Egypt’s All-Or-Nothing Politics — An Analysis

by Lawrence Davidson, To the Point Analyses, 7/6/13

Part I – The Heritage of Westernization

The cultural situation in much of the Middle East resembles a volcanic landscape. On the surface there is a layer of Westernization. Within the confines of this layer dwell that portion of the population that has, in terms of lifestyle, come to favor Western ways. This is not an unexpected phenomenon. After all, imperial European powers controlled much of North Africa from the early nineteenth century onward as well as most of the rest of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Members of the region’s upper classes, both economic and military, long interacted with and often mimicked European colonials. Though there have always been differences in the details (for instance, some are more democratically minded than others), the resulting Westernized layer has always been largely secular. Those among them who may be of a religious bent are moderates and have no problem with a separation of state and religion. Though it varies with the country, those belonging to this layer make up perhaps 25% of the population.

Beneath this surface layer is the majority population – a deep pool of magma – which is much more religious and much more tied to Islamic traditions and values. This does not mean the majority is always united in outlook. Some strongly desire an Islamic state while others do not see this as a necessary goal. There are other sources of division as well. Nonetheless, as in the case of volcanoes, the magma exerts fluctuating political and social pressure on the surface layer. To indefinitely keep it from erupting forth is probably an impossible task.

In Egypt, since the mid-1950s, the task of keeping the magma from erupting was accomplished by a series of military regimes. The officer corps of the Egyptian military tends to be secular and thus belongs to society’s surface layer. The same can be said for those who run the Egyptian police. In both cases they see the religious elements of their society as ideologically backward and competitors for power. Thus, upon attaining control, such military regimes, be they those of the famous Gamal Abdel Nasser or the infamous Hosni Mubarak, worried about the revolutionary potential of the more traditional majority. They sought to control it by either co-opting or suppressing any potential leadership cadres coming out of this population. For instance, they control most of the mosque imams by making them employees of (and thus financially dependent upon) the state. Also, they would regularly arrest and imprison the leadership elements they could not buy off. This was often the fate of those who led the Society of Muslim Brothers.

Part II – The Magma’s Moment

This pattern seemed to have been broken by the events that brought down the military regime of Hosni Mubarak. The mass demonstrations of 2011 initially convinced the military elite that Mubarak needed to be replaced and then, with the continuance of popular demonstrations, that acquiescence in a process of democratization would be necessary as long as the military maintained its organizational and economic privileges. During this revolutionary period other groups within the Westernized surface layer proved more naive. The various elements of the youth movement that initiated the anti-Mubarak demonstrations convinced themselves that their bravery and sacrifice gave them the right to define the political outcome of the revolution, i.e. a liberal democracy. Yet, while the youth movements represented hundreds of thousands, they were not the majority. What they did not foresee was that the revolution they felt to be their own would open a way for the magma, the traditional majority, to flow to the surface and, under the aegis of a democratic process, achieve power….

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Filed under Lawrence Davidson, Mid East other / S Asia

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