Egypt: A new beginning?

Al-Sisi will in all likelihood offer a compromise acceptable to the majority of Egyptians who are in favor of at least part of Shari’a law.

An Egyptian soldier stands guard on the streets of Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Egyptian soldier stands guard on the streets of Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A constitution is being drafted in Egypt, as part of an attempt to build a new type of regime – a more democratic one.
In a lengthy interview in Al-Ahram online on November 23, well-known publicist Mohamed Salmawy, who is the media spokesman for the 50- member committee mandated with writing the final draft, said: “The preamble forms an integral part of the constitution, explaining its philosophy and stressing in clear terms that it reflects the goals of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions,” in reference, respectively, to the 2011 uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak and the 2013 inauguration of Mohamed Morsi to the position, which he lost days later in a coup d’état. The goals, Salmawy said, are defined as “achieving social justice, national independence, freedoms and rights, and separating religion from politics.”
In short, he said, “The constitution is for a civilian, democratic and modern state in Egypt.”
It would indeed be a sea change in the relations between state and religion in the largest Arab state. Ultra-religious Salafi party al-Nour immediately voiced its opposition.
What remains to be seen is the definite draft, which is scheduled to be made public on December 3.
However, even if the constitution is ratified by referendum, Egypt is not going to turn its back on Islam, which has been the basis of its culture for the past 1,400 years. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s strongman, has the reputation of being a conservative Muslim open to democratic values; he will in all likelihood see to it that the new constitution offers a compromise acceptable to the majority of Egyptians who are in favor of at least part of Shari’a law.
The interim regime is still progressing according to the road map that Sisi made public when he handed over the power to civilian hands a few days after Morsi’s arrest and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a leading member. The Brotherhood’s brief reign is now history; as can be seen in the preamble, the revolution that toppled them is lumped together with that which saw the end of the Mubarak era. If the constitution is ratified in the referendum to be held in late December or early January, it will formally close that chapter.
The Brotherhood has yet to accept the fact that they have lost a regime which they gained democratically after 80 years of overt and covert fighting.
They cannot cope with the thought that their dream of a country ruled by the Shari’a will now never materialize.
They still have the support of the international branches of the Brotherhood, and may keep fighting to restore Morsi to the presidency by claiming that he is the legitimately elected ruler; however, no one is paying attention anymore, with the noted exception of Turkey. Even the US, which suspended part of its military aid to Egypt to show its displeasure, is now backtracking, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the revolution had been “stolen” by the Brotherhood.
True, the Brotherhood and their supporters are still a force to be reckoned with; they can still send protesters to the streets, but in ever diminishing numbers. What they can do is keep up the incitement leading, directly or indirectly, extremist Islamists to launch terrorist attacks in Sinai or in the mainland to foment instability and hamper economic recovery, but the army is slowly getting the upper hand. What they cannot do is stop the new regime, which enjoys unprecedented popular and media support, from imposing its authority.
According to the road map, elections to the parliament and to the presidency will be held within four months of the ratification of the constitution.
Sisi, who is minister of defense and deputy prime minister, has shown himself to be a strong leader, determined to implement his program without being deterred by those who “seek to harm Egypt.”
In all his speeches, he emphasizes that he will protect the independence of his country and work to set up a democratic regime free from religious extremism. To the foreign press, he says that he wants to preserve the relations between Egypt and the United States, and does not understand why Washington is turning its back on a country which has been a faithful ally for decades. At the same time, he is not afraid of standing up to American pressure, or of reacting swiftly to Turkey’s support for the Brotherhood.
Sisi lost no time in warming up relations with Russia and hosting both the foreign and defense ministers in Cairo.
Egypt even declared that it was considering buying weapons from Russia, and hinted it might go ahead with its plan to build a nuclear plant – while Russia said it would be happy to help.
At the same time, Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Fahmy repeatedly said that Egypt wants closer ties with the West.
After all, in their wish to build a modern and democratic country, Egyptians are the West’s natural allies; they need Western technology and Western investments to develop their failing economy.
The next few months will be decisive. There are three electoral tests ahead: ratification of the constitution, parliamentary elections and presidential elections.
How ready are the political parties? Will the secular and non-Islamist parties find common ground and present a united front to the Islamists, who can probably muster some 25% of the votes? There are reports to the effect that the three main non-Islamic parties – the Liberals, the Nasserites and the Left – are weighing the possibility of running on the same list, but nothing is definite yet.
The youth organizations who were instrumental in both revolutions – the “Sixth of April” movement and the “Tamarud” – have not yet taken a stand. They may all be waiting to see what Sisi will do. Will he enter the fray and declare he will run for the presidency, or will he back another candidate? It is safe to assume from his recent interviews that he has not made up his mind. He is probably afraid that if he declares his candidacy, people will say that this is an attempt to restore a military dictatorship, even though he would in all probability be easily elected because of his immense popularity.
Then there is the security angle. A few spectacular terrorist attacks would seriously hamper the electoral process and force the regime to restore the state of emergency.
That being said, the ultimate test for the regime will be the economy. For the time being, the government has decided not to curtail subsidies granted to most staples thanks to the generous cash inflow it gets from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait. The ministers are well aware that it must be temporary, and that painful reforms will be needed to make the economy more efficient in order to mend fences with international financial institutions.
While Egypt is struggling on its new path to greater democracy and freedom, the West is still treating it with suspicion instead of coming to its help.
Yet the country will need strength and determination to go on at a time when Arab countries are imploding and radical Islam is on the rise, aided and abetted by Al-Qaida and Iran. One can only hope that its new leaders can keep on course – and that the West will at long last understand where its own interests lie.