Egypt: the Devil is in the Details

The election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate signals a landmark change for Egypt. Many are hoping that the party will lead the country into its new democratic era. The two candidates that were in the final run-offs for the Presidential seat were Ahmed Shafiq, the Prime Minister under deposed president Hosni Mubarak, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate. The two men competed for Egyptian support until the elections on June 16 & 17. The Muslim Brotherhood was understood to be the likely winner since the main opposition, Shariq, is a secularist who worked with Hosni Mubarak, and who’s appointment would have signal a return to the old regime. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has demonstrated commitments to democracy and pragmatism over the years, is a good sign for governmental development in the region. Concerns over the representation of women and minorities, however, show the potential limits of the Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness to true democracy, which all Egyptians should be weary of.

Supporters of Morsi cheer at the election results on June 24th.

The ideal of a representative democracy necessitates a structure and set of expectations, where all citizens are given access to the political system. Failed modernization and political repression make the Islamic movement more appealing to many Egyptians. Islam is the embodiment of a religious need that has arisen since the failures of secularism in the Middle East. In searching for an alternative to the unacceptable status quo, many Egyptians are turning to Islamist political movements. These groups espouse various degrees of the role of Islam in spolitics. While all share the goal of wanting to establish an Islamic state, the strategies they employ differ immensely.

Over the past 40 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has become increasingly progressive. The choice of their Presidential candidate, however, signifies a turn towards a more conservative representation. Mohammed Morsi appears to be an extremist, who will push for a strict conservative political agenda. This was highlighted when he announced his belief that women and Coptic Christians cannot hold the position of president. These statements are difficult to accept for those who welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood previous support of female candidacy. In 1994, ideological changes within the Muslim Brotherhood allowed flexibility to deal with current political dynamics. The group issued a document that stated the Brotherhood’s commitment to allowing women to run for elections (although not for the highest executive). In 2000, this commitment was solidified when Jihan Al-Halafawi ran for a seat in parliament. The Brotherhood justified this departure from the traditional conservative ideals that prevented women’s participation with a quote from the Qu’ran that highlights men’s tutelage over women is not extended outside the house. These previous advancements show that the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to democracy by equally providing rights to citizens. It is important that the Brotherhood allow the same rights to women and minorities in the country to allow democracy to prosper in Egypt. For many, this inclusiveness will serve as a measurement of democracy.

Their previous commitment to political pluralism through a modernist understanding of Islam, and an equal status for minorities illustrates that the Muslim Brotherhood is qualified for fair governance. Increasing Islamization of politics can make the minority Copts feel threatened by the Muslim majority. The multiple conflicts between Muslims and Christians that have emerged since the beginning of the Arab Spring have caused concern over the future of Egypt’s social relations. Thus, it is difficult to fully appreciate the verbal commitment made by the Brotherhood in 1990 claiming equal status to minority Copts, when in 1995 Mustafa Mashour, the highest executive claimed that Christians should not be allowed to hold top positions. While other members of the Brotherhood attempted to reverse this statement, there was a clear inconsistency with regards to minority groups. While it has been argued that the Brotherhood has increasingly been influenced by the younger generation’s flexible and inclusive values, recent events illustrate that the grievances between Muslims and Christians in Egypt are alarming. While the party has made multiple commitments to the Copts, such as passing an anti-discrimination law, the uncertain assurance for equal rights of non-Muslims is of great concern for human rights and the future of democracy in Egypt.

A Coptic women votes in Egyptian presidential elections on June 16th.

As they prepare to make a solid mark on the Egyptian political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to make a clear and final commitment on the equal status of Christians and other minorities in order for democracy to flourish. The Muslim Brotherhood’s history, statements, and commitment to democracy adopted by the group would lead us to believe that they will honor their responsibility to the minority groups. Their actions so far have shown their willingness to comply with these democratic values. That being said, any decision on minority rights would be an important determiner for the consolidation of democracy in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood’s position on Christians and women will illustrate an important commitment to one of the fundamental principles of a pluralistic democracy – inclusiveness.

About Amanda Beerworth Gervais

Amanda Beerworth-Gervais is a Security Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in International Development Studies. She can be reached at amanda.beerworth-gervais@natocouncil.ca.