Thursday, November 17, 2011

Egypt’s Constitutional Crisis: The Military versus the Islamists

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 155, November 16, 2011, by Prof. Hillel Frisch*:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Controversy has arisen over who will shape Egypt's constitution – the Islamists or the military-backed secularists. While the former seemingly holds the majority public vote, the latter holds the fire power, thus evening out the political battlefield. But if the chasm between these two opposing camps continues to widen, as may occur due to the recent controversy, civil war could erupt.

A controversial document proposing a new set of constitutional principles in Egypt has caused great fear over the country's political future. If this government-orchestrated doctrine becomes binding before the coming elections, it may lead to major civil strife. Technically, the issue revolves around a document. In essence, Egypt's soul and identity is at stake.

Those who support the adoption of these binding principles – which would have to be adopted as part of any future Egyptian constitution – want Egypt to become a “civic” state, one with civil liberties and irrevocable free election cycles. Opponents, however, claim that the new constitution should be drafted only after the elections, with the commensurate input of the political parties that are voted into government, and should not have to incorporate any of these principles.

This is why the two major political camps in Egypt today line up as they do. 

On one side of the divide, opposing the new principles, are the Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Freedom and Justice, the even more militant al-Nour, and the Building and Development party. The latter is the political wing of the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the former terrorist movement that made peace with the Mubarak regime after it was suppressed. Altogether, these three parties could easily win an absolute majority of votes in the coming elections.

On the other side of the divide stands the military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the present government it nominated, and most, though not all, of the “secular” parties. While the majority of young Egyptians fit somewhere into this camp, at least one of the more radical youth parties is actually taking the same stand as the Islamists as they share a mutual objective of preventing the military from continuing to rule Egypt.  

Even if the political divide isn’t exactly fifty-fifty, the chasm between the two camps frightfully resembles the kind of division that might pave the way for civil war. This division hardly reflects public opinion on the matter of the new constitution. Rather, argue the Islamists, the drafting of a new constitution or of a binding document of general principles that would guide the drafters of the constitution after the elections was already decided in a March 2011 referendum.

In that referendum, Egyptians were given the choice of drafting a completely new constitution prior to the elections or making do with minor amendments to the existing constitution, which was last modified in 1980, a year before Anwar Sadat's assassination. The Islamists supported only minor amendments with the secular parties almost overwhelmingly supporting a complete revamp. The reason the Islamists only sought minor changes was clear. The 1980 constitution had been modified to placate the Islamists then by rendering religious law (shari‘a) “the” source, as opposed to “a” source, of Egyptian law. They hardly wanted to see it go.  

The referendum outcome was decisively aligned with the position of the Islamists: 77 percent of voters favored minor amendments while only 23 percent backed the “secular” stance – a complete constitution overhaul.

Though these two camps are hardly equal in the electoral sense, they may still be equal in political power. The Islamists have the numbers, but the secular camp, embarrassing as it may be for the liberals among them, has more fire power and guns, at least for the time being due to their alliance with the SCAF.

The SCAF knows that the issue of binding constitutional principles is of critical importance. That is why it has zigzagged between diametrically opposing stances. In March, it supported the Islamists’ position, but now it has moved to placate the opposing minority and to assure its own interests. The draft of new principles written by the government has named the armed forces the guardian of the Egyptian state and its budget immune from parliamentary oversight. The Islamic parties have vowed to overturn such a document.

Will the conflict degenerate into civil war?

Debates over constitutions and constitutional principles have frequently found their resolution in assemblies or constitutional courts but they have also often been decided violently in street fights and even on battlefields.

Egypt may be able to avert such disaster on the basis of three factors. First, although former Presidents Sadat and Mubarak are vilified in present-day Egyptian discourse, and despite their authoritarian legacy, they did maintain a dialogue of sorts with the Muslim Brotherhood. Arrests were certainly part of this "dialogue," yet these leaders did not engage in killings or blood baths as were common under the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood, at least as a religious and social movement (as opposed to a political party), was always allowed to operate in the open. Most of the Islamists responded in kind by refraining from terror activities. There is, then, a history of mutual restraint.

