The Revenge of the Leftovers in Egypt

The Egyptian constitutional court on Thursday threw the Egyptian Revolution for a loop. There are howls of outrage about a soft coup, or a counter-revolution. The specter of Algeria haunts the Nile Valley this morning. But more likely we are seeing a replay of Turkey 1997. Either way, the remnants of the old regime of Hosni Mubarak, derisively called fuloul or ‘leftovers’ in Arabic, are trying to make a comeback.

Two issues were before the court. The first concerned the parliamentary elections of November-December 2011. The electoral law had set aside a third of seats for independents, in an effort to avoid dominance of that body by well-organized remnants of the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and by the even better-organized Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, many “independents” who ran and won had the backing of the parties, especially the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nur Party.

The court found that the parties had subverted the intent of the law, and in so doing had invalidated the entire elected parliament. It ordered that parliament be dissolved and new elections held.

About 46 percent of seats in the parliament were held by the Muslim Brotherhood party, and another 24 percent were captured by the hard line fundamentalist Salafis. This outcome may well have been a fluke. Voters appear to have been trying to ensure that the Mubarak regime did not reestablish itself, so they put the fundamentalists in the parliament. But when the parliament predictably began making noises about banning alcohol and swimming suits, the public reaction was negative. While the fundamentalists will do well in any free and fair election, it is not clear that they can repeat their dominance of parliament so handily.

There is certainly a case to be made that the Muslim Brotherhood behaved badly. Its leaders knew what they were doing when they ran candidates as “independents.” Once it got a working majority in parliament, the Brotherhood gave every evidence of seeking to make itself the one party in a new one-party state. It tried to stack the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a new constitution with its members. And, after promising not to run a presidential candidate (so as to reassure the electorate that it wasn’t trying to dominate both the executive and the legislature), its leaders abruptly changed their minds and put up a presidential candidate. Moreover, the man they put forward, Khairat al-Shater, is an allegedly corrupt businessman whose corruption cases caused him to be ruled ineligible. The Brotherhood was charged with using its dominance of parliament to dole out patronage to relatives of its MPs and officials.

The court found that the laws passed by this invalid parliament would stand unless any of them was successfully challenged on constitutional grounds.

The other issue before the court was a law excluding members in the last two Mubarak cabinets from running. That law would have excluded Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, one of the two current presidential candidates and the favorite of the military establishment.

The court found that the political exclusion law was worded in an arbitrary and unfair manner, and so found it unconstitutional.

As a result, Ahmad Shafiq can run for the presidency against the Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi (an engineer trained at the University of Southern California).

Given that there is neither a parliament nor a constitution, and given Egypt’s tradition of strong presidential rule, whoever wins the elections scheduled for early next week could be extremely powerful. He will almost certainly have an outsized say over the final shape of the Constituent Assembly that will write the new constitution. And, he might well be able to set new rules for the next parliamentary elections that will shape that body.

If the winner is Ahmad Shafiq, the likelihood is that he will revive the secret police and censorship practices and attempt to forbid demonstrations, taking Egypt back to the pre-revolution status quo. If the winner is Mursi, he is likely to attempt to use his vast powers to promote his fundamentalist vision of Egyptian society. He, however, will face checks and balances from the largely secular military.

The military has more or less declared martial law, a troubling estate in which to have a democratic election.

Still, the court’s rulings do not necessarily amount to a restoration of the ancien regime. If the new president calls early parliamentary elections, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood and Salafis can be completely marginalized if the elections are fair. Shafiq had pledged to appoint a fundamentalist prime minister from the Brotherhood if he won the presidency, and he may well try to soothe raw nerves in this way. It would also be a way to split the Brotherhood from the New Left.

The Egyptian left, moreover, is resurgent. Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi did very well in the first round of the presidential election in May, and very nearly got into the run-offs. The leftists might well be able to assert themselves as a credible parliamentary bloc if they actually try this time to do parliamentary politics.

One danger of the court’s decision is that it could push the Muslim fundamentalists to take up arms and engage in guerrilla actions. Millions of their votes, after all, have been invalidated, which could make a person angry. In 1991, the Algerian military dismissed parliament and cancelled the results of the election, throwing the country into a 15-year civil war between the secular military and the disappointed fundamentalists in which as many as 150,000 persons were killed.

