Monday, January 30, 2012

Mordechai Kedar: An Old Governmental System in Formation

by Mordechai Kedar

Exactly one year ago, on the 25th of January, 2011, great masses of Egyptian youth began to stream into Al-Tahrir Square (Tahrir = "Freedom" from the British occupation) in protest against the tyrannical and corrupt rule of Husni Mubarak, who occupied the seat of power for almost thirty years. He was the fourth of the presidents, or, rather, rulers, who governed Egypt since the Free Officers' Revolution on July 23, 1952. He was preceded by Naguib, Abd Al-Nassar and Sa'adat. There haven't been true elections in Egypt since that revolution and the entire governmental system was nothing but a sham rubber stamp for the decisions that landed on the president's (ruler's) desk. This governmental system was composed of The Peoples' Council (the Lower House), the Council of the Shura (Upper House), a government, president and legal system. Every few years, elections for the People's Council were held, as well as a referendum on whether to extend the term of the rais, but everyone knew that the political makeup of the House of Representatives was predetermined by the president and the Department of the Interior was nothing but an "elections contractor", whose role was to produce the appearance of true elections among candidates whose sole interest was to have a seat in the parliament, even though the parliament didn't have any real duties.

The ruling party in Mubarak's days was "The National Democratic Party", whose representatives occupied most of the seats of the council, and assured that Mubarak would have an easy life: Almost no one voted against him, and even if there were those who dared to unite in opposition, they couldn't have removed him from his seat. The institutions of government operated in accordance with the constitution, whose role was to assure that the president would remain in his seat until his last breath, with the illusion of a democratically elected system. Thus, the "People's Council" became a rubber stamp for the president, and all was in accordance with the constitution and the law.

Moreover, an important goal of the constitution was to prevent the entry of religious elements into the ruling system, no matter if they were Muslims or Christians. It was clear to all that the results of the elections reflected the desire and intentions of the president more than the expression of the peoples' choice: When Mubarak wanted to frighten the West so that Europe and the United States would support him, he enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to take about 20 percent of the seats in the People's Council, about 80 members, whereas at another time he allowed them to enter only one candidate.

With the passing of years, cosmetic changes were made to the constitution, mainly because of a public demand that took the form of demonstrations. But the Egyptian people never succeeded in forcing the president to accept a significant change in the constitution, law or system of government in ways considered normal in a democracy.

Since last January, when the riots broke out, and even more so since Mubarak submitted his resignation on February 11, 2011, the internal political arena in Egypt is occupied with one great question: How to build the future system of government. This question can be divided into sub-questions: What will be the party composition of the People's Council? And who will be permitted to establish a party? How can egalitarian and fair elections be assured in a country that never had such elections? What will be the division of authorities between the People's Council, the president and the court system, in such a way that another dictatorship will not be created in Egypt? How is it possible to manage such a complex and complicated state in a way that everyone has freedom to express their opinion, yet someone must make decisions and carry them out?

In the month of March a referendum was held on an amendment to the constitution, according to which, elections to the People's Council, whose main role is to legislate laws and to oversee the state's authorities, would be held over two months, from November through January. Egypt is divided into 27 regions, and these elections are held in three parts, each part including nine regions. For the first time, it was permitted to establish parties on a religious basis. The results of the elections reflect this internal segmentation of the Egyptian people well.

Religious parties: The Freedom and Justice Party, part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, won 235 seats, which is 47.2% of the Council. The Salafi party, "The Light", won 123 seats, which is 24.7% of the Council. Here we must note that the Salafi party is actually a combination of three parties: "The Light", which won 106 seats, "Building and Development", which won 13 seats and "Originality", which got 3 seats. There is another moderate religious party, "The Center", which won ten seats.

All of the secular parties together won less than a third of the seats of the Council: the old "Wafd" party won 38 seats, which is 7.6%, the "Egyptian Bloc Alliance" got 43 seats, 8.5%, "The Reform and Development", 9 seats - 1.8%, "The Continuing Revolution", 7 seats, which is 1.4%, and another eight splinter parties with less than 7 seats.

