ISSUES, POLITICS AND RELIGION IN EGYPT
Egypt is officially known as the Arab Republic of Egypt. It is in north-eastern Africa and south-western Asia. Most of the country lies in Africa, but the easternmost portion of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, is usually considered part of Asia; it forms the only land bridge between the two continents. Most of Egypt’s terrain is desert, divided into two unequal parts by the Nile River. The valley and delta of the Nile are the main centers of habitation. The capital and largest city is Cairo.1
Egypt has been a coherent political entity with a recorded history since about 3200 BC. One of the first civilizations to develop irrigated agriculture, literacy, urban life, and large-scale political structures arose in the Nile Valley. The annual flood of the Nile provided for a stable agricultural society. Egypt’s strategic location between Asia and Africa and on the route between the Mediterranean basin and India and China made it an important hub of international trade. Beginning in the 4th century BC, a series of conquerors brought new religions and languages to the land. However, Egypt’s rich agricultural resources, pivotal commercial position, and long-term political unity have sustained a high level of cultural continuity. Although present-day Egypt is an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking and Islamic country, it retains important aspects of its past Christian, Greco-Roman, and ancient indigenous heritage.2
Muslim Arab invaders conquered Egypt in ad 641, and Egypt has been a part of the Muslim and Arab worlds ever since. The foundations of the modern state were established by Muhammad Ali, who served as viceroy of Egypt from 1805 to 1849, while the country was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. After 40 years of direct British colonial rule, Egypt became an independent monarchy in 1922. However, British policies enforced by a continuing military occupation limited its independence. In 1952 a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and established Egypt as a republic. Nasser negotiated the evacuation of the last British troops from Egypt by 1956. In 1979, under President Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state of Israel. Egypt remains an important political and cultural center for the entire Arab world. In 2005 Egypt held its first-ever multiparty presidential election.3
Egypt has the oldest continuously existing civilization in the world. Most scholars believe that the Egyptian kingdom was first unified in about 3100 bc. Egypt maintained its independence and unity for many centuries thereafter. It suffered disunity now and then and experienced brief periods of foreign domination—by the Semitic Hyksos in the 17th and 16th centuries BC, the Assyrians in the 7th century BC, and the Persians in the 6th and 5th centuries BC—before the arrival of Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Alexander made Egypt a part of his vast empire. Alexander’s empire broke up after his death in 323 bc. One of his generals, Ptolemy, became ruler of Egypt, and in 305 bc he assumed the title of king. Ptolemy founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. Under these rulers, Egypt became a center of the Hellenistic world—that is, the vast region, encompassing the eastern Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, in which Greek culture and learning were preeminent from Alexander’s conquest until the 1st century BC. Although the Ptolemies preserved many native traditions, they remained unpopular because they kept Egyptians from important governmental posts.4
The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, ruling it as a province of their empire for the next several centuries. One of the first countries to be exposed to Christianity, Egypt became predominantly Christian by the end of the 3rd century ad. In 395, when the Roman Empire was divided, Egypt was included in the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire. By the 5th century a bitter religious dispute over the nature of Christ, involving a doctrine known as Monophysitism, had developed in the Eastern church.5 This dispute pitted the Coptic Church, Egypt’s indigenous Christian body, and other Middle Eastern Christians against the Byzantine rulers. The conflict weakened Byzantine rule in Egypt and helped open the way to the conquest of Egypt by an Arab army in 641. Many Egyptians welcomed the Arab conquerors as liberators.
Hosni Mubarak rose to power in 1981, after Anwar Sadat’s assassination. After a period of relative tolerance in the 1980s, Mubarak’s authoritarian rule deepened in the 1990s: civil and political rights were restricted; the party law was amended; press freedom was significantly limited and repression was used against political opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).7 Owing to these restrictions and to widespread interference in the electoral process through fraud, repression and intimidation, the parliamentary elections of 1990, 19954
Egypt was a constitutional monarchy from 1923 to 1952, when military officers seized control of the government. Although Egypt became a republic in 1953, it essentially remained a military dictatorship dominated by a single political party. In 1978 a multiparty political system was instituted and Egypt became governed under a constitution that was approved by a national referendum in 1971. The constitution, which was amended in 1977, 1980, 2005, and 2007 provides for an Arab socialist state with Islam as the official religion. It also stresses social solidarity, equal opportunity, and popular control of production.
Political power is concentrated primarily in the presidency. Since 1952 Egypt’s presidents have risen from the military, which holds considerable authority in the government. The orientation and policies of the government have shifted considerably with changes in the presidency. In May 2005 voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for multiparty presidential elections by secret ballot. Previously, the president was selected by the legislature and approved by a yes or no referendum and 2000 resulted in an unprecedented majority for the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP).
In the early 2000s, alongside the second Palestinian Intifada and, successively, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Egypt started experiencing growing political dynamism. In 2004-05, protests intensified, with a number of opposition parties and movements (e.g. the Kifaya movement, the Judges Club, al Ghad party and the MB) demanding political reform, including the amendment of the constitution in order to allow for competitive presidential elections, the end of the state of emergency, the removal of restrictive legal constraints on the activities of parties, civil society organisations and the media, and a free and fair electoral process. In response to the above-mentioned pressures, the regime was thus forced to make some, albeit limited, concessions, enacting a series of amendments to the constitution.7 However, in spite of the constitutional changes that allowed for the direct popular election of the president, the conditions for candidate eligibility remained very strict, effectively enabling the NDP to decide who could run against the incumbent (Dunne, 2006).6 Moreover, the party laws still precluded a realistic possibility of anyone other than the NDP coming into power.8 As a result, although the first multi-candidate presidential elections were held in September 2005 and nine candidates ran against the President, Mubarak, as expected, won the election with 87% of the vote.8 Similarly, at the 2005 parliamentary elections, the NDP continued to manage electoral politics, through vote buying, fraud and intimidation.
