Egypt’s Dilemma

Sadly, one year under president Mohamed Morsi has shown that the Islamists contributed more to dividing the country than to uniting it.

egypt protests 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
egypt protests 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent events in Egypt reveal the following dilemma: on the back of a powerless majority of moderate Egyptians who yearn for democracy, Egypt faces an epic battle between a secular military and a powerful Islamist movement, neither of which is deeply interested in democracy.
The Egyptian army’s secular tradition goes back to the country’s colonial legacy. Egypt’s independence struggle from England was also a fight against the Anglo-Saxon capitalist system. The ranks of the army were filled with peasants and intellectuals who favored socialist and pan-Arabic ideas. Early political leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt between 1956 and 1970, were secular Arab socialists. Their political survival always depended on the military’s support, so they made sure that the army wanted for nothing. As a result, the army grew into a powerful economic actor, running economic activities from bakeries to tourism resorts.
Like any economy that relies too much on socialist ideals, such as government organizations running businesses, the Egyptian economy eventually failed to provide enough jobs for a fast growing youth population. Egypt, like other countries, has been experimenting with alleged market reforms in recent decades, but it has had little success. As opposed to the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, where political leaders were replaced at the beginning of the economic reform process by democratic elections, Egypt’s reform attempts were carried out by those who led the country into a mess in the first place. The result has been dysfunctional crony capitalism. The lack of equal opportunity, fairness and justice has been fertile soil for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which since 1928 has been calling for a less secular and more Islamic Egypt while shrewdly increasing its popularity among economically marginalized segments of society.
After the failure of Arab socialism and the pseudo neo-liberal economic reforms, the Arab uprising paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to political power. With the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 and the first democratic presidential election in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to leave its political underground. This became a threat to the army and the secular youth. Historically, political Islam has only known authoritarianism; either in the opposition, such as under the secular authoritarian regime in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, or in power, such as in the authoritarian oil-rich Gulf economies and Iran. The fact that the Arab uprising brought the Muslim Brotherhood to political power in democratic elections was an unprecedented historical event.
Sadly, one year under president Mohamed Morsi has shown that the Islamists contributed more to dividing the country than to uniting it. Having won the presidential election by a slight margin, Morsi forgot that he was supposed to be the president of all Egyptians, not only those who want to give Egypt a more theocratic structure. Unfortunately, the opportunity to rise to power through elections preceded the democratic readiness of those being elected. Democratic consolidation requires a civil and political society that is built around a social contract, which defines the rules of the game and which is accepted by all political parties and by civil society. Such a social contract does not yet exist in Egypt. Instead the Muslim Brotherhood tried to use its electoral victory to enforce its own vision of a social contract - a vision that was unacceptable to the majority of Egyptians.  It tried to put the cart before the horse.
 Today, Egypt has two major political and economic actors who are well organized but inexperienced with operating within democratic structures. On the one side there is the secular army and on the other the Muslim Brotherhood. Between these two extremes, there is the popular majority of moderate Egyptians who simply want political freedom and equal economic opportunities. This majority is well connected through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which are useful social networks for organizing protests. But these online social networks have been unable to build a viable political platform with a political vision and a leadership that can receive a mandate from the people and command real political power. Until that happens, Egypt’s future remains fragile.
Marcus Marktanner is Associate Professor of Economics and International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University with substantial teaching and research experience in the Arab world.