The results of these elections are a terrible blow to the secular groups. They were the ones who, with their bodies and their blood took down Mubarak, and then the religious people came and stole the state from them.

This week, for the first time this year, the Egyptian People's Council (Maglis Al-Sha'ab), which is usually called the Lower House, met. The People's Council has 508 members, among them 498 elected by the public and ten who are appointed by the High Military Council. The elected Leader of the House is a Representative of the largest party, "Freedom and Justice", aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The argument these days revolves around the question of the relationship between Islam and the state. Already at the swearing-in ceremony of the representatives, a person who belonged to the Salafi party announced that he will keep the constitution and the laws of the state only as long as they don't contradict Islamic Shari'a. The head of the meeting, a man from the secular "Wafd" party, stopped the swearing-in process until the religious representative said the accepted, official version.

The Muslim Brotherhood aspires to establish a "civilian state", where the source of the authority of the constitution is Islamic Shari'a in such a way that the laws of the state will reflect the will of the people and at the same time not contradict Shari'a. The Brothers object to the establishment of a religious state, because in Islam there cannot exist a situation where one man rules another in the name of religion. The Salafis don't accept the term "civil state", because they fear that the intention of the expression is a secular state.

The next phase of the elections is the Upper House, the "Shura Council". In the past its members were appointed by the president, but as a result of the revolution it will now be the people who will elect its representatives. The last phase will be the election of the president, and these elections too will occur in three parts. According to the plan, the process of elections will be finished by the month of June, and then - when the new, stable governmental system already exists, the High Military Council, under Fieldmarshall Hussein Tantawi, will transfer authority to the new government.

Another task of the new system is the rewording of the constitution, and for this, a committee of 100 people was selected, who represent all sectors of Egyptian society. The constitution must deal with several basic questions that represent difficult bones of contention within Egyptian society:

1. The status of religion and its laws: the religious bodies pose a question that is difficult to answer: How can a human institution, whose members are elected by other people and not by He who Sits in the Supernal Heights devise laws? In Islam there is a total differentiation between "Halacha", which is heavenly law, determined by the eternal Creator, and "invented laws", produced by temporary parliaments according to the interests and weaknesses of human beings. Religious law is accepted, but the "invented" laws are considered fundamentally illegitimate.

2. The status of minorities, principally the Coptic Christian minority: This question is connected to the previous question, because Islam holds that Christians and Jews can live under Islamic auspices, but only under the conditions of dhimmitude. Their status is not equal to that of the Muslims, but inferior. They can no have jobs where they are in positions superior to Muslims and must pay a special tax, the jizya, which Muslims are exempt from paying. Their houses must be lower in height than the town mosque, and they may not sell wine publicly. This view of the Copts is very problematic, because the Copts see themselves as the original residents of Egypt, not invaders like the Muslims who arrived in the seventh century CE, so they are very anxious these days about the increasing Islamic control of the building of churches and monasteries, and because of the lack of enforcement of public order when they are attacked by a mob, their possessions are looted, they are bodily injured and their churches are burnt. Many emigrate to any country that is willing to accept them.

3. The status of the military: During the sixty years of the "Free Officers" rule, the military's status has strengthened to the point where it is above that of the state. Many of the laws of the state are imposed on "The simple people", but these laws do not refer to the officers and the soldiers, who are "above" the "simple people". The military is permitted to shoot citizens if they - in the opinion of the military - cause harm to the public order. Today, the military also rules the state since the suspension of the constitution last February for "half a year", that still has not ended. These questions, which are connected to the status of the military, effect the ability of the elected representatives to have influence in the appointment of officers, in declaration of war against enemies and in many of the extensive economic matters of the military.

