Bastion of Islamism: Egypt and the New Middle East

25 06 2012

I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.  I lived in Egypt for four years, under Mubarak, and I never would have guessed that within a few years he would be overthrown, and the arch nemesis of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would win an election.  Yet, it has happened, and after a very long, drawn out, meticulous reading of the election results on Sunday afternoon, which I presume has served as a torture tactic in Egyptian prisons, finally the commission announced MB candidate Mohamed Morsi as the winner of the run-off, beating the former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq.  Of course, the real hard work begins now, in dealing with old and new political institutions, the religious establishment, and the demands of the revolutionaries.  Plus, external powers will have to be reassured of the preservation of their regional interests.  The status quo persistently lurks in the shadows.

In my opinion, neither Shafiq nor Morsi were good candidates for a progressive future.  The former represents the Mubarak regime, and the latter’s religious platform generates apprehension especially among many women, religious minorities (i.e., the Coptic Christians), the revolutionary youth movement, and secularists and moderates.  Morsi inherits an unenviable task and circumstance, although anyone in his shoes would have faced similar daunting challenges.

Some of the pressing priorities and challenges awaiting him are worth reviewing:

Economic challenges:

This is by far the number one priority and challenge that Morsi faces.  Tourism has been hit hard since the 2011 revolution, and businesses and industries have suffered losses.  Labor disputes have erupted, and in fact a labor dispute is what started the whole revolutionary movement (April 6th youth movement).  Getting the economic engine going and in fact getting it to surpass previous growth levels will be analogous to climbing Everest ten times.  But, that is what’s needed.  Going back to pre-revolution economic status will not be sufficient.  For this to occur, the Egyptian economy will have to open up and diversify significantly, plus simultaneous advances in education and training (including technological training) must be implemented.  Given the meager literacy rates in Egypt (males 77%; females 62%), that alone will be a formidable challenge.

Political challenges:

There is already talk about SCAF setting a trap for Morsi, especially given that the constitution has yet to be written.  The political challenges are immense, and the uncertainties regarding SCAF’s agendas are great cause for concern.  Morsi will have to tread with extraordinary political savvy, and his lack of previous political experience already renders him politically handicapped.  He will need the most politically shrewd and skilled circle of advisers around him.  How likely that is remains to be seen.

Ideological challenges:

Internal ideological challenges within the MB, but also involving the religious establishment, will create factionalism and could engender indecision and/or poor social policies.  If Morsi gives in to pressures for instituting strict Islamist policies, many aspects of socioeconomic development and human rights can be seriously derailed and undermined.  Another ideological challenge is the impact of regional developments, mainly what’s happening in Syria, which in reality symbolizes the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry (i.e., Asad’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah).  Although Morsi has already expressed improving relations with Iran, the Syrian conflict, along with a possible US-Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could escalate the sectarian tensions in the region.  In that scenario, Egypt will be compelled to side with the status quo.

Regional challenges:

Israel is the number one regional relations issue for Egypt, and Morsi’s position regarding the Camp David Accords will be greatly scrutinized especially by Western powers.  In addition, instability in Libya next door may have an impact on political and security issues in Egypt, not to mention the problems in Sudan.  Floods of refugees into Egypt have long caused pressures on the local economy, and with continuing conflicts in these neighboring states, it could worsen.  Morsi says he wants to improve relations with Iran.  Given Iran’s support for the Asad regime in Syria, this might not prove a popular stance domestically, but it is still a step in the right direction, since Egyptian-Iranian relations have remained strained for years.  Who knows, at some point maybe Egypt could play a significant role in diplomacy involving Iran and her adversaries in the region and also in the West.  If Egypt can rise once again as a major regional player, then that will truly be a huge feather in Morsi’s cap.

External foreign relations challenges:

Egypt’s relations with the US and other Western powers will be critical for her socioeconomic development.  The caveat in this is the gauntlet laid down by SCAF, much of which remains unknown, in terms of treading that path smoothly in the transition process.  So far, the US has congratulated Morsi upon his win.  But, that does not mean that he will not be viewed with skeptical eyes and heavy scrutiny.  Moreover, he risks undermining his own credibility if he starts to wave the Islamist flag a bit too fervently.  Morsi and his government will have to maintain a delicate balance between Islamism and democracy, and along those lines, the “Turkish model” of the AKP has been repeatedly cited.  Morsi and company will remain under the microscope for a long time.

