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The People, No

Egypt’s populist problem.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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I met with Nour in his elegant, wood-paneled office, which sits above the popular Groppi café and patisserie in downtown Cairo. A large man with jet-black hair and an infectious smile, he sits behind a big wooden desk. It is late in the evening, and political office hours are being extended because of the daylong Ramadan fast. A line of people are waiting to see him in the lobby of his office; the whole affair has the whiff of the ward-heeling, local party boss. 

When I ask Nour what is the biggest problem facing Egypt, he laughs. “What problem isn’t facing Egypt?” Like most of the secular political leaders in the country, he’s light on the details of economic policy, and his rhetoric heads in a populist direction. He believes in “free markets” but also that the “government should take the side of poor people.” One way to boost the economy, he says, would be to increase tourism from Iran. Egypt has not had relations with the Islamic Republic since 1979 when its revolutionary government cut ties to protest Cairo’s recognition of Israel. While wariness towards Iran’s Shiite clerical regime is widespread in Egypt, the end of the Mubarak era has already seen a shift in Egyptian foreign policy. Perhaps most significantly, Cairo brokered a reconciliation deal between the rival Palestinian factions, emboldening the Iranian-backed Hamas. In March, the Egyptian foreign minister met in Cairo with Iran’s chargé d’affairs, pledging to open a “new page” with the Islamic Republic. 

Nour tells me that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has twice invited him to visit Iran since the revolution, but that he has declined both invitations, “not only because I’m busy now but because I believe there are steps in relations.” Nour is well aware of the good reputation he has in the West and would not want to risk being portrayed as an Iranian stooge. Nonetheless, he is a sharp critic of American Middle East policy. From his perspective, Washington, however well-intentioned, has perpetually made the wrong decisions by backing autocratic governments in the Arab world. “If the Americans from the very beginning took the path of justice, they wouldn’t need to pay all this money in Iraq, because they didn’t choose the principles,” he says. 

A press conference in August announcing the formation of the “Egyptian Bloc,” an alliance of 15 secular parties, ranging from liberal to socialist to union groups, underscored a fundamental problem with the secularists and liberals—they are too dispersed. On the surface, the explosion of political parties since the liberalization of the country’s electoral law has been a positive step; but it has also exposed the fissures and narcissism of Egypt’s liberals. Many secularists wave off this concern. “It is impossible to have a smaller number [of parties] after a revolution,” Ehab El Kharrat of the Social Democrats assures me. “The Spanish had 140 parties after the fall of Franco.” That may be the case, but while there are a wide variety of options through which non-Islamist Egyptians can dilute their electoral power, Islamists will mostly be voting for one party: Freedom and Justice.

It has been said that Egypt is a “military with a country.” Through vast land holdings and ownership stakes in private industries, the army is believed to control, formally and informally, some 40 percent of the economy, extending everywhere from agricultural production to kitchen appliances. The military’s primary concern right now is to preserve its station in Egypt. In order to do so, it must remain committed to upholding a widely disliked peace treaty, which renders its widespread popularity something of a paradox.

The respect that most Egyptians hold for the military is predicated upon the heroic narrative constructed around it, namely, the myth of the 1973 defeat of Israel. However, since taking power earlier this year, the army has arrested and tried over 12,000 people in military tribunals, more than the number of civilians put before military courts throughout the whole 30-year period of Mubarak’s rule. Still, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the country’s de facto ruler as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has a 45 percent favorability rating among Egyptians—higher than the 38 percent registered for the April 6 Youth Movement (which led the anti-Mubarak protests) or the 37 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Rumors regarding a behind-the-scenes deal between the Brotherhood and the military abound in Cairo, premised mostly on the fact that both supported a March constitutional referendum that called for an accelerated election schedule. Such a prospect is not inconceivable. The idea is that the military will cede domestic politics to the Brotherhood, which will in turn allow the generals to maintain control over foreign affairs and their vast economic assets.

The reality is that the military has already softened in its approach to the Islamists whom it once portrayed as threatening Egyptian stability. Since February, the army has gradually released over 100 Islamist prisoners. Many of these men are members of the Salafist organization al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (“the Islamic Group”), believed to have played an ancillary role in former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination, and responsible for over 1,000 terrorist attacks in the 1990s, including an attempt on Mubarak’s life. Some 25,000 of its members were imprisoned during the Mubarak era. While the release of Islamists from prison may appear to represent some sort of modus vivendi between the military and religious extremists, it is merely a continuation of a policy adopted during the late Mubarak years, when thousands of Islamist prisoners were sprung from jail provided they renounce violence. 

