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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”