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Islam and Politics ( 11 Apr 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Egypt: A New Republic


By Dina Ezzat

10 April, 2014

 The key theme for the expected presidency of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is the building of a new republic. In this respect Al-Sisi, effectively the president-in-waiting, will be the first president since Gamal Abdel-Nasser to assume, or be charged, with the responsibility of launching a new political dispensation. It will be based; it is said, on a new legitimacy jointly inspired by the 25 January Revolution and the current mood of antipathy towards political Islam.

Comparisons, sometimes contrived, between Nasser and Al-Sisi are already being made. However, as the sixth president of the Republic since the 1952 ouster of King Farouk — excluding interim President Adli Mansour — Al-Sisi is also being contrasted with each of his predecessors.

Political Islam and human rights: In the minds of a large segment of society the top priority for Al-Sisi is to continue the mission that gained him widespread popularity: the war on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

Rightly or wrongly Al-Sisi is perceived by his keenest supporters as the man who dared to remove the otherwise invincible Muslim Brotherhood. His popularity, say sources close to Al-Sisi, peaked in the days that followed the removal of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

He has been compared extensively in the state-run and privately owned media to the nation’s most popular ever leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Even commentators who have spent years criticising Nasser for his unimpressive human rights record are suddenly all over talk-shows arguing that once inaugurated Al-Sisi should continue the task Nasser started but didn’t finish — eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood.

This line of argument oversimplifies the complex love-hate relationship between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood before and after 1952 and divorces Nasser’s clampdown on the Brotherhood from a wider context of liberation and development, argues Islamist expert Ahmed Ban.

Ban notes that the political dynamics Al-Sisi faces are significantly different than those faced “by any of his other predecessors, except of course for Morsi, who was the president for one year”.

Nasser’s clampdown on the Brotherhood, says Ban, came after the president had already established a firm claim to fame through the pursuit of an end to foreign occupation and the launch of ambitious development schemes. It was done in a moment when society was looking for modern rather than Islamist models, a situation that was reversed during the second half of Anwar Sadat’s rule. Sadat made a pact with Islamists to defeat the left though “the pact was later revoked as Sadat and the Islamists turned against one another”. It was then reworked under Hosni Mubarak who tolerated the presence of Islamists in politics as in society”.

More significant, Ban argues, is that continued confrontation between the sixth president and the Muslim Brotherhood “is going to be taking place at a time when the organisation is weaker and angrier than it has ever been since it was established in the late 1920s”.

“Even in the mid-1950s and 1960s when its leadership was thrown into jails and sentenced to death the Muslim Brotherhood was not as weak and fragmented as it is today. It retained a leadership capable of seeing the crisis through, and the leaders were not drawn from the group’s extreme hard-line wing.”

“At the time the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were acting to reduce the influence of militants within the group. Today’s Brotherhood leaders entered into an association with hardcore militant groups though it is questionable whether they could halt the attacks staged by these militants even if they wanted.”

Human rights activists say public support for the move to crush the Muslim Brotherhood has been used as cover for the resumption of systematic police violations of human rights, not just against Islamists but other opposition factions.

“In short, the confrontation between the next president and the Islamists is bound to be much harsher than any experienced in the history of the republic. The Islamists see Al-Sisi as the man who terminated the scheme of Islamist rule and as such they are willing to burn the ground he walks on,” says Ban.

But Ahmed Ragheb, human rights activist, notes the process of human rights monitoring today is significantly different from what it was in the beginning of the second half of last century when Nasser ruled.

Many human rights activists argue that the kind of abuses Nasser oversaw would no longer be tolerated today.

Democracy and under-development: Unlike Nasser, whose initial power base was the army, Al-Sisi will have to remember that his ascent to the presidency was underpinned by popular support, says political commentator Ayman Al-Sayyad.

Al-Sayyad served as an advisor to Morsi before resigning following the controversial constitutional decree of 22 November 2012. The next president, he says, must bear in mind that Morsi’s period in office was terminated, despite having been elected in a democratic process, “essentially because he forgot the simple fact that it was the people, not any particular group, who got him to be president”.

Al-Sayyad objects to the comparisons being made between the Al-Sisi and Nasser. “We are no longer living in the second half of the 20th century. We are living in a time where the balance of power between the presidential palace and the people has shifted significantly in the directions of the people.”

“Today there is no automatic legitimacy for any president — even if elected or if he comes from the armed forces,” says Al-Sayyad.

