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Adrift on the Nile

The Limits of the Opposition in Egypt

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It is hard to believe today, but just four years ago, the Arab world seemed on the brink of dramatic change. During the so-called Arab Spring of early 2005, Iraqis went to the polls for the first time since the demise of Saddam Hussein, Syria withdrew from Lebanon after one million protesters descended on central Beirut, and Saudi Arabia staged municipal elections. In Cairo, activists from across the political spectrum, having grown more confident and savvy, forced the regime of President Hosni Mubarak to cast itself as reform-minded, which loosened the reins on the opposition. The editorial pages of Western newspapers were asking triumphantly if the Middle East had finally arrived at that mythic tipping point.

Within the Bush administration, however, there was detectable unease, particularly when it came to the developments in Egypt. U.S. officials were worrying about how to react, not because they questioned President George W. Bush's "forward strategy of freedom" but because political transformation in Egypt presented a policy puzzle with no simple solution. On the one hand, Mubarak and his associates were profoundly unpopular; on the other, the opposition was thin on democrats and liberals and heavy on leftists, Nasserists, and Islamists, all deeply opposed to the United States. More broadly, the opposition was divided along fault lines that had vexed Egyptian politics for six decades. It was difficult to believe that these groups, acting alone or in a coalition, could dislodge Mubarak.

Since the July 1952 coup in which Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers dislodged King Farouk I, the central question confronting Egyptians has been, what should the state's central ideology be? At first blush, the answer seems obvious. Soon after seizing power, the Free Officers abandoned their plans to reform Egypt's political system in favor of a new order based on nationalism and an ill-defined variant of socialism, and they quickly established unrivaled authority, which their descendants still exercise today. Yet contemporary Egyptian leaders have repeatedly had to fend off deeply attractive alternatives to the regime built by the Free Officers. With the Egyptians preparing for an inevitable transition -- this year, Mubarak will celebrate his 81st birthday and the 28th anniversary of his rule -- the competition is on the upsurge. The main contender, as ever, is the Islamist movement.

Although the stakes of a change in leadership in Cairo are considerably lower for U.S. policymakers and analysts than for the Egyptians, the prospect has sparked a lively debate in Washington. A recent addition to the conversation is Bruce Rutherford's Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World. Readers looking for the inside story on who will succeed Mubarak will be disappointed; there is little gossip in these pages. (Speculation is that Mubarak's son Gamal is being groomed for the top job.) But they will nonetheless be rewarded by Rutherford's ambitious effort to explain how significant political actors, specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, and the business sector, can work in parallel, if not exactly together, to influence the country's trajectory over time. This is a novel approach to analyzing Egyptian politics, the conventional view being that although Egypt's leaders confront myriad economic and political challenges, the state is rarely, if ever, constrained; it just has too much firepower at its disposal.

BROTHERS' KEEPER

A perennial target of this firepower, sometimes literally, has been the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 to save Egyptian society from what he thought was the West's depraving influence. The Brotherhood's mission was to re-Islamize Egypt from below through preaching, education, good works, and even (between the 1940s and the 1960s) violence. It hoped to foster among the Egyptian masses so much demand for a system based on Islam that Egypt's leaders would have to either submit or be swept away. When the Free Officers Movement began to crystallize in the late 1940s, it found allies in the Brotherhood. Not all of the movement's members shared the Brotherhood's desire to build a society closely hewing to Islamic law, but they endorsed its abiding opposition to the West's colonial project in Egypt and the greater Middle East. The Free Officers and the Islamists embraced the same nationalist project.

In the almost 60 years since the Free Officers' coup, much has been written about the Brotherhood and its relationship to the Egyptian political system. Nowadays, Western observers tend to be split in their interpretation of the organization. At one end of the spectrum is The Wall Street Journal, which editorialized in the spring of 2005 that the Brotherhood represents a genuine political movement that Washington cannot ignore without undermining its case for promoting democracy in the Middle East. At the other end are the skeptics, who consider the Muslim Brothers to be extremists. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney summed up this sentiment during a Republican presidential primary debate in 2007 by jumbling together Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood into what he called "the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate." Between these two groups are scholars with a more nuanced view, who claim that the organization has evolved, with its younger leaders embracing accountability, transparency, tolerance, and the rule of law as part of their project for Egypt. Others, although also recognizing recent changes in the Brotherhood, are less sanguine about the group; after all, it has never repudiated its historic goal of establishing an Islamic state based on an inherently antidemocratic interpretation of sharia.

For Rutherford, the Muslim Brothers' evolution into liberal reformers is demonstrable, with the notable exception of their position on women's rights. Putting his Arabic to good use, Rutherford examines firsthand the statements of leading Muslim Brothers to present a thorough account of the organization's record over the past 30 years. Rutherford's narrative is compelling because, unlike many Western analyses of the movement, which tend to portray the Brotherhood as static, it conveys a sophisticated understanding of the Brotherhood's development. Rutherford demonstrates not only that the organization has not engaged in violence during this time but also that it has managed to participate in highly circumscribed elections despite being outlawed by making alliances with parties of various ideological inclinations and proffering electoral platforms that have been in many ways unmistakably liberal.

