What are we afraid of?

Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Alain Gresh, July 2011.

… Egyptians often evoke the “Turkish model”, which reserves a special place for the military, forgetting that the Turks themselves are trying to get rid of it. Fear of an Islamic tsunami – and “uncontrolled” social movements – makes them see the armed forces as the ultimate guarantors of order and stability. It is this kind of short-sighted vision that has led people in the past to support authoritarian regimes as the best defence against the Islamists, and the most likely to open up the markets.

The political arena is undergoing a major transformation. The Muslim Brotherhood, the only movement with any real organisation, is emerging from the shadows and has for the first time established a political party, Liberty and Justice. It has repeatedly declared itself in favour of democracy and has undertaken not to field candidates in more than half of all electoral wards. 

But its new visibility is not entirely to the Brotherhood’s advantage: one of its leaders, Mohammed al-Baltagui, has denounced the media’s habit of highlighting every mistake the Brotherhood makes, and it has made many (1). During the great demonstration in Tahrir Square on 27 May, the first in which the Brotherhood had not participated, its website carried a photo showing the square empty. The next day, the Brotherhood apologised for misleading the public – tens of thousands had gathered in the square – and the manager of the website resigned.

The Brotherhood was also criticised for the decision of one of its past leaders, Abdelmonem Abul Futouh, to stand for election as president, in spite of the Brotherhood’s decision not to field a candidate. Futouh declared that, if elected, he would guarantee the right of Muslims to convert to Christianity; a number of younger members of the Brotherhood have declared their support for his reformist stance.

The Brotherhood is far from having a monopoly on the Muslim vote. It competes both with the Salafists, who have entered the political arena for the first time, and with parties such as al-Wasat, many of whose leaders (including al-Wasat’s president Abu Ela Madi) are former Brotherhood members. (Al-Wasat has less conservative social views than the Brothers and include Copts among its leaders.)

Apart from the remains of the dissolved National Democratic Party and the parties authorised under Mubarak – notably the Wafd, Tagammu (the leftwing Progressive Unionist Party) and the Nasserist Party, all three divided and discredited for having collaborated with the Mubarak regime – dozens of organisations have been legalised or are in the process of being so.

As in Tunisia, it is hard to know how much influence each of these parties has. There are many organisations with liberal, secular leanings, such as the social democrats, Free Egyptians Party (backed by Naguib Sawiris, owner of telecoms firm Orascom) and Amr Hamzawi’s Egypt liberation party. On the left there is a “socialist front” made up of five parties, including the Communist Party and Ahmad Shaaban’s Socialist Party, which has a bolder social programme and support among workers and intellectuals.

Over time, many alliances have been formed and dissolved, not always for any discernible reason. Recently, 13 parties including Liberty and Justice, al-Wasat, al-Ghad (the party of former presidential candidate Ayman Nur) and Tagammu (one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s fiercest critics), agreed to parcel out electoral wards among themselves.

On 17 June, a young man named Mohammed Abul-Gheit wrote on his blog that the revolution should not forget the disinherited, and should enforce a change in government policy (which favours the rich). By putting social concerns at the heart of the debate, he reminded all the political forces, starting with the left, that this is where the future will be played out. After all, the sans-culottes who took to the Paris streets in 1793 were demanding both bread and liberty. (full text).

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