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What Kind of Islamist Rulers will Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Be?

Egypt's Islamists will chart their own path unique from those taken by Sudan, Iran and Turkey.
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Protesters organised by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Tahrir Square, April 13, 2012. Photograph by Zeinab Mohamed.

Now that a majority of voting Egyptians have decided to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance by electing Mohamed Mursi as president, the Brotherhood has a historic responsibility to present an Egyptian model of development and democracy inspired by the principles of Islam.

To achieve this, the Brotherhood needs to overcome the phobia of Islamist rule apparent internationally and amongst sectors of the Egyptian public. This fear was cherished by the military regimes in Egypt, which demonised the Brotherhood to eliminate their most effective opposition. This does not necessarily mean that the fear is unfounded. In the contemporary Middle East, regimes that claim to be Islamist, from President Omar al-Bashir’s Al-Inqaz rule in Sudan to post-1979 Iran, have taken their societies down the road of authoritarianism and confrontation with the West. It was thus unsurprising that 48% of the electorate voted for Mursi's competitor, Ahmed Shafiq, preferring the devil they know to the representative of a religious movement in which they have little trust.

Egypt and the Iranian model

But there are reasons to suggest that Egypt will not just be another Iran or Sudan. In post-1979 Iran, it is the broad interpretation of the Shia principle of Wilayat al-Faqih (the guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) that allows clerics to not only exercise power but also dominate over elected politicians. Sunni Islam does not, however, follow this principle. The senior members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), including Mursi, have repeatedly highlighted that the state they aspire to create is a modern democratic one, where leaders are elected and held accountable to the people.

The party's platform embraces a civil state, rather than a military or a theocratic state. In accordance with Egyptian constitutions since 1923, legislation will be guided by Islamic jurisprudence; however Islamic clerics will not exercise direct political authority. The reference in the first draft of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party platform in 2007 to the formation of an elected council of jurists to examine and approve legislations has been annulled. Instead, the current platform states that Islamic jurisprudence should guide legislation in a manner that corresponds to the vision of the nation through the parliamentary majority in a legislature that is freely, fairly and transparently elected.

Egyptian liberals and leftists are concerned that this will however lead to a dictatorship of the majority. They are worried Islamist groups will use their dominance in the legislature to marginalise the roles and views of the minority, for example in their criticisms of Islamist dominance in the Constitutional Assembly. Yet, the fabric and culture of the Egyptian society would make it difficult for the Brotherhood or any Islamist political party to impose its vision of Islam. Although a Gallup poll conducted in 2008 indicated that out of more than 140 countries, Egypt was the most religious with 100% of the respondents saying that religion was an important part of their daily life, another survey conducted by the same organisation after the fall of Mubarak regime indicated that the vast majority of Egyptians want religious leaders to have only an “advisory role” in legislation. Less than 1% favoured an Iran-style Islamic theocracy.

Recognising these attitudes, the Brotherhood has tried to emphasise their rejection of a theocratic state and ease the fears of Egypt's Christian minority by confirming that all Egyptians will enjoy equal rights. The FJP has also had a Christian thinker, Rafiq Habib, as its vice-president since August 2011. It is one of the responsibilities of Egypt's new president, together with other political forces, to contain extremist sectarian discourse and transform this commitment into a driving force for human, social and economic development for all Egyptians.

Egypt and the Sudanese model

It would also be wrong to suggest that the relationship between the military and Islamists or between the Islamists and civilian political forces will follow the Sudanese model.

In Sudan, Islamists came to power in 1989 through an alliance with the military. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ (SCAF) attempt to interfere in the formation of the Constitutional Assembly and secure a privileged position for the military in any future political order put a brake on what appeared to be a rapprochement between the military and the Brotherhood. More importantly, it was only by approaching other political forces that the FJP's presidential candidate was able to win with a very narrow margin in the run-off.

Mursi won only 26 % of the votes in the first round, forcing the Brotherhood to seek the support of pro-revolution political and social forces including the 6th of April movement, various other revolutionary coalitions, and pro-revolution presidential candidates to secure victory against the military’s favoured candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

Egypt and the Turkish model

If the Brotherhood is not likely to follow the Iranian or Sudanese model, they have much to do to prove that they, like Turkey's Islamists, could provide a successful model of development and democracy. In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was allowed to compete and secured increasing popularity as a result of its successes at the local level in spite of the constraints enforced by the military as the guardian of secularism.

The challenge seems more daunting in the Egyptian case as the FJP rose to power before being fully tested. High expectations in relation to reducing poverty, achieving social justice, reforming security institutions and fighting rampant, institutionalised corruption have to be managed in a way that secures stability and responds to clear priorities within specific time periods.

It seems that Egypt's military is aiming, as Steve Cook noted, to copy pre-AKP Turkey by keeping the elected president away from military affairs and controlling the making of national security decisions. This is apparent in the new articles added by SCAF to the interim constitutional declaration on June 17, 2012. Article 53(II) state that SCAF “is the authority that decides on all affairs of the armed forces, appointing its commanders and extending their service”. SCAF's chairman, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, rather than the civilian President Mursi, continues to serve as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Article 60 (I) gives SCAF's chairman the right to veto articles of the new constitution if “they contradict with the principles of the revolution or articles of past constitutions”. The declaration of the new articles came a few days after the SCAF-appointed Minister of Justice declared a decision granting military police and intelligence officers power to arrest and detain civilians, a decision that was cancelled on June 26 by a judicial verdict.

Protests continue in Tahrir Square calling for the annulment of the new articles of the constitutional declaration. The Brotherhood and other political forces need to capitalise on this popular pressure if they are to derive any concessions from the military.

The question, then, is not whether Egypt is heading towards the Iranian route or following the Turkish model. Rather, it is how the Brotherhood, in co-operation with other social and political forces could deal with the heavy political and socio-economic legacy of Mubarak regime, SCAF's continuing control, and present a model of democracy and development that restores Egypt's leadership in the Arab world.

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