Egypt’s Political Process: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
June 22, 2012
Car manufacturers know, if a new model sells well, stay with it. Simply introduce enhancements annually -- but, having made it popular, don't abandon it for one untested. In a way -- with one major difference -- this is what has happened in Egypt's effort to form a post-Mubarak government -- an effort set back by recent developments.
After a three-phase process to elect members of Parliament and the first of a two-phase process to narrow the field of 13 presidential candidates to two, the highest court issued two rulings the week before the presidential election:
1) Islamists violated the law by running candidates for Parliament's lower house seats (one-third) reserved for independent candidates. Therefore, Parliament had to be dissolved.
2) The non-Islamist presidential candidate, former Mubarak prime minister and air force general, Ahmed Shafiq, could run despite a 10-year ban against former Mubarak government officials -- a ban imposed by that same Parliament. This second ruling logically flowed from the first -- i.e., if the Parliament was illegal, so too was the ban it passed.
To outsiders, the court seemed to be tilting the political playing field away from the Islamists despite the people's support.
Like the introduction of a new model car, Egypt introduced a new model process for transitioning its leadership from autocracy to democracy. Unlike the model car, which gets road-tested and then is marketed, the model for Egypt's leadership transition failed to get beyond a road test before its results were abandoned by the court. The reason for doing so, while not lacking legality, was also prompted by concerns held by two Egyptian institutions over the direction the country was heading.
The two institutions retaining power since the country's Arab Spring came of season are the courts and the military -- both creatures of Hosni Mubarak's rule enjoying a certain sense of familiarity and cooperation with each other. This was evident not only by the timing of the ruling -- just days before the presidential election -- but also by the military's reinstatement of martial law the day before it was issued.
Both institutions recognize the need for stability during the transition process; both share fears, despite the people's overwhelming preference for Islamists demonstrated by their parliamentary vote, what an Islamist-dominated government really means for Egypt's future as well as their own. Based on experiences of other countries within the Muslim community of nations, these Egyptian institutions perceived two potential models for Egypt -- one to be good, one bad; the former embraced by Turkey, the latter by Iran.
No one leader, within his lifetime, proved more successful in changing a nation's mindset concerning its political process than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He brought an end to the Ottoman Empire, founding the Republic of Turkey in 1923. As a young student first enrolled in a traditional religious school, he quickly realized the importance of modern education. He saw his future, and later that of Turkey's, tied to accepting an evolving world rather than tied down to an antiquated one. For that reason, from the time he founded the republic until his death in 1938, Ataturk impressed upon his people a secular government translated into a better life for them than did an Islamic one. That mandate eventually led Turkey to become the most productive and most tolerant of human rights among Muslim states. To help preserve Turkey's secularism, the military took on the role of ultimate protector -- one it exercised several times after Ataturk's death when the state exhibited signs of sliding toward Islamism. Thus, both the existing courts and military benefitted under this model.
In contrast to this is Iran. After its revolution overthrew an autocratic shah, it was hijacked by religious extremists. The strict Islamist leadership hoisted upon the Iranian people knows neither tolerance nor human dignity. Among those institutions quickly minimized were the courts and the military. Female judges were removed for lack of intellectual capacity to render judgments and Shariah was imposed upon the courts. While the military was retained, its leadership was removed. Troop loyalty was questioned, resulting in creation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from among "the faithful," sworn to protect the regime and counter the regular army's influence. Both the existing courts and military lost influence under this model.
Perhaps Egypt's high court saw its actions delaying the transition of power to Islamists as a means of buying more time for the Egyptian people to better understand their support for them was misguided. Certain Islamist promises made hadn't been kept -- such as limiting their seats in Parliament and not running a presidential candidate. Furthermore, while Egypt's military, unlike Turkey's, lacked authority to safeguard secularism, it sought to give the Egyptian people every chance to transition to it, hoping its favored presidential candidate -- Shafiq -- would prevail.
As it became evident during the Sunday election the court's actions prior to it had not deterred Egyptians from supporting Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi, who took a commanding lead, it became the military's turn to act. Twenty minutes after the polls closed, it issued a constitutional decree minimizing presidential powers and maximizing its own. The decree confirmed worries a "soft" military coup, perceived prior to the presidential election, had now turned "hard."
The political process of transitioning away from autocracy in Egypt has turned ugly. One can only hope a model of government evolves serving the best interests of the people. Whether that evolution seeks out what the West perceives to be "the bad" Islamist model or "the good" secular one awaits the people's ultimate decision. What they have already made known via their legislative and presidential votes clearly isn't being heeded by the military. Whether the military's actions stem from a desire to retain power or a belief the people simply don't know what is best for them remains to be seen -- as does the people's willingness to accept military rule.
In any event, Egypt's revolution is clearly back to Square One.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.