Second, the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of Egypt’s economic predicament. Unlike Islamic Iran, which reaps $70 dollars annually from oil and gas that it can sell under almost all political conditions, Egypt is an ecologically fragile state of 80 million people living on 50,000 square kilometers, characterized by an economy with great international exposure. Its economic prospects, therefore, are highly dependent on maintaining good political and economic relations with the US and EU and on the maintenance of regional stability. These factors are critical to its tourism industry, which makes up 12 percent of its GDP. They are similarly vital in preserving revenues from the Suez Canal, expanding industrial exports, and securing international aid. The willingness of the West to deal with the future regime will be highly dependent on the Egyptian military's autonomy and power in the future regime. Thus, the Islamists might baulk at an open confrontation.

A third factor in subduing tensions between the military and the Islamists is ironically the genuine religiosity that characterizes the Egyptian army, including its high command. The Egyptian army, in this sense, cannot serve as a target for the Islamists in Egypt in the same way that the secular Turkish army has been targeted by the Islamist AKP-led government in Ankara.  

Mutual restraint and painful compromise will be necessary to avert civil strife in the most important and populous state in the Arab world. Given Egypt’s strategic importance, we should be following the issue with considerable concern.

*Hillel Frisch is an associate professor in political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. His book, Israel’s Security and its Arab Citizens, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

 and from The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2011, by Marina Ottaway:


Egypt faces three major and related political challenges to a successful democratic transition:
  • the role the military is playing and will continue to play; 
  • the presence of powerful Islamic forces, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Salafi groups and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya; and...
  • the growing reluctance of some self-proclaimed democrats to put the future of the country in the hands of a democratic process. 
The way these challenges are handled in the coming months will determine whether Egypt moves toward democracy or sinks into a new authoritarianism. 

Unless Islamists and liberals manage to find a modus vivendi in the coming months [which is highly unlikely - SL], the outcome will be a new authoritarianism, with an alliance between the military and so-called liberals as a more likely outcome than a takeover by radical Islamists.

Follow this link for an Egyptian election guide.

The Military
Judging simply on the official pronouncements of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been acting as a sort of collective presidency in Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the military does not constitute an obstacle to a democratic transition....

...But there is also evidence that contradicts the official narrative. First, there is no way to determine whether the SCAF speaks for itself or for the entire military. There is no information from open sources about what may be happening within the military below the top ranks represented in the SCAF, and there are reasons to believe that classified sources are equally uninformative.

As a result, nobody knows for sure whether there are groups in the military with different political ambitions. ...The sudden appearance in late October of a “campaign” to elect Field Marshall Tantawi as president leaves little doubt that at least some elements in the military want power to remain in the hands of the military.

Second, while the SCAF does not want to replace a civilian government, it has no intention of subordinating itself to one; instead, it wants to remain free of civilian oversight, particularly where its budget and its economic interests are concerned. There is a great deal of speculation concerning how much of the Egyptian economy the military truly controls, with estimates ranging from 5 to 40 percent. But it is known that the economic assets of the military include industrial enterprises, construction companies, Red Sea resorts, and, probably most importantly, vast tracts of land, in addition to the more traditional industrial enterprises that have long been in military hands.
Third, it is becoming evident that the military is no longer in a hurry to relinquish power and that it is interested in influencing the outcome of elections before it does so. ...until presidential elections take place, the military will continue to rule because Egypt has a presidential system in which the prime minister and cabinet are responsible to the president, not to parliament, and the SCAF is acting in lieu of a president...
... on November 1 the government  released a controversial draft of supra-constitutional principles and other documents that include a secrecy clause protecting the military budget from parliamentary oversight, give the military the right to refer the new constitution to the Supreme Constitutional Court if it is thought to violate any of the constitutional declarations issued by the military, and stipulate that the military can replace the constitutional commission if it does not produce a constitution in the allotted six months. A new announcement on November 3, furthermore, declared that the military would directly appoint eighty of the one-hundred members of the constitutional commission, leaving the elected parliament to only appoint twenty.
Finally, there are signs that the military looks favorably on the return to politics of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It has so far resisted pressure to ban former NDP members from running for office. Furthermore, the military has also rejected the demand of most political parties that all parliamentary seats be filled by proportional representation, insisting instead that one third (down from one half) be reserved for individual candidates. This is believed to favor former NDP members, many of whom had built strong clientelistic networks.
... there are reasons to worry about the role of the military and how it will affect the possibility of a democratic transition.

