- Published on Thursday, 13 October 2011 08:29
- Category: Letters From Egypt
As everybody knows, under the rule of Hosni Mubarak religiously inclined political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood were outlawed, though Brotherhood candidates still ran for office as independents. Now that Mubarak is gone, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to run openly for Parliament. And while the ruling Military Council has maintained the law forbidding religious political parties, there is no question that other political parties in Egypt with a religious reference will arise. There has even been an effort to enroll at least some Christians into the new Islamic-reference parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, for example, includes a Christian Vice-President, and boasts 100+ Copts among their 10,000 members. Though I am unaware if other Islamic-reference parties also have Christian members, the precedent set for the Freedom and Justice Party of the Brotherhood has led also to a party for al-Jama’a al-Islamiya and various Salafi trends. No semblance of a Coptic party has yet emerged, but the Free Egyptian Party, financed by wealthy Coptic businessman Naguib Siwaris, is composed 30% of Copts, far above their percentage in population.
Like their Muslim counterparts, Egyptian Copts have long been depoliticized. Many are fearful of the Islamist developments in politics. Yet the effort to draw Copts further into the emerging political system has been slow going, and leads also to an anecdote illustrating the fluid nature of customary and legal politics.
Living as I do in Cairo, my family and I attend St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi. My wife regularly attends a mostly women’s Sunday School meeting, and on this particular day there was advertised a talk on the topic of “Raising Political Consciousness.” Eager to hear how the topic would be presented, I joined in the meeting. The speaker was a member of the church who delivered an engaging lecture on the basics of civics. There are different types of political systems, he explained, going through the basics of American democracy, various European examples, as well as the Egyptian system under President Mubarak. He explained the technical aspects of the new election laws, in which half of the representatives would be selected in a winner-take-all election, and the other half in a list-based party arrangement. As an American, I recognized our standard winner-take-all individual candidacy approach, but I took an interest in the unfamiliar list-based system, which is used more frequently in Europe.
Under this arrangement, political parties submit a list of candidates for election, which may be done in coalition with other parties. Voters then select one entire list among the different choices offered, and the percentage of votes received determine the percentage of candidates elected. If the list contained ten names and the party received 30% of the total vote, for example, the top three candidates named on the list would be victorious.
It is still unclear how the combination of winner-take-all and list-based elections will exist side-by-side in Egypt, and most political parties are unsatisfied with the system issued by the military council and interim government. Yet the speaker tried to educate the group about a possible deception which might occur as parties lobby for Coptic votes, especially on the part of Islamic-reference trends. For example, the Freedom and Justice Party (not specifically named by the speaker) might place a few of its hundred Coptic members on their official list, and proclaim how they are not just a Muslim party but also seeking election of Coptic representatives. Yet if these Coptic names appear near the bottom of the list, it will be extremely unlikely they will reach the percentage threshold necessary to be elected. If a party placed a Coptic candidate near the top of a list, or in the winner-take-all election, that would be a different gesture entirely.
Ultimately, the speaker recommended that the audience do indeed take part in shaping the emerging political system, especially as many are fearful their rights could be trampled upon if the next government is overly Islamic. Up until now the lecture was basic, educational, and a very valid plea to overcome lingering de-politicization. When he stated clearly they should enroll in liberal political parties, however, my American ears began perking up. When he further mentioned his own political party, and invited anyone to come and take literature about it, my eyes began to bulge.
In American politics it is both customary and illegal for churches to endorse particular parties or candidates. There is customary leniency on issues, but the non-profit and tax-exempt status of churches prohibits them from using their religious leverage to serve a political cause. Yet the laws in Egypt are still emerging, and customary procedures are under debate.
To be certain, the literature made available was rather innocuous. It stated very little about the particular party, and instead was a general call to recognize politics as an essential part of life – the best means to defend your rights. In fact, it specifically states: It is not important that you become a member in a party, it is important that you work for the benefit of your neighborhood... If there is any respectable man you would be honored to have him represent you, encourage him to nominate himself. If the ideas of any party impress you, join it.
By no means was this partisan literature. Yet the name, logo, and contact information for the speaker’s party were clearly and prominently visible. The speaker was careful not to be forceful in his invitation; indeed, he was almost sheepish. He later stated, however, that he did not ask permission before making the party literature available. No one in the audience seemed to be offended; some approached for literature while others left and went their way. One person I asked later did state that the action was a bit controversial, and may have been uncustomary, but that it was not a big deal.
St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi is in an upscale neighborhood, and many of its members have lived or studied in foreign countries and are familiar with (and envious of) their political cultures. To a degree this may help explain the hesitation experienced in the meeting. Yet according to many media reports, such decorum is completely missing in many of Egypt’s mosques. This is not surprising, given that Western and Christian influenced societies have largely accepted the notion of separation of church and state. Many Muslims, however, and especially Islamists, believe that politics is an essential component of religion, as Islam encompasses all of life.
The upshot was most visible during the constitutional referendum of March 19, in which the population was asked to either validate or reject the military council roadmap to amend the current constitution, paving the way for legislative elections, which would select the council to draft a new constitution, followed by presidential elections. Though it is true the referendum was somewhat hastily organized, and the consequences of either choice were not clear, many Islamist leaders urged Muslims to vote “yes,” with a few even declaring it to be a religious duty. Not a few liberals also voted yes, finding the rapid return of the military to its barracks to be the best outcome of the transitional process. Still, the religious influence was unquestionable (though probably not decisive), and 77% of voters approved the referendum.
Following the approval of this roadmap, liberals warned that if the legislature is dominated by Islamists, they would craft laws to their advantage. Then again, maybe they would not. Maybe they would respect the will of the revolution and the promises made to liberal parties to establish a civil democratic state through cooperation. Egyptian politics is now dominated by the elusiveness of that question.
America endured thirteen years from its declaration of independence to the ratification of its constitution. This period was full of sharp rhetoric between federalist and anti-federalist political camps, each with radically divergent beliefs on how best to shape the government. America inherited a customary political process from England, but its formalization was much more difficult and negotiated in light of its particular history. In the end the federalist position triumphed, and political forces fell in line. Significant evolution in American democracy has continued to the present day.
It is hoped this history may be of encouragement to Egypt. Yes, issues being discussed now are of vital and foundational importance. After seven months, however, the renegotiation of customary politics into formalized structures has only just begun. It is contentious, and it should be. It requires, however, that all parties o play the game, and eventually fall in line. If not there will be either a reemergence of autocracy or a descent into anarchy.by Jayson Casper, Aslan Media Contributor