Egypt's conservative revolution

As parliament sits for its inaugural session, how religious is the new Egyptian democracy?

Almost exactly a year after the first anti-Mubarak demonstrators moved into Tahrir Square, and after the free-est and fairest elections in the country's history, members of the newly elected Egyptian parliament have been taking their seats. So what does democracy, Egyptian-style, look like?

Most obviously, religious. The new legislature is dominated by parties claiming an Islamic grounding for their policies. After the second, proportional allocation of seats was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood (standing under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party), was left with almost half the total. The Salafist al-Nour party has close to a third. The two groups do not get on, and would probably not have formed a coalition even had the Muslim Brotherhood needed substantial support. But this should come as little comfort to liberals and secularists, for they represent different versions of the same phenomenon. That the main challenge to the long-established but previously banned Brotherhood should have come from the religious right speaks volumes about where the centre of gravity in Egypt, and in much of the Arab world, now rests.

Moderate liberals and secularists, meanwhile, performed badly. Make that catastrophically. The leading centrist party, New Wafd, ended up with a third of the seats won by the Salafists, while the Revolution Continues coalition, which represents the spirit of the anti-Mubarak protests, attracted less than a million votes and took just seven seats.

It's also worth noting that not a single woman running for election was elected in her own right. General Tantawi (head of the "interim" military leadership) has used his executive power to appoint three women (and some Christian Copts) to the assembly, but that still leaves a mere one per cent of the seats occupied by women. The Muslim Brotherhood says it has no objection to women holding political office -- it even had some female candidates -- but the almost complete absence of women in the new parliament is unlikely to be a coincidence.

This, then, is the new Egyptian political class: 99 per cent male, overwhelmingly religiously conservative, with a strong leaning towards the ultra-conservative.

That the Brotherhood would win the election was widely expected. Some of its credibility comes from its having been for decades at the heart of opposition to Egypt's military rulers. While it did not itself spearhead last year's revolution, it was perfectly positioned to take advantage of it; not least because of its long history and an organisation nous of which more ad hoc revolutionaries could only dream.

More recently, the party has also formed a surprising (and to liberals, unwelcome) alliance with the army establishment that took over from the deposed president Hosni Mubarak. In recent months, the Brotherhood has studiously held aloof from leaders of the democracy movement, instead negotiating with the military council. The differences between them are less about the role of religion in the state than over such things as civilian control of the military and the granting of immunity to persons connected with the former regime. To a large extent, the Brotherhood's victory is, ironically, a victory for the establishment.

Even so, the scale of their triumph, and the decimation of secular and liberal parties, has been stunning. There can be little doubt that, at least for the time being, and possibly for the foreseeable future, political Islam represents the will of the great majority of the Egyptian people -- the ones who weren't tweeting live from Tahrir Square or taking their clothes off on the internet. This doesn't mean that Egypt will become a new Iran. On the contrary, these days the Muslim Brotherhood prefers to look to the moderate Islamic democrats who now run Turkey as a model. Its political programme is not a blueprint for theocracy. An Egypt ruled according to its manifesto would not be notably more religious or less pluralistic than the one that exists today.

Nor is there any evidence that the voters were calling for "more Islam" (whatever that means) when they gave the Freedom and Justice Party its huge mandate. Their concerns were elsewhere. The real problems of Egypt are economic: high unemployment, a burgeoning population poverty, a low skills base, a currency crisis (worse, in its way, than that of Greece), declining tourist numbers, an industrial sector dominated by moribund state enterprises and cronyism. To these pressing questions, the Muslim Brotherhood's answers are boringly mainstream: a free-market economy; a strengthened role private sector; less corruption.

If religion was not a big issue in the campaign, however, it may be because much of the Islamisation that the Muslim Brotherhood stands for has effectively been won. Egypt is more visibly Islamic today than it was a generation ago. That that is so owes something to the policies of the ousted regime, which countered the influence of the Brotherhood partly by adopting some of its language and ideas. But at a deeper level it reflects a mood in society.

When he was asked whether his party would seek to impose the hijab, the Freedom and Justice Party's Saad el-Katatni said: "I cannot draft a law that says an unveiled woman will be forbidden from this or that . . . (but) I must make her feel that her punishment is in the afterlife."

There speaks the authentic voice of what is now the political centre ground in Egypt, and indeed in most of the wider Middle East.

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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