by Chandra Muzaffar*
Egyptian opposition parties and their supporters should accept the results of the 15 December Referendum on the new Egyptian Constitution. They have not been able to provide solid evidence of systemic cheating or massive manipulation of the referendum by the Mohamed Morsi government, as they had alleged earlier. Analysts, inside and outside Egypt, have made this observation.
In fact, 64% of those who voted, endorsed the new Egyptian Constitution. True, only 32% of the registered voters exercised their right. But that in itself is not an argument against the validity of the poll. In some Western democracies, the voter turn-out is lower and yet no one questions the outcome of their referenda or elections.
Of course a lot of Egyptians are genuinely concerned about the character of the Constitution which they feel strengthens the position of Al-Azhar jurists over the legislative process. What this means in reality is that the authority of scholars from Egypt’s premier Islamic institution would now span a wide spectrum of activities since Islam is after all a complete way of life.
More specifically, critics of the Constitution are worried that the textual interpretation of these jurists could impact adversely upon women and non-Muslim minorities. It might lead to a form of conservatism that is inimical to the essence of Islam as understood and practised by a significant segment of Egyptian society for centuries.
It is a fear that is not without basis given Al-Azhar’s orientation and the stances adopted by elements in the leadership of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) which has emerged as the most powerful current in Egyptian politics since the ouster of former President, Hosni Mubarak.
Dr. Mohamad Morsi, from an Ikhwan background, who was elected President in June 2012 with only 51.7% of the votes cast, should address the fears and concerns of the opponents of the new Constitution with sincerity and honesty. He should not only dialogue with them but also incorporate some of the more credible personalities from non-Ihkwan backgrounds into the structures of governance. Adopting an inclusive approach and building a national consensus to tackle the monumental challenges facing the Egyptian nation should be Morsi’s principal aim.
Of these challenges the most formidable are those related to the economy. According to some sources, about 40 million Egyptians 51% of the total population live below the poverty line of 2 US dollars a day. Between 20% to 25% of the work force — mostly young people are unemployed.
Inflation hovers around 11.7%. There is a huge national deficit. Foreign reserves are depleting rapidly. And the yawning gap between the rich and poor which has been a feature of Egyptian society for the last three decades has widened considerably in the last 10 years.
There is yet another dimension to the economy which makes the challenge even more complicated.
The still powerful Egyptian military with its longstanding historical role owns or controls anything between 10% and 45% of the national economy. It has its finger in almost every slice of the economic pie. The vested interests linked to the military have undoubtedly distorted the economy.
How will Morsi, the Ikhwan and the party that it sponsors, the Freedom and Justice Party, correct these distortions and transform the economy? In its al-Nahda (renaissance) economic programme, the Ikhwan spells out its commitment to a free market; an industrial policy based upon export substitution; reducing public expenditure; controlling the budget deficit; increasing the minimum wage; introducing a progressive income tax structure; and raising the ceiling for tax exemptions. The economic programme also emphasises building new power plants, water treatment systems, roads and bridges.
Apart from revenue obtained from the export of gas and petroleum and the tourism industry, the Ikhwan speaks vaguely about a better organised zakat system as an important source of income. A vigorous assault upon corruption and wastage, it reckons, will also strengthen the nation’s economic base. The Ikhwan hopes to gain control over the so-called slush funds of the deposed regime to finance development projects for the people. It is an open secret that the Ikhwan is, at the same time, negotiating a 4.8 billion US dollar loan from the IMF.
There is, besides, great expectation of substantive aid from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the European Union, and the United States. Many of the goals of the al-Nahda programme are laudable. Some of its specific objectives linked to wages and taxes are commendable. However, critics are sceptical about the ability of a programme which relies so heavily upon the private sector to overcome absolute poverty or to narrow the widening chasm between the rich and poor Egypt’s two most daunting economic challenges.
Historically, in the Global South as in the Global North, it is institutions which are part of the public sector that have played a pivotal role in addressing challenges of this sort — challenges which are intimately connected with issues of social justice.
It is also the State that will have to take the lead in limiting and eventually eliminating the military from the economy. Similarly, it is the State that will have to formulate an effective delivery system which would bring the benefits of development to the poorer strata of society. Private capital, domestic or foreign, and the institutions related to it, will not be able to perform these tasks. There is also a degree of uncertainty about some of the anticipated sources of revenue that will power growth and development.
The structure of the Egyptian economy and the direction it will take under the Ikhwan are matters which are being closely watched by the US elite and other Western elites. For them, Egypt should continue to liberalise its financial sector, deregulate its economy and privatise its public assets. Financial capital in particular should be welcomed with open arms. The US wants the Ikhwan based government to be under the tutelage of the IMF. In a nutshell, the Ikhwan should maintain, if not reinforce, Egypt’s subservient position within the US-led global capitalist system.
How the Morsi led government relates to the global capitalist system will be one of the three things that the US and its allies will take into consideration in their evaluation of the Ikhwan. They will also assess the Ikhwan’s attitude towards the US military presence and power in West Asia and North Africa (WANA). The US has important military bases in a number of countries in the region, including Iraq, Kuwait and Oman. Bahrain is the home of the US’s Fifth Fleet. The US expects the Egyptian government to accept unquestioningly US’s military hegemony over WANA. Morsi has acquiesced so far.
The third, and perhaps the US’s most critical, criterion in judging the Ikhwan in power is how it conducts its relationship to Israel. It goes without saying that both the US and Israel and their European allies expect the Ikhwan government to preserve and protect the 1979 Egypt –Israel Peace Treaty. It is not just a question of maintaining diplomatic ties. Israel and its friends will not agree to any attempt to re-visit any aspect of the Treaty, a Treaty which is extremely unpopular with the Egyptian people.
As important as the Treaty to Israel, the US and Europe, is Egypt’s relations with some of its neighbours who are perceived as mortal threats to Israel’s very existence. How will Morsi and the Ikhwan relate to Iran, to the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, to the Hezbollah in Lebanon? If Egypt forges close ties with any of them, it is very likely that it will evoke the wrath of Tel Aviv and Washington. Morsi has chosen not to antagonise Israel and the West. Indeed, in the on-going bloody conflict in Syria, he is clearly on the side of the US and its other Western and WANA allies.
The three criteria that the US and its allies are employing in assessing the Ikhwan — fidelity to US-led global capitalism; acquiescence with US military hegemony; and subservience to Israeli interests are also the yardsticks they are using in evaluating other Ikhwan affiliated Islamic movements that have come to power in the wake of the Arab Uprising in countries such as Tunisia.
What this means for the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin in Egypt is that if it continues to seek the endorsement of the US and its allies there is the danger that its support among its own people will erode over time, especially if as a result of its adherence to US-led capitalism, it fails to deliver justice to the poor and marginalised. On the other hand, if the Ikhwan accords priority to its own people and others like the Palestinians, over US interests, it will certainly lose US patronage but will gain the affection of the masses.
Admittedly, in reality it may not be a stark ‘either or’ choice. The Ikhwan leadership will have to balance competing interests at different points in time. What is important is it should demonstrate that it has the integrity and the courage to move in the direction of enhancing Egypt’s independence and sovereignty even if it encounters several ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in the process.
If the Ikhwan moves in such a direction, it would have ensured justice and dignity for its people. And indeed, since Egypt is the fulcrum of the Arab world, justice and dignity for Egyptians will have a huge impact upon the entire region. (T/DS/R-006)
Mi’raj New Agency (MINA)
*Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).