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A New Presidential Authority in Egypt

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 21, 2012

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Over the last sixteen months, Egypt has experienced wrenching economic problems, continuing street protests, spasms of violence, and a noticeable deterioration of state authority. Yet these challenges have not, as some have warned, undermined the promise of Tahrir Square in the eyes of many Egyptians. To be sure, the revolutionary activists have lost their luster, the liberals have proven themselves too fragmented to be an effective political force, and the labor movement--a potentially potent bloc--has yet to make a full impact on the political arena.

This leaves Egypt, on the eve of presidential elections, with a seemingly familiar struggle between Islamists and the defenders of the Egyptian state--the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The political dynamics of the country, however, have changed radically. Egyptian politics operate under a set of entirely new principles indicating that whoever is elected president, the age of the pharaoh is finally and clearly over.

The next president of Egypt will likely be subject to a new kind of politics in which demands from below can no longer be deflected, bribed, or beaten into silence. This new environment, in which the president of the Arab world's most populous country faces a host of pressing domestic challenges, will likely keep Egypt on the foreign policy sidelines as Egyptians focus on building a new political system.

The Empowerment of Egyptians

Perhaps most important is the change in the national discourse about power, authority, and legitimacy in the political system. No doubt, Egyptians were asking these questions in the years before the January 25, 2011 uprising, but since Mubarak's departure, activists, politicians, journalists, bloggers, and newly mobilized citizens have asked the same questions in new ways and often with previously unthinkable results.

Despite polling data demonstrating that a clear majority of Egyptians continue to hold the military in high regard, far fewer support a military-dominated political system, making it harder for the officers of the SCAF to manage their exit from day-to-day governance with their prestige, economic interests, and powerful position in the political system intact.

The outcry last fall over the so-called "Selmi principles," which would have granted the armed forces significant autonomy from elected civilian officials, is a prime example of how notions of authority and who has the right to exercise it in the new Egypt are contested. Street protests in Tahrir Square also forced the military to limit the application of the State of Emergency--a hallmark of the authoritarian order that Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak presided over.

The Brotherhood Stumbles

The Muslim Brotherhood has also been unable to impose its will on the political arena. Although the Brothers hold the most seats in the parliament, control a vast organization, and espouse a compelling vision of Egypt's economic future, they have stumbled unexpectedly. The organization is split and the ability of the Brotherhood's Guidance Council to discipline its members, especially younger ones, has diminished since the uprising. The fact that Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was expelled for his decision to run for president against the will of the Guidance Council, and that large numbers of Brothers are supporting his candidacy, speaks to the difficulty the Brotherhood is having in asserting its authority.

The declining fortunes of the Brothers' presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who is trailing badly in the polls, signals the group is paying the price for the decision to run a candidate despite earlier commitments not to do so. Although Egyptians supported the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections, the Brothers' about face on the presidential elections clearly evokes the hypocrisy of the Mubarak era. The Muslim Brotherhood's troubles indicate that in Egypt's more open political environment, citizens are determined to assert their voices more forcefully. This is among the most important achievements of the uprising. Egyptians are not only now demanding accountability of their leaders, which they have done for a long time; they are leveraging the principles that brought so many people to Tahrir Square--accountability, rule of law, and personal and political rights, to name just a few.

Egyptian politicians and would-be leaders will need not only to espouse liberal ideas and principles, but also do what they can to give them meaning.

An enduring misconception about the Egyptian uprising is that economic grievances motivated people to take to the streets. To be sure, difficult economic circumstances helped create an environment of misery in the years before January 25, but Egyptians were demanding freedom, justice, and dignity when they brought Hosni Mubarak down.

One of the great ironies of contemporary Egyptian politics is the triumph of liberal ideas at the expense of liberals. Still, the fact that these ideas and principles are important to virtually all of Egypt's political actors--indeed, representatives of the Salafist al-Nour party strain to demonstrate how their interpretation of Islamic law is compatible with liberal concepts--will make it difficult for any future president or group to seek authoritarian solutions to Egypt's problems. That may prolong Egypt's messy transition, but it does indicate that Egyptian politicians and would-be leaders will need not only to espouse liberal ideas and principles, but also give them meaning. If they do not, they will likely continue to confront demands from society to close the gap between principle and practice.

Dynamic Political Islam

The rise of new political groups is also having an important effect on the exercise of power and authority in the new Egypt. Much has been written about the Salafists, who enjoyed the quiet support of Mubarak in the last years of his reign to drain support away from the Muslim Brotherhood in the erroneous belief that Salafis, by their very nature, are politically quiescent.

It is unclear whether Mubarak's policies had anything to do with the success of the al-Nour party--which represents some Salafists--but it does present a challenge to the Brothers in the competition over who speaks for Islam in the Egyptian political arena. In addition to al-Nour, the Sheikh of al Azhar has also offered to restore the prestige of his position and the mosque and university that he leads.

The consequence is considerable dynamism on the Islamist end of the political spectrum that will likely preclude any one group from imposing its worldview on Egyptian society. Still, given the importance of religion in Egyptian political discourse, the new Egyptian president will likely have to navigate between and negotiate among these different groups. This will not be an easy task. For example, reformulating the relationship between religion and the state will be central to the success or failure of a new constitution.

Also, Egyptian politics has not yet experienced the full force of organized labor, but it has the ability to play an influential role. After all, this was the sector that Mubarak feared most, knowing that large-scale and unified worker opposition could pose a threat to the security of the regime. If Egypt's labor movement can re-emerge as a dynamic force in the new Egypt, it will help drive economic and social policymaking, which will in turn force any Egyptian president to think before pursuing anything that resembles the neo-liberal reforms of the late Mubarak period.

Egypt's presidential elections do not represent the end of the country's transition, but rather an intermediate step in building a new political order. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the nature of authority in Egypt has changed. Although a new president will likely want to hold onto as much power in the political system as possible, he will likely confront a challenge from the parliament, the military, and average Egyptians who are no longer willing to endure the injustices associated with a rigged political system.

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