The events of the past three weeks since Mubarak’s departure may give us a glimpse of the emerging political landscape in Egypt, and it’s very different from the traditional views.
The traditional analysis of the Egyptian political landscape focuses on three groups. First, there is the traditional right, center and left, represented through the existing parties, which has very limited presence in the street and organizing power. Second, there are also the religious conservative movements, with the Muslim Brotherhood being the most prominent; however, there are also many other groups and organizations like AlJama’a Al-Islameyya, the Sufi movements, Al-Wasat Party, and Amr Khaled youth movements or the likes. The third group is the ruling elite that congregated under the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was a broad centrist coalition representing the state, business interests, and traditional families and powers in the governorates.
However, history tells us that revolutions have strong disruptive forces that can reshape the political landscape, and that politics makes strange bedfellows! And this is what we may witness over the next weeks and months.
I can see two emerging anchors for the Egyptian politics fermenting, and I would label them as “Tahrir Square Party”, and “Moustafa Mahmoud Square Party” – two new coalitions for Liberals and Conservatives in the true sense of the word.
The former, “Tahrir Square Party”, is a broad coalition of individuals and organizations that took to the streets on January 25th, led by youth and organized through FaceBook, and who stayed in the square until others started joining, and until they toppled Mubarak and his regime; and are still in the streets every Friday persistently demanding their full set of demands. They want to see deep change in the society that reshapes its institutions, and promotes political freedoms and social justice. The core group is mostly educated youth. They are willing to take the risk of rapid change, despite the potential turbulence, rather than taking the risk of slow change, which may lead us back to the status quo.
The later, “Moustafa Mahmoud Square Party”, is the exact opposite. This square, and its demonstrators, has grown to be the symbol of the Mubarak supporters in the final days of the revolutions. Many of those who supported Mubarak congregated there, first supporting his regime, as a symbol of stability, and then supporting a dignified exit for him, out of loyalty for someone they have lived with for three decades. Some of them wanted him to stay, albeit with symbolic powers, in fear of “chaos” if he suddenly departs. They then supported Omar Suleiman, the Intelligence Chief who was appointed as a Vice President, followed by Shafiq, the interim Prime Minister. This is the constituency of stability and security. They oppose rapid change and want slow transition. They are anxious for their personal economic interests and their day-to-day livelihood.
Both parties are ideologically inconsistent; however, politics makes strange bedfellows. On the one hand, the “Tahrir Square Party” is liberal in the sense that it advocates reform, progress, protection of civil liberties. However it includes individuals from varying (and sometimes opposing) political backgrounds. At the core, there are the young (westernized?) educated youth that you would expect; however, you will also find the leftist/socialist activists, the human rights activists, the Muslim Brothers, or the un-politicized youth seeking jobs and decent lives. Despite the political diversity, you can see a convergence on rapid change, destroying the symbols and institutions of the previous regime, a strong support for civil liberties, and a culture of accepting the variations in the politics landscape, and an eagerness to “understand the other”. They believe that Egyptians in general are politically mature and are ready for a free elections and multi-party political process. (I hope that I’m not too generous in my description, but it’s hard for me to hide my personal inclinations!).
On the other hand, the “Moustafa Mahmoud Square Party” is conservative, in the sense that it wants to conserve the status quo or slow the pace of change in fear of chaos. They want to preserve and reform the existing institutions; and rely on familiar faces, like Suleiman or Shafiq to manage the transition. Their priority is restoring the security in the streets, and getting back to their previous lives as much as possible. Again, this group cuts across many ideological and socioeconomic fault lines. At the core, there is a group of middle and upper-middle class that care more about the day-to-day life rather than the broader political reform and an older group who are not able to comprehend the level of change. There is also a broad constituency that lives in low-income neighborhoods and slums around Cairo, and who have little financial cushion to help them withstand the economic turbulence or earn their wages on daily basis, and can’t afford the economic turmoil that we are getting into. For this party, the top priority is to redeploy the police force back to the street, get the economy back at work; and they blame the Tahrir square for the state’s inability to perform these demands.