Also the question of legal judgment is influenced by the status of the military. In Egypt there is a custom where a man accused of a crime of national security is put on trial in front of a military court. The laws of evidence in military law are different from those of a civil court; the accused doesn't have professional representation, and the punishments are more severe. Over the years, it has been mostly people of the Muslim Brotherhood who have been tried in military courts. The demand to put an end to this was put forward many years ago, and there is a good chance that this will change in the near future.

4. Division of authority between parliament, the government, prime minister and president: In a state in which there is a civil tradition, these things are determined on the basis of consensus. In an autocratic state like Egypt, any movements that place the citizen in the center are smothered. And since the president can harm anyone who tries to limit his authority, a tradition of discourse has not developed that would allow dealing with disagreements peacefully. A severe situation could develop when a disagreement might break out between the parliament, which was elected by the people, and the president, who was also elected by the people. A situation such as this could cause political collapse and systemic paralysis.

5. International agreements: An important question for the designers of the future Egypt is the extent to which the state will be obligated to keep commitments of the previous government. On one hand, the accepted norm is that a change in regime, government, or parliament is no reason to cancel international state commitments. In the case of Egypt of today, the question centers on the peace with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared since 1978, when the Camp David Agreements were signed between Israel and Egypt, that Israel is not a legitimate entity, and therefore it's impossible, according to Islam, to make peace with it, since peace would give to Israel an "insurance policy". Will Egypt indeed cancel the peace agreement with Israel in the future? Will it continue to allow Israeli ships to pass through the Suez Canal as it has since the signing of the peace agreement, or perhaps it will block Israeli ships from the canal. This question becomes particularly difficult when considering the ships of the Israeli Navy, which must pass through the canal because of the tension in the Persian Gulf.

Other agreements between Egypt and Europe are connected to tourism, and there are many today in Egypt, mostly Salafis, who call for doing away with tourism altogether for reasons connected to morality, drugs and alcohol.

It can be assumed that significant changes relating to Egypt in the international context will not occur, because Egypt is dependent economically on the supply of food from the United States, and this will force Egypt to behave in a way that is acceptable to the world.

Another question has been raised recently, which is the name of the state, which expresses its national priorities. The name of Egypt was changed by its presidents several times: after the consolidation with Syria in 1958 it was called "The Arab Republic of Egypt", placing its Arab identity before anything else. Sa'adat changed its name to the "Arab Egyptian Republic", placing the Egyptian identity before the Arab one, and that was how policy was conducted in the Arab world: particular Egyptian considerations were more important to Egypt than Arab interests. This approach enabled Egypt to sign a peace treaty with Israel, contrary to the stance of all the other Arab states.

And now, the matter of the name of the state will be addressed, and the fact that today, the word "Islam" is absent from it. It could be that the name of the state will be changed again, and this time it will be something like "The Muslim Arab State of Egypt".

The question of the political identity of the next president is very important. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood is not putting forth its own candidate for president. Will it be this way in the future? Only time will tell. A secular president might be in continual conflict with the religious majority in parliament, and and Islamist president might frighten the world, as did Erdogan and Isma'il Haniye.

This week the citizens of Egypt received a one-year-after-the-revolution anniversary gift: Tantawi cancelled the emergency orders under which the Egyptian regime ruled during the Mubarak years, which allowed it to arrest people and hold them indefinitely. Immediately after the revolution of last January these laws were repealed but were enacted again as a result of the street riots. Now they are again repealed, and the question is whether this situation will continue, or will the laws be re-enacted again if there is a deterioration in stability.

Egypt stands today at a great and fateful junction of decision, in which each of the decisions influences the others. When the economy collapses, foreign investments are stopped and tourism is frozen, the ability of Egypt to prepare for the future seems fairly limited.

We in Israel can only wish Egypt "a complete and speedy recovery" and if it is willing to allow us, to help it secretly out of its difficulties. Secretly, because in the Middle East, participation with Israel is not seen as something positive. In our area, mushrooms grow quite well, but mostly in the dark...


Dr. Mordechai Kedar ( is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the
Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally.

Links to Dr. Kedar's recent articles on this blog:

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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