By electing a new parliament Egypt is supposed to have completed its transition , but to what exactly ?
Some have applauded the outcome for having the largest number of women and Coptic mps ever. But other numbers tell a different story. Fewer than thirty percent of the electorate bothered to vote, thus delivering a parliament with questionable legitimacy.
This is the second time since the overthrow of the disgraced Mubarak (he was recently confirmed by a final court ruling, together with his two sons, as an embezzler of state funds, ) that Egypt is supposed to have moved to a more democratic system. Few believe it has done so this time, or that it is sincere in its declared goals.
The first transition was hijacked by the Muslim Brothers, a religious supremacist sect-like group that would have taken Egypt down the path of theocracy in all but name. Only some Western think-tankers and delusional European leftists still believe in the MB as some kind of Muslim Democrats. The Egyptians, may be religious and conservative, but they know better.
Just as the first transition was bungled thanks to the the greed and opportunism of the MB, the second one was marred by bad faith.
Let’s face it, the military, the backbone of the political order put in place by colonel Nasser in the nineteen-fifties, which has been trying vigorously to reconstitute itself since the fall of Mubarak, never really believed in democracy.
Democracy is messy, too chaotic for the soldiers. Once they step out of the barracks, they yearn back to the order of the military life, so they seek to mould society to their first nature. This may work for a while, then it quickly backfires, simply because societies are much more complex than the barracks, and unpredictable. But they don’t seem to learn from past mistakes.
So far, President Sisi, a year and a half into his first 4 year term, has yet to make the transition from a soldier to a statesman, who can lead by consensus rather than by decrees. His popularity has been dented, especially among those who had hoped he would fulfill the democratic goals of the jan 25 revolution. But he remains popular among the wider public and the not-so-political classes.
Soldiers are of course patriotic; they believe they want the best for the country and know how to get there. Faced with a fractious, self-serving and squabbling political class, sometimes it is hard to blame them for despising the “civilians”. Many in Egypt ( if not the absolute majority ) still hold the military as a state institution in higher esteem than any of the politicians.
But fairness also requires that we acknowledge that the military — whether in the shape of the presidency or the secret service or other security agencies — have fought and thwarted all attempts to develop new power centres or a mature civil society — the bedrock of normal politics — that can challenge its monopoly on power.
One can only hope that after two uprisings and five years of upheaval and uncertainty the soldiers will listen to advice from those who are by no means less patriotic than them, before Egypt hits the brick wall again.
By all accounts, the election was engineered to ensure that the emerging parliament will not pose a threat to the president. Accordingly, the assembly is dominated by independents (drawn primarily from circles close to the security services or the old patronage network of Mubarak’s defunct NDP, ).
On its inaugural session, the new parliament was predictably cacophonous and at times even farcical, offering the Egyptian public enough material for wicked jokes, so much so that the chamber voted the following day against broadcasting its sessions live, as was the custom in the past.
But not so cacophonous when it came to the serious business of discussing laws decreed by President Sisi in the absence of an elected legislature during the past two years, some 300 hundred laws in total , which had to be approved within 15 days from the day parliament convened. Otherwise, the laws would have been declared null and void. Predictably, the parliament rubber-stamped the decrees. Not an auspicious start.
Under the new constitution, Egypt was supposed to break from the old tradition of the all powerful presidency. Power was meant be shared between the president and the prime minister and parliament given the authority to even impeach the president. But supporters of the old order are working hard to change one of the few gains of the jan 25 revolution. They are already speaking of amending the constitution to give back the president all his supposedly lost powers.
President Sisi has said that he does not expect or want the constitution changed. That may have helped calm fears, but it raised questions over the wisdom or even sanity of the puppeteers — if there are any — given some of the most disastrous decisions that run counter to the government’s declared policy.
Take for example the recent decision to bar Tunisian intellectual and long-time campaigner against Islamic fundamentalism from entering Egypt. Amal Krami was invited to a conference whose declared goal was precisely that. Is the government really serious about combating Islamic extremism ? Or is it good-old-bureaucratic blunders ? We may never find out.
But that has been so typical of the way Egypt is run since the overthrow of Mubarak, leading some to speculate over a struggle between various wings or factions within the establishment. Is it a power struggle or good old fashioned cock-ups ? No one knows for sure. Perhaps nothing lofty or ideological about the whole thing, a bit of both, incompetence compounded by jostling over influence or fighting over fiefdoms.
This blundering — if blundering it is — is no where more conspicuous (and dangerous) than the state’s declared war on Islamic terrorism, and its supposed determination to weed out the roots of extremism in religious institutions or mosques. Ever since President Sisi has called for a revolution in Islamic thinking and the heads of these institutions have been singing from the same hymn sheet, not missing an opportunity to mouth the buzzword “renewing the Islamic discourse”.
Reality, though, is a different matter altogether. Most recently, the talk show host Islam El-Behiri was jailed for contempt of Islam. His crime was doing precisely what Mr Sisi had called for: he dared ask some sensible questions about the sanctity or wisdom of texts authored by clerics a couple of centuries after the death of the prophet (over 1000 years ago) and have been elevated to the status of the revelation itself. These texts — known as hadith or the sayings of the prophet — have canonised some of the most controversial aspects of social life in seventh-century Arabia, and continue to be invoked to justify, for example, marrying minor girls or female circumcision or — preposterously — prescribing camel urine as cure.
Mr El-Behiri’s sentence was reduced to one year upon appeal. The verdict has provoked a howl of protests among the secularised section of the Egyptian elite with appeals for President Sisi to pardon the man. But so far, that has fallen on deaf ears.
The episode — not the first of its kind in modern Egyptian history, nor is it likely to be the last — raises the serious question of whether the modern Egyptian state really can or want to stand up to the conservative religious establishment, whose leaders are salaried government officials.
I don’t think the state in its current form — authoritarian and hostile to individual freedom and critical thinking — can afford to antagonise the religious establishment for the following reason : there is a convergence of interests between the two authoritarianisms : the religious establishment inculcates the values of blind obedience to authority and prepares the individual to succumb to the state authority.
Not only that, in times of crisis, it bestows religious legitimacy on whatever the government wants to. For example, fatwas against demonstrating on the fifth anniversary of the 25 Jan revolution have been coming thick and fast, and preachers have spoken vociferously against it during the Friday sermons. So why take the side of a few intellectual trouble-makers — with little or no significant cultural capital and popular support to speak of — against such a powerful and useful friend who wields the stick of halal and haram over the heads of the populace and can keep them in check.
The two authoritarianisms reinforce one another and need one another. The state can call upon the representatives of the state sanctioned Islam to condemn the Muslim Brothers and delegitimise other Islamists when need be. In return, it grants monopoly over the religious sphere to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Mufti & Co to control and regulate the spiritual and moral life of the public. The hapless trespassers (bloggers of FB pages that mock a supposedly holy figure) or a foolhardy intellectual are easily expendable for the sake of political stability and social peace.
The moral of this chapter in the unfolding drama that is Egypt is that the country has rapidly descended from the epic heights of the 18-days-that-changed-the-world to its current parliamentary farce. The man elected to head the parliament’s human rights commission is a foul-mouthed former judge, staunch Mubarak supporter turned Sisi-lover, and an outspoken sworn enemy of human rights.
The forces arrayed against change in Egypt are huge. They seem to have been invigorated by the fear unleashed by the prospect of the loss of power and change since Jan 2011. They are on the attack and those who want change are still in disarray. But the future may still carry some surprises.