The Algeria scenario is, however, unlikely in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has been playing politics in the framework of the military regime since about 1978, and likely its politbureau will view the court ruling as a temporary setback. They have proved they can get out the vote, and have a shot at either dominating any new parliament or being indispensable coalition partners. Moreover, if he wins, Shafiq may actually be canny enough to give them the prime minister posting (which is not very powerful in a presidential system) and some cabinet seats.

The New Left will likely be galvanized by a Shafiq victory. They had become one-note johnnies with their Tahrir demonstrations, which alienated a lot of Egyptians from them, and they need to widen their political repertory and try to win seats in parliament. They won’t see it this way, but the court ruling has given them a second chance at winning some serious representation in the legislature.

If the courts and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) imagine that they can put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle, they are likely to find themselves sorely disappointed. The Egyptian people have thrown off the jackboot and the secret police, and they don’t have to put up with these things if they do not want to. In 1997, the Turkish military made a soft coup against Muslim fundamentalist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and his party was declared incompatible with enforced Turkish secularism. His party, however, reformulated itself as the AKP or Justice and Development Party, and went on to win the 2002 elections. It is still in power a decade later, and it has gradually put constraints on the secular military. Long-term victory and acquisition of authority is through the ballot box.

21 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    I do find your opinion that Egypt will follow the Turkish model rather than the Algerian one most reassuring.

    Today is however Friday so we will need to see what the message from the Imams is.

    I do rather think that the blatant chicanery by the Judiciary will generate a reaction of “You can’t win” among the young, the Left and the Islamists, and drive them to take up arms.

    An interesting question will be whether Morsi, if he wins, can purge the Judiciary.

    I did hear an interesting story (unconfirmed) that the Army has been building large volume prison camps in the desert.

    One wonders how much money is left in the Treasury.

  2. The question is not whether a counter revolution coup has happened. The question is why do the left and the socialists in Egypt continue to align with the most fascistic and regressive movement in existence in Egypt — namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis? They do this with their eyes wide open. The left knows that once the MB gains absolute power, which they will with their support, the first group to be eliminated and forever silenced will be the pro-democracy liberals followed by the left.

    In Turkey, it was no other than the military that ushered in democracy. And now that the military has been put in a box, the Islamists and the Islamics in Turkey are gaining the upper hand and freedoms are under threat.

    The Egyptian military has time and again been asking for a secular and democratic constitution (with some privileges for itself). The left instead of continuing the secular, enlightened and liberal tradition of their heritage are happily getting into bed with the worst of Egypt — oblivious to the historic debacle they perpetrate.

    • “The question is why do left knows that once the MB gains absolute power, which they will with their support, the first group to be eliminated and forever silenced will be the pro-democracy liberals followed by the left.”

      This was only practiced by secular leftist under Nasser. The iranian regime that is still popular in big segment of the arab left like As`sad Abu Khalil. The secular Baath Party in Syria. The secular algerian regime and so on. So. Who are you kidding.

      • i forgot to mention saudi Arabia that loved Mubarak and the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia where the leftist opportunist worked closely with the former regime.

        • So let us work with theocratic fascists to secure a secular free and open society – makes a lot of sense (TinC) – no irony there.

          Your “anti-imperialist” analysis puts a 1950s cold-war type dialectic ahead of history reality.

    • The Muslim Brootherhood has spent the last decade as the pre-eminent voice in Egypt for free elections, free political speech, and political liberalism in general.

      Now, I’m under no illusions about how deep these commitments go – they were arguing for those freedoms because they wanted them, and because they understood that they would be the ones to benefit the most from them.

      An alliance with genuine liberals, genuine supporters of electoral democracy, seem like the best way to hold the MB to those principles.

    • Adnan Menderes was the first democratically elected Turkish Prime Minister between 1950-1960. He was hanged by the military junta after the 1960 coup. When did the military usher in democracy?
      The problem with the secular, nationalist, modernist tradition in both Egypt and Turkey is that it has been wedded to militarism and divorced from democracy and freedom.
      The abuses by the military during the past year have taught the left that the army and the people are not one.

    • Gee, maybe the bloody record of Iraq has made the Left more afraid of an Egyptian military backed by the USA than anybody else. That’s America’s legacy in the region.

