Egypt secularists and liberals afraid of democracy?

Muhammad Naguib (R) with Gamal Abdul Nasser in Cairo, 15 August 1953 Nasser (left) with Muhammad Naguib in Cairo a year after the 1952 coup that toppled King Farouk

Nearly 60 years ago, the Egyptian military faced a similar political dilemma to the one it confronts today.

"If I held elections today, al-Nahas would win, not us. Then our achievement would be nothing," Maj Gamal Abdel Nasser told a meeting of army officers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders on 29 December 1952.

Nasser was discussing the future of political transition in Egypt after the July coup, led by the Free Officers' Movement, that overthrew King Farouk and eventually saw Nasser installed as Egypt's president.

The rest of the story is well-known: parliament was dissolved, political parties were banned, basic freedoms were suspended, and the army dominated politics. In short, Egypt lost its freedom.

The man who stood to win - had an election been held in 1952 - was Mustafa al-Nahas, the head of the secular-liberal Wafd Party, once the most popular political party in Egypt.

Worried by the prospect of a liberal electoral victory, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood supported the decision of Nasser and his Revolutionary Command Council to ban all political parties.

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The reasons were pragmatic, not ideological. The Brotherhood's leaders thought that this would give them an advantage in a political sphere free of strong actors. That, of course, was an enormous miscalculation.

By 1954, Nasser and his clique dominated the army and had ousted pro-democracy officers, marginalised the liberals and then heavily suppressed his former allies, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The brutal crackdown significantly diminished the local networks of the Brotherhood until the mid-1970s. But it never destroyed them.

Roles reversed

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While at least 34% of Egypt's 55 million adults are illiterate, all of them have the right to vote”

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Today there is no Revolutionary Command Council. Egypt is governed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.

In the role of the working-class, young, radical and charismatic Maj Nasser is the 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Under his command, the council speaks of democratic transition, with a special status reserved for the military, its institutions and interests.

The analogy with events nearly 60 years ago is not perfect. Some of the roles have reversed. In the place of the liberals of the Wafd is today's Muslim Brotherhood.

In a stark contrast of 1952, the Islamists are playing the role of the democrats, and the liberals are calling for the army to stay in power.

Egyptians queue outside a school turned into a polling station in Mansura, north of Cairo, 19 March 2011 Most Islamists backed a "Yes" vote in the referendum

Egypt's first ever free, democratic referendum was held on 19 March 2011. In it, 77.27% of voters approved a package of constitutional amendments that included holding parliamentary elections, and then electing 100 MPs to form a constitutional assembly.

The assembly will craft Egypt's new constitution within six months. Then, another referendum will be held to approve or reject it.

So, the "Yes" can be seen as a vote for a plan to get out of a volatile political phase.

Egypt at a glance

  • Population 84.5 million; 17% below poverty line
  • Median Age 24; 43% of youths out of work
  • Corruption ranking 98/178
  • Literacy 66%

Being the most organised and, arguably, the most popular party in Egypt, the Brotherhood backed the "Yes" vote and wants elections in September, like the majority of other Egyptian Islamists.

Most secularists, including many leftists and liberals, voted "No". Today, secular and liberal forces in Egypt are weak, fragmented, organisationally immature and alienated from the wider Egyptian public.

They risk losing any forthcoming elections (whether in September or a year later). They also deeply mistrust the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

Assuming it is victorious in September, the Brotherhood may have a strong presence and influence on the constitutional assembly. Egypt could therefore have an Islamist-leaning constitution.

'Constitution first'

The liberals do have an alternative plan, but it is not a convincing one.

Egyptian demonstrators rally in Tahrir Square, 8 July Protesters have turned their anger against Egypt's military rulers over the slow pace of reform

They propose rejecting or ignoring the referendum's result (the choice of 77% of Egyptian voters), a longer stay in power for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and somehow forming a constitutional assembly without elections (there is no consensus on the mechanism). This is the so-called "constitution first" plan.

There are good reasons for the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood that could offer secularists some salutary lessons for the coming phase.

Very limited political space was granted to Islamists and liberals alike by successive Egyptian presidents.

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[The Muslim Brotherhood is] a textbook example of how to survive and prosper in highly unfavourable political conditions”

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But the Brotherhood countered this by becoming active in universities and syndicates throughout Egypt, recruiting young people, building coalitions and, eventually, abandoning and de-legitimising political violence. Alongside this, the organisation provided a wide variety of social services.

Their success is down to organisational hard work and impressive dedication. They are in many ways a textbook example of how to survive and prosper in highly unfavourable political conditions.

It seems to have escaped all sides in Egyptian politics though that whoever governs Egypt in September after elections may well end up much less popular after four years. High expectations, poor economic conditions, shocking levels of unemployment and underemployment, a volatile security situation and rapid social change throw up huge challenges for any government, regardless of ideology.

Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo, 18 May The Muslim Brotherhood has a strong following in Egypt, but is feared by secular and liberal forces

So, the secularists may actually gain more by accepting the results of the referendum that is seen by many as Egypt's first free and fair democratic exercise, recognising that they are likely to lose the first post-Mubarak election, and strategising for the coming rounds.

This would give them the time to focus on building coalitions, on establishing social service networks, on organising stronger political parties and on relaying their message across Egyptian society and beyond the urban elites.

On this last point, the secular and liberal parties need to always remember that while at least 34% of Egypt's 55 million adults are illiterate, all of them have the right to vote.

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