The Islamists
... The Muslim Brotherhood has formed a separate political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Al-Wasat, an old splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood that had tried unsuccessfully to register as a party for over 15 years, also received approval. Some younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood have started showing their independence, first participating in the uprising even as their elders were holding back, joining forces with other youth groups, and finally forming the Egyptian Current Party (al-Tayyar al-Masry) as well as the smaller al-Reyada.

More surprising, Salafis, long considered to be mostly apolitical or silent backers of the old regime as long as they were left alone, have entered the political fray forming an array of political parties, of which an-Nour, al-Asala, and al-Fadila are the best known but not the only ones. And al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a movement that burst on the Egyptian political scene with the assassination of Sadat in 1981, but whose leaders then repented after much doctrinal re-examination encouraged by long imprisonment, entered the legal political arena by launching its own Building and Development Party. Finally, Sufis also created at least two political parties: the Egyptian Sufi Liberation Party (al-Tahrir al-Masry al-Sufi) and the Voice of Freedom Party (Sawt al-Hurriya).
... the new parties are unlikely to have anything approaching the capacity for organization of the Freedom and Justice Party, which can draw on the Muslim Brotherhood’s structures. The Brotherhood has a proven track record of efficient organization ...there is no doubt that the FJP enjoys advantages that recently formed Islamist parties lack.

But the Freedom and Justice Party has not been able to corral all Islamist parties into its Democratic Alliance, despite considerable effort. On the contrary, it has alienated them to the point that most of them have joined a separate Islamic Alliance competing against the Brotherhood. The split appears to be due to political rivalries rather than ideological differences—the new parties wanted to have much larger representation on the joint electoral lists than the Freedom and Justice Party was willing to give them.  

The Illiberal Democrats
Illiberal democrats are Egyptians who advocate democracy ...but in the end are ...worried that democracy will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power ... Most democracy advocates do not fall into this category, of course, but since committed democrats are not an obstacle to democracy, they need not be discussed here.

Democratic transitions are difficult processes and entail a great deal of uncertainty. There is never any guarantee that democratic processes, particularly free elections, will produce a democratic outcome in the form of a parliamentary majority committed to democratic principles and governance.
...Those who wanted the constitution to be written by a non-elected body were self-professed democracy advocates fearful that an elected body would not produce a constitution embodying the principles they supported and were thus ready to sacrifice the idea of popular participation ...
... the measures advocated by those who do not want an elected body to write the constitution have become increasingly undemocratic, although they are proposed in the name of democracy. One is the imposition of a set of “supraconstitutional” principles that the constitutional commission must abide by, and that can never be amended... that elections should be postponed and that the SCAF should transfer power to a powerful prime minister of liberal persuasion for an indefinite period of time and under the patronage of the military...

...The fear of secular-oriented individuals about the possibility that Islamists might try to put their imprint on the constitution is understandable, just as the fear of communism in Western Europe after World War I was understandable....In Egypt, the Mubarak regime owed its longevity in part to the acquiescence of people who professed a desire for democracy but in the end preferred the relative security of the status quo to the uncertainty of change.
The military, Islamist parties, and illiberal democrats are all obstacles to a democratic outcome of the Egyptian transition...

The willingness of illiberal democrats to choose a prolonged period of military control ...could lead to the reemergence of a regime similar to the ousted Mubarak one...

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