It would be interesting to see how the different groups align themselves between these two parties. Among the Christian Copts, the Orthodox Church is highly conservative, with Pope Shenouda aligning himself with Mubarak over three decades. It’s not clear how the current events would affect his perspective or his succession plans, or if some of the young Copts would rebel and join the liberal cause. The Evangelical and Catholic churches are more aligned with the other side – the Tahrir Square side; for example, the evangelical church organized a celebration mass for the revolution and its martyrs.
On the Islamic movements side, this fault line would split the Muslim Brotherhood, mostly across generational lines. The older generation which is in control is deeply conservative; their political posture is based on their experience in the sixties. The younger generation is more active, eager to participate and to be part of the revolution. Many of them forged strong bonds with their Tahrir square comrades. Al-Wasat Party is likely to align itself with the Tahrir side. It is not clear how the other Islamic movements would align themselves: the Sufi movement, the Islamic Jihad, or the followers of the televangelist Amr Khaled – all of them are rumored to be starting their own political parties!
The important question is: are these caricature of two parties going to materialize into actual political coalitions, or would the traditional analysis of the political landscape survive. I believe that coalitions emerge around symbols, events, or individuals. The next presidential elections may be the event that would shape these two parties. Among the names discussed today, Two standout as potential symbols for the two parties. Amr Moussa (or potentially Ahmed Shafiq) would provide the “Moustafa Mahmoud Square Party” with a popular symbol to rally around: a very popular ex-minister in the previous regime who is a known quantity. Amr Moussa is 74 years old, and has been a fixture of the establishment for decades. He became popular after taking a confrontational stance against Israel and was removed by Mubarak (despite their personal friendship) from his position for fear of his popularity. He has strong Arab and international relationships; nationalist political views and centrist economic views; and a big ego that may calm people’s anxiety and project confidence. His biggest weakness is his affiliation with the previous regime, numerous statements of support for Mubarak, and neutral statements on Gamal’s succession.
On the other hand, Mohamed El-Baradei would provide the “Tahrir Square Party” with their own symbol. El-Baradei has been a vocal and consistent political advocate for change since his return to Egypt. El-Baradei, 68, has played the catalyst role for the Egyptian revolution, and is respected among many of the intellectuals and youth who participated in the revolution. However, his image was significantly tarnished and it remains a question if he can regain his popularity. Among the general population, a character assassination campaign orchestrated by the previous regime managed to label him as pro-American, dual citizen, and responsible for the US invasion of Iraq. Among his supporters, his repeated travels and absence from the political scene during the last months was a big cause for frustration from someone whom they looked up to as their savior. Today, I can see strong undercurrents among his supporters to restore his position as the de-facto leader of the revolution, and the liberal movement at large; however, it remains to be seen if this can be translated into broad popular support.
If those two individuals emerge as the top contenders in the next presidential elections, they will be the catalyst for reshaping Egypt’s political spectrum. For example, I can see some of the progressive Islamic parties, like Al-Wasat, or the Muslim Brothers youth being attracted to El-Baradei, despite his liberal stance. However, most of the conservative, traditional and older generations within these movements would be more attracted to Amr Moussa. This reshaping of the political landscape will only happen as a result of the elections, not before the elections. The new parties are the result of the new elections, not the pre-requisite for the elections. This is why I believe that we need to have quick elections, and more than one cycle, rather than waiting for the parties to form and losing the democratic momentum.
The other positive piece of news is that both candidates are centrist in their political and economic views, and are acceptable individuals on the international scene. This would eliminate the fear of radical elements ascending to power, and will calm the anxiety of citizens and neighbors alike. Also, either of them would be the first civilian President for Egypt in six decades, and would oversee the creation of a new constitution that would create Egypt’s second republic.
Amin Elmasry. 4 March 2011.