Still, if Rutherford shows that the Muslim Brothers have earned reformist credentials, he fails to explain why they have so transformed themselves. At first glance, he seems to be making a case comparable to that of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, who argued in The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe that the religious parties of nineteenth-century Europe eventually became the largely secular Christian Democrats of today for reasons that had very little to do with an ideological commitment to democratic principles. Rather, a combination of self-interest and political constraints confronting both party and church leaders unintentionally spawned the contemporary parties. Rutherford's account suggests that various political pressures and incentives have forced the leaders of Egypt's Islamist movement to pursue the path of moderation. This is an interesting insight, as it implies that the Brotherhood, like Europe's religious parties over a century ago (or, more recently, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party), could evolve into a political group only notionally tied to religion.

Unfortunately, Rutherford does not fully explore these potentially rich historical comparisons. Instead, he extensively examines four Islamist intellectuals -- Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tariq al-Bishri, Ahmed Kamal Abu al-Magd, and Muhammad Salim al-Awwa -- who he claims have influenced the Brotherhood's thinking. Although this discussion will be extraordinarily valuable for non-Arabic speakers, who would not otherwise have access to these thinkers' work, Rutherford overstates their impact. Of this group, Westerners are most familiar with Qaradawi, the host of an extremely popular al Jazeera program called Sharia and Life. Qaradawi advocates treating all Israelis as legitimate targets of suicide bombers (since they all serve in the Israel Defense Forces) but holds progressive positions on family law, the status of women, and political reform (he recently told Egyptian government employees to pray less so as to improve their productivity). Central to the thinking of all four theorists, according to Rutherford, is a particularly flexible interpretation of sharia. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, Rutherford claims, the Muslim Brotherhood is interested in establishing a state based not on a strict reading of Islamic law but on principles inspired by it that are inclusive and compatible with modernity.

Rutherford is so confident in this interpretation that he overlooks an obvious red flag. The flexible understanding of sharia favored by Qaradawi and others is indeed alluring, especially to Western audiences, but this elasticity is inherently risky. It certainly makes good politics to paint contentious issues or concepts in broad strokes; doing so guarantees mass appeal and leaves room for political maneuvering. Rutherford seems blithely unaware that these theorists' protean notions can just as easily serve authoritarian policies as liberal ones. The leaders of the Egyptian regime, for example, speak openly about reform and democratization, but they do so with enough ambiguity to nonetheless pursue an inherently antidemocratic agenda. Perhaps the Brotherhood's embrace of liberal principles is more authentic than that of Mubarak and his associates; certainly, its delegates in the People's Assembly have distinguished themselves as serious legislators by holding the government's feet to the fire on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. But whether the Muslim Brothers genuinely are liberals is an empirical question analysts will not be able to answer until they actually govern. In recent years, arguments such as Rutherford's have been used to make the case that the United States should engage the Brotherhood as a progressive force for modernization and political change. Yet so far, the Islamists' ostensible commitment to liberalism remains more assertion than fact.

LEGAL AID

Far more convincing is Rutherford's examination of the Egyptian judiciary's ongoing struggle to preserve its institutional prerogative; the judiciary's resistance, indeed, shows how groups armed with liberal principles can keep a regime in check. Although Egypt's Islamists have received the bulk of attention from policymakers, scholars, and journalists in recent years, the country's judiciary has for decades played a critical role in advancing the debate about power and legitimacy in Egypt's political system. In 1969, Nasser directly assaulted judges' independence and sought to establish a more politicized and pliant judiciary. He dissolved the board of the influential Judges Club and created the Supreme Judicial Council, granting the government control over the appointment and promotion of judges. The strategy was effective, but only to a point. The judges' continued resistance to being politicized forced the government to establish a parallel judicial system staffed with judges sympathetic to the regime: the state security courts and the supreme state security courts. Still, Egypt's regular courts have continued to constrain the Egyptian state in various ways. Since the 1980s, the Supreme Constitutional Court has forced the government to rewrite the country's electoral laws several times, ruling repeatedly that they violated the constitution. In 2005, the Judges Club demanded that it, rather than the Interior Ministry, supervise parliamentary elections, and it forced the government to hold that year's elections in three rounds and reduce the number of polling places from 54,000 to 9,000 so that the country's 8,000 judges could monitor the voting.

As with most things in Egypt, however, there are limits to the judges' power. During the spring of 2006, in a shocking demonstration of official hubris, thugs from the Interior Ministry and troops from the paramilitary Central Security Forces beat supporters of the judiciary who were demonstrating in the streets of downtown Cairo. The proximate cause of the confrontation was the fate of the respected jurists Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, who risked losing their seats on Egypt's highest appeals court after having accused the government of fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections. But the roots of the dispute could be traced back to the government's ongoing attempts to politicize the judicial branch and the judges' efforts to stand up for judicial independence and the rule of law.