Nageh Ibrahim was a founding member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, and was sentenced to jail in 1984 for his role in the Sadat assassination. A dermatologist by training, he has written over two dozen books about religion. While in prison, he was one of the leading figures to argue that the group should adopt nonviolence as a strategy. The gambit worked, and in 2003, the Egyptian government released 900 of its members from jail. In 2006, after serving more than two decades in prison, Ibrahim walked free. 

Today, Ibrahim lives in the ancient city of Alexandria, about a five-hour drive north of Cairo on the Mediterranean. I met with him in the living room of his high-rise apartment, where he reiterated his organization’s denunciation of violence. 

“Killing civilians is haram (illegal),” he says. “Killing children haram, killing women haram, killing civilians haram,” he adds for emphasis. He cites the seventh-century Medina Charter, the constitution drafted by Muhammad that granted rights to non-Muslims, as an example of Islam’s tolerant foundations. He even goes so far as to say that religious minorities would have more freedom in a proper Islamic state than they do in secular ones. “Secularism gives one law that everyone should obey,” he says, whereas “Islam is more flexible” in making allowances for various religious practices that liberal societies might proscribe. There should be “no compulsion in religion,” he says, and no woman should be forced to wear the hijab. But he doesn’t think Christians (who represent about 10 percent of the population) should be allowed to become president of Egypt. When I press him on this, he responds politely, “In France, have you ever heard of a Muslim ruling, or in Britain a Muslim ruling? Even in the United States, no Catholic ruled except Kennedy, and he was killed.”

Putting aside his peculiar interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, Ibrahim offered, to my surprise, some of the most reasonable words about Egypt’s relationship with Israel. “Some left-wingers and socialists and Nasserites say all the problems we have now are because of Camp David,” he said. “This is totally wrong. For example, Israel signed Camp David and that caused progress in the industry and science fields. Our collapsing is not because of Camp David. It’s because of dictatorship, which was before and after Camp David.” As this is an Islamist talking, it’s unclear whether he’s sincere or has tailored his position to what he thinks an American journalist wants to hear. But it was certainly more reasonable than what the secular youth trying to destroy the wall outside the Israeli embassy were shouting. 

It is to be expected that in a post-revolutionary atmosphere political factions will make appeals to “the people,” a phrase I hear from the mouths of Islamists and liberals alike.

One of the more heartening aspects of the debate in Egypt is that political leaders, at least in theory, are trying to speak to the nation as a whole, not to narrow constituencies. The secular parties go out of their way to express their respect for Islam, and stress that they have no intention of removing it from the public and cultural life of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ostensible moderation suggests they recognize that many Egyptians are wary of their project and are therefore engaging in the sort of compromise that political parties in all mature democracies must undertake.

But there’s a negative side to this constant rhetoric of “the people,” which is that deference to popular will can lead to mob rule. Some participants in the storming of the Israeli embassy, according to a recent Voice of America story, contended that the “security forces in front of the embassy should not have intervened to protect it, because it is the people’s will to tear down the wall.” That is, for a government truly to be “governing in the name of the people,” it must do whatever “the people” requires of it. This is so if it means answering to the demands of a violent mob and contravening international law stipulating that it is the Egyptian government’s duty to protect the sovereign Israeli territory that is the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Few Egyptians seem seriously to advocate war against the Jewish state. For its part, the Freedom and Justice party condemned the attacks on the embassy, stressing that Egyptians “must learn to differentiate between condemning Israeli actions and destroying property and attacking security forces.” But what if a nonviolent majority of the Egyptian people wants their government to end its diplomatic relations with Israel? There are other steps, far short of war, that Egypt can take to frustrate bilateral relations. In response to popular sentiment, Egypt could gradually reduce its security cooperation with Israel, leading the way to increased weapons smuggling to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Closer relations with Iran, right when Washington is trying to isolate Tehran, would seriously damage American interests across the region. 

Egyptians feel that theirs is a great nation whose full potential as a regional power has been repeatedly squandered by venal leaders. It is too soon to say what role post-Mubarak Egypt will play in the Middle East, but the events outside its neighbor’s embassy do not augur well. As any honest appraisal of the region will confirm, far worse outcomes have been borne of revolution.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague.

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