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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.