The crisis was eventually defused. Bastawisi was slapped on the wrist, Mekki was absolved, and the government made a few cosmetic overtures in response to the judiciary's demands. That outcome did not satisfy the judges or the opposition, but it hardly undermined the significance of their activism: Egypt's judges had proved that they could in many ways act as the conscience of the Egyptian people, many of whom want a more open and democratic future. Without becoming partisan themselves or pouring into the streets as the lawyers of Pakistan regularly do, Egypt's judges can help shape Egypt's political future.

THE BUSINESS OF BUSINESS

The final, and perhaps least persuasive, part of Rutherford's examination of the opposition forces in Egypt concerns the country's business community. The conventional view holds that these movers and shakers ensure their wealth by operating at the nexus of business and politics; business leaders are not clients of the regime so much as integral components of it. The so-called economic dream team of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif -- Rasheed Mohamed Rasheed, the minister of trade and industry; Mahmoud Mohieddin, the minister of investment; and Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the minister of finance -- which has been guiding Egypt's economic policy since 2004, is closely connected to Gamal Mubarak, who is one of the president's sons, his presumptive heir, and deputy chair of the ruling National Democratic Party. The NDP itself has very much become the party of big business, counting among its top ranks members of the business elite such as Ahmed Ezz, Egypt's steel magnate, and Taher Helmy, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. The blurring of lines between the private sector and the political class is not specifically Gamal's doing; the process began with former President Anwar al-Sadat's infitah (opening) and has continued under Hosni Mubarak. The close connection between the NDP and big business today is simply the logical conclusion of a process that began 30 years ago.

And yet Rutherford sees Egypt's big business differently, less as an essential part of the regime than as an increasingly effective lobby championing liberal reforms. As evidence, he points to the fact that Egypt's private sector has grown considerably since Sadat implemented infitah -- according to some analysts, it now accounts for 70 percent of the country's domestic production -- that the country has become investment-friendly, that it boasts a flat tax, and that the privatization of state-owned industries has picked up in recent years. This is unpersuasive, not least because Rutherford overlooks the role of the International Monetary Fund, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s prodded Cairo to pursue liberal economic reforms. More than any domestic player, it is the IMF that has constrained the Egyptian government's economic policymaking. The interests of Egypt's industrial titans may be served by the reforms the Egyptian government has been forced to undertake, but that hardly makes them reformers or liberals. They welcome the modernization of the state's economic and administrative apparatus only because it allows them to use their privileged positions to make the most of the benefits of globalization.

FOREVER MORE

For Rutherford, Western analysts tend to be skeptical of the intentions of Egypt's business community because they are unable to think of "liberal" and "democratic" as discrete concepts. If one separates the two, Rutherford would say, it should become clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, and the business community are, indeed, liberal actors in Egypt. Egypt After Mubarak makes abundantly clear that none of these groups is much interested in democracy, but it suggests that a kind of collective liberalism emerges from their separate efforts to limit the Egyptian state's predatory policies. And if they continue to exert such influence, Rutherford argues, one day they could become catalysts for Egypt's present authoritarian system to become a liberal, if not a democratic, political order.

Given the current state of politics in Egypt, Rutherford's vision of a liberal nondemocratic system would be a vast improvement. Appealing as it is, however, the underlying patterns and processes of Egyptian politics will not allow it to be realized. As Rutherford acknowledges, after a short period of relative political openness between 2003 and early 2005, the political space available to Egypt's opposition has closed considerably. Bloggers, journalists, editors, democracy activists, and judges have been harassed, arrested, beaten, raped, and, in one high-profile case, driven out of the country. Egypt watchers have seen such openings and closings of the public sphere many times before, under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. But the latest round of repression is different; as the opening act of the post-Hosni Mubarak drama, it suggests that the next order will look quite a lot like today's. This is especially likely since Egypt's new leader, be he Gamal or not, can be expected to launch his term by taking steps to consolidate his power. Just as Sadat and Mubarak first promised a more open political environment to garner the goodwill of the people but then quickly reneged, Egypt's next president will crack down as soon as openness threatens to morph into political challenge -- a threshold that is easily met in Egypt.

Like advocates of change in earlier periods, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, the private sector, and other reform-minded groups in Egypt today probably will not be able to constrain the state in the way that Rutherford suggests. The Egyptian government is different from the communist regimes of central and Eastern Europe in 1989, which were buckling under the weight of their internal contradictions; it is both stronger and more flexible than Rutherford believes. Authoritarianism will not rule Egypt forever. But with a track record of some 7,000 years already, it could remain the law of the land for a very long time to come.

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