Morsi will face many pressures and temptations to invoke and perhaps implement stricter Islamic rules and policies in post-Mubarak Egypt.  If he leans more towards such matters and issues, then it will be an indication of his lack of focus on the real priorities of the country, those that pertain to socioeconomic development and progress, alleviating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the quality of life for the masses.

If other Islamist parties/organizations are any indication of the direction that they are inclined to take, for example Hamas and Hezbollah, then there is every reason to be skeptical about the MB in Egypt.  Islamist groups in the region have failed miserably to illustrate a keen capability to govern effectively and uphold fundamental human rights.  In the end, the successes of Islamist parties may render the region a bastion of Islamism, but with nothing substantive to show for it.  Let’s see if they can prove the skeptics wrong.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views


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The Tunisian Model: A Promising Outlook

5 03 2012

I spent the last week in Tunisia and returned last night.  One year after the revolution, Tunisia looks impressive, and the outlook for the country’s economic and political development seems promising and bursting with potentials.  Tunisia is not without problems and bumps in the road to formulating some sort of hybrid Islamic democracy, although no one expects a smooth glide to post-revolution successes in all aspects of society.  That would be naïve for sure.

Tunisian nationalist pride is evident everywhere, and in terms of economic health, one notices construction projects proliferating the skyline in Tunis and elsewhere.  The souk (market) in the old quarter of Medina in Tunis is bustling with activity, but the number of tourists is still not up to standard.  Clearly, the usual crowds of foreigners filling the Tunisian streets and major sites are missing, and this is cause for worry, as the Tunisian economy relies heavily on tourism.  It is not peak tourist season yet, as that happens in the warmer summer months.  But still, people are anxious about uncertainties ahead and the ability to draw foreign investments and tourists.  French and German businesses are quite active in Tunisia, hiring young, tech-savvy Tunisians.  A Gulf-based Islamic bank has been built in Tunis.  The foreign investments are trickling in, but there is still a greater need for more.

The infrastructure functions well, despite the revolution’s overwhelming impact.  Locals informed me that the electricity never shut off, and water keeps flowing in the tap.  There is still unemployment and in the south one finds poverty and labor disputes, plus the grape vine reports serious concerns about Libyan migrants and some unsavory characters crossing into Tunisia from the Tunisian-Libyan border.  In general, Tunisia finds herself at a crossroads:  from reading the locals’ faces, it appears that for the most part everyone is very pleased to see the former dictator Ben Ali go.  Yet, there is anxiety about the way ahead, but nothing like the tension we find in Libya and Egypt.  Tunisia even prides herself as the potential future model for the Arab Middle East, whereas at one time the “Turkish model” was cited.  Tunisians see themselves as the torchbearers.

In order for Tunisia to truly live up to that image, the post-revolution government will need to develop effectively, particularly focusing on employment demands and improved income distribution.  The degree of corruption in the Ben Ali era has left an indelible mark on the Tunisian people, and they are firmly determined never to allow that to happen again.  Many political institutions remain intact, which, one scholar tells me, will allow the future government to function well.  They won’t have to rebuild institutions from square one.  The constitution is still being drawn up, but some speculate that it might be completed within a year.

Of course, there are still some Ben Ali era elements lingering within Tunisia, and I was even told that some Qaddafi family members have fled into the country as well.  These elements only add to the collective anxiety, but overall, Tunisia appears to be on the road to political development and long term prosperity.  These processes will take time, and the Tunisians are very much aware of that.  Everyone I spoke to expressed great optimism, and some even expressed Tunisia’s trailblazing role in triggering the regional uprisings as also a sign that Tunisians will serve as the role model for the post-dictatorship governments to follow.  Right now, Tunisians are sorting out what that model will look like – secular liberal democracy, or some combination of Islam and democracy – and while the subject may be contentious, the discourse and debates I observed were nothing less than civil and respectful.  One year later, Tunisia is deeply and collectively introspective, and may eventually emerge as the model for the region to follow.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.