The worst mistake the sixth president could make says former parliamentarian Amin Iskandar, would be to become obsessed with security issues, or believe there is a “sustainable security solution for the dilemma of terror”.

“The answer is development,” argues Iskandar. It was the pursuit of development that characterised Nasser’s rule — “better education, a stronger economy and greater social justice, not just security”.

Putting security first, says Iskandar, was the great miscalculation of the presidents who followed Nasser and assumed an iron-fisted security system could sustain a rule that failed to deliver on development.

For Iskandar the main call of the 25 January Revolution can be reduced to a single imperative, the pursuit of development.

Sinai Plus: And development, Iskandar insists, cannot comprise limited projects serving specific constituencies or areas. Development under Nasser, he points out, involved ambitious development schemes catering to the vast majority of disadvantaged Egyptians. Five decades later the sixth president will have to worry not only about the least advantaged but also the least observed —those living on the borders.

Alaa Attiya, a graduate student of anthropology, has travelled to Egypt’s eastern, southern and western borders. And on every stop, she says, “you come face to face with the absence of any sense of attachment to the central state”.

In Halayeb and Shalatin — the disputed border zone with Sudan — Attiya would ask villagers of they received themselves as Egyptian or Sudanese.

“Their answer would be neither — we belong to these mountains. If you want to consider these mountains as Egypt than we are Egyptians and if you want to consider them as Sudan then we are Sudanese,” she said.

Security sources following the infiltration of arms through the western border with Libya are full of stories about the cooperation between militants and arm dealers on the one hand and the inhabitants of Sinai and the western oases on the other. “They are together against the state,” says one.

This alienation, says one intelligence source, was brought to the attention of Mubarak during the last years of his rule “but he failed to act”.

It is not something, the same source accepts, that can be fixed by a few meetings between tribal leaders and politicians.

According to Ban the fact that Islamists during the rule of Morsi and beyond have managed to use this sense of alienation to build a network of associates willing to provide support to groups fighting the state signals that Sinai remains a major challenge.

“And it is not just Sinai. They are acting on other fronts as well,” says Ban.

Iskandar worries that the sixth president will become a hostage to security schemes that only accentuated anti-state feeling during the rule of Mubarak. “It has to be about development and not just security — and no matter what security cannot take precedent over development; they have to go in parallel,” he argued. 

Foreign Relations: The pursuit of development is not something that can be done without soliciting investment and improving inflows of foreign currency.

“You cannot pursue development without good foreign relations,” says Hisham A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at The Brookings Institute, research associate at Harvard University and an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute

And Al-Sisi, says Hellyer, is in a more difficult position than any of his predecessors. “It was not so bad with Nasser at the beginning and the world was more or less prepared for Sadat and Mubarak. With Morsi there was some question mark as to how he would act but the general attitude was one of let’s give him a chance.”

Apart from limited support in some regional and foreign capitals, Hellyer argues this is not the case with Al-Sisi. “There are already so many assumptions, mostly negative, not just at the governmental level but also at the level of the media and public opinion.”

It would take a great deal of work to overcome international apprehension and secure the confidence necessary to reinvigorate the economy.

Better foreign relations are also essential to overcome crucial domestic challenges, says Iskandar. “Let us take the obvious concern —relations with Ethiopia and the rest of the Nile Basin states. To resolve the dispute over Nile water we really have to have good foreign relations. We did not have these problems when Egypt was reaching out to Africa under Nasser. They began to grow when Egypt turned its back on Africa during the last years of the Mubarak rule”.

Constitutional Legitimacy: Whatever the sixth president does or does not do, Al-Sayyad argued, he needs to be clear about the source of his legitimacy. “Naguib and Nasser had the legitimacy of the 1952 Revolution. Nasser and Sadat had the liberation of Israeli occupied territories and they did survive,” says Al-Sayyad.

Mubarak, who came to office from the ranks of the armed forces and via his appointment as Sadat’s vice president, thought he too could live off the same legitimacy. “That was a mistake. That legitimacy had passed its sell-by date. The only way Mubarak could survive was to establish constitutional legitimacy for his rule and this he failed to do,” says Al-Sayyad.

Morsi thought he could live off the legitimacy of being the first democratically elected president. “But this was not enough. He too should have embraced constitutional legitimacy. The sixth president will go astray,” argues Al-Sayyad, “if he too fails to recognise the overriding importance of establishing constitutional legitimacy.”