to sympathize with this political movement.

The Brotherhood, moreover, would not gain a majority in parliamentary elections, but more like 20-25%, which would then drop, not rise. Some Brotherhood leaders have told me this privately. Guidance Council member Dr. Abdel-Monem Abul-Fattouh answered the same way when asked by Abdullah Sanawi, the editor of the Nasserist newspaper al-Arabi, saying he expected 20%. The ruling NDP would get 40-50%, as a leadership serious about reform could boost its popularity in relative terms.
In 2000, the NDP received about 41% of 187 seats, before members who split off to run as independents returned to the fold. However, these polls were free and fair only in the first round, when about one-third of MPs were elected. The failure of most ruling party candidates led to bureaucratic intervention in the second and third rounds. Without this intervention the NDP would have been able to gain only 25% of the seats.
Thus, free parliamentary elections as part of serious reform would mostly produce a Parliament with truly diverse political currents. This could lead to the formation of a coalition government led by the NDP and including a number of opposition parties and independents, with the Brotherhood leading a strong opposition.
This is the democratic scenario for Egypt that serious reform based on a clearly defined program will lead to. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood scenario, which some fear, can only be posed as one of the worst scenarios that will result if the “one step forward, one step back” policy of go-slow or superficial reform continues.