Nevertheless, at the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood candidates were llowed to campaign much more openly than in the past, albeit as independents, and non-governmental organizations monitored the elections. So, while the ruling NDP maintained its two-thirds majority, the Muslim Brothers made significant gains, for the first time, obtaining, with the victory of 88 candidates, more seats (20% of total) than any other opposition group.
The unexpected electoral success of the MB paved the way for the regime to take a series of deliberalisation measures: cracking down on political opponents and popular protests. Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the political opposition in Egypt was very weak due to many factors. As said above, the regime implemented a number of instruments to weaken opposition: repression and harassment; refusal to legalise parties and organisations that could threaten the regime; electoral manipulation; and co-option of many non-governmental associations and trade unions. Furthermore, the long-standing emergency law, in place since 1981, served to prohibit strikes, censor newspapers and constrain any activities of the opposition in the name of national security. Aside repression, legal secularist parties were weak also because of internal deficiencies: lack of internal democracy, little organisational capacity, lack of resources and, most importantly, limited constituencies.
New movements such as Kifaya (the Egyptian Movement for Change – “Enough”), which appeared in the winter of 2004, initially appeared more dynamic than legal parties, engaging in numerous public protests, directly criticising Mubarak and his family, and opposing his re-election and Gamal’s hereditary succession. However, Kifaya was rather ineffective in obtaining concrete concessions from the regime and after 2006 became dormant. In addition to harsher repression by the regime, the movement also failed to mobilise large popular support, being limited to students, intellectuals and middle-class professionals; it lacked a clear long-term strategy, with no positive democratic demands. After 2007 it was weakened further by internal divisions that led to the resignation of the movement’s founder George Ishak.9
The Islamist movement of Muslim Brothers, the only opposition force with mass popular support, was unable to seriously challenge the regime and press for genuine political change. The MB was able to attract a large number of supporters, mainly because it took over the task of providing social services, from which the state progressively disengaged over the mid-1980s-1990s. Due to its large social basis, the MB succeeded in winning an unprecedented number of seats in the 2005 elections. However, after 2005, when the Muslim Brothers won a large share in parliament, the regime sought to oust the movement from the political scene through increased repression and amending the constitution in 2007. Because the MB was subject to frequent harassment, leadership arrests and confiscation of financial assets, especially in recent years, it generally kept a moderate, cautious, and non-confrontational approach towards the regime, fearing to be completely eliminated from political life.10 So, although the movement remained the main opposition force in the country, it was reluctant both to take any clear action against the regime and to make formal alliances with other opposition actors, leaving to other opposition movements the political initiative. In this light, the Muslim Brothers did not adhere to Muhammad al-Baradei’s call for a boycott of the 2010 parliamentary elections; they did not clearly oppose the re-election of Hosni Mubarak in 2005 and the potential candidacy of his son Gamal in 2011; and they lacked a clear political programme, revealing their incapacity or unwillingness to represent a solid alternative to the regim11. Lastly, deep ideological divisions between the MB and many secular opposition groups prevented the emergence of a united and organised political opposition to the regime. Opposition beyond the strict confines of political activity revealed greater dynamism. Since mid-2004, social protests and demonstrations, reflecting the rising discontent among people, became a prominent feature of Egyptian life. Egypt experienced an unprecedented wave of street protests, particularly labour strikes, reflecting the increased hardship experienced by large swathes of Egyptians.
In 2010, labour unrests continued, spreading in particular to those private sector workers whose companies were affected by the financial crisis.12 Unlike political parties and other organized opposition forces, the labour protests were successful in attracting an unprecedented number of people but they did not translate into a real political challenge to the regime, pressing for political transformation. Unlike the January-February 2011 protests, these protests remained apolitical, meaning that they focused on socio-economic problems and did not put forward political demands.
Furthermore, the protests did not coordinate their action with political organisations, instead they were sporadic and totally dispersed. The major opposition parties and other movements, such as the Muslim Brothers, were detached from the social and labour protests of the last years, reflecting the interests of a different constituency, namely urban upper middle class. Also the MB was suspicious about a rapprochement to the labour movement, because, due to its social composition15 and conservative worldview, it is hostile to class conflict.
Ann M. Lesch, “Democracy in Doses: Mubarak launches his second term as president.” Arab Studies Quarterly, 11.4, 1989, p.107.
Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U: What Egypt learned from the students that overthrew Milosevic.” Foreign Policy, Feb. 16, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/16/revolution_u (accessed October 24, 2012).
Lesch, “Democracy in Doses, p. 97.
Mariz Tadros, “Egypt’s Bloody Sunday: Middle East Research and Information Project. Available at http://www. merip.org/mero / mero 101311, p. 7.
Marina Ottoway, The Emerging Political Spectrum in Egypt (Houston: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011.), p. 24.
Tadros, “Egypt’s Bloody Sunday,” p. 24.
Kirk J.Beattie, Egypt during the Nasser Years: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Society (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.), p. 24.
Oliver Schlumberger, Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 13.
Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy 4th ed. (East Boston, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 2010.) p. 23.