  3. Islamists and secular leftists must learn to work together. This cooperation will be necessary, I believe, to mount a successful resistance to corporate fascism and the ultimate destruction of the planet’s ecosystems.
    Islam certainly supports populism, justice and equality– as well as the environment and other life forms, so such an alliance should not be difficult to create.
    The demonization of Islam in the West is relentless. Hopefully a Brotherhood administration in Egypt will do much to cure Western fears of the spread of Islam– because what we need is, not necessarily the spread of Islam, but the spread of Islamic ideas.

  4. I normally like Juan Cole’s blogs, but this one is quite poor – Its seems that he prefers secular dictatorship to a democratically elected parliament where Islamsts win. His comment that the 1/3 of seats were set aside for independents in order to avoid Islamists and felool winning is wrong- the revolutionaries wanted full PR so that the felool could not reinvent themselves as independents. Having 1/3 of seats being first past the post was a sop to allow NDP officials in rural areas to keep their posts as independents and partly to have some stability by having a winner takes all section to the parliament (Germany runs a similar system).

  5. Are you sure fouloul فلول means leftovers? I thought it means remnanents of a defeated army.

  6. “Voters appear to have been trying to ensure that the Mubarak regime did not reestablish itself, so they put the fundamentalists in the parliament. But when the parliament predictably began making noises about banning alcohol and swimming suits, the public reaction was negative. While the fundamentalists will do well in any free and fair election, it is not clear that they can repeat their dominance of parliament so handily.”

    This is a false argument Mr. Cole. The Brotherhood is very popular in egypt. Tell me why the public has not voted for the leftist or the Wafd-Party or the revolutionary youth in the first place. The brotherhood gained popularity with there charity work and there decade old opposition to the Mubarak-Regime. The leftist had there chance under Nasser. They screwed up. So the MB deserve a chance. It`s there turn to rule egypt for 4 Years at least. The criticism of the revolutionary youth with regards to the Brotherhood has nothing to do with Bikinis and ban on Alcohol since Alcohol was banned by the Mubarak-Regime long time ago and you hardly see any indigenous muslim woman wearing a Bikini in egypt. You can only drink Alcohol in the Tourist locations or big Hotels. They were criticized because the Mubarak-media started a Propaganda-War against the MB. They accused the MB of having a secret deal with the Military. And this accusation were repeated over and over again for months. Another propaganda trick was to speak of the weakness of the Parliament without mentioning that the Parliament don`t had even the Power to challenge the Ghanzoury government after the football riots. And this is were the MB decided to take part in the presidential elections since the parliament was powerless.

    “….the man they put forward, Khairat al-Shater, is an allegedly corrupt businessman whose corruption cases caused him to be ruled ineligible”.

    If this man is corrupt he had rather had choose to be part of the mubarak mafia instead of going to jail and he was cleared by the court right after the revolution when it still was a revolution to speak of. According to whom Shater is corrupt btw. According to the same sources that gave “little Mubarak” Ahmed Shafiq green light for candidacy?. According to Al-Ahram that was and still is the Mouthpiece of the former regime?. According to the Billionaire Sawaris Media. Sawaris was a big buddy of Mubarak btw. I always wondered why he is not charged by the court. It is so because he is a copt?. His father was a buddy and Business-partner with gaddafi btw.

      • I`m not even a big fan of the MB. But I want the democratic process protected.

        The presidential election did not take place yet Mr. Cole. But the expatriate vote so far suggest that Mursi won with 75 % of the vote. You can check it on the guardian.

  7. All I can say is, any ruling coming from a non-elected Judiciary appointed by a fascist dictator, to be lacking in all credibility when it comes to the determination of what constitutes a free, fair and just society.

  8. The exorcism of the deep state appears to be one of the only available answers to the present difficulties. The military-political insider mentality is incompatible with democratic politics and so its hold must be broken in all societies.

  9. This behavior by the remnants of the old guard will merely drive voters into the hands of Morsi. (What other option do they have?)

    This is following a true revolutionary paradigm, like the French Revolution; people will not tolerate a restoration of the old system, even if they will tolerate a restoration of the old leadership — and they will tolerate a great deal in order to wipe out the ancien regime.

  10. There is a person above who uses the name Fonzie said: ” The iranian regime that is still popular in big segment of the arab left like As`sad Abu Khalil.” And since I am As`ad AbuKhalil I give the writer of that comment all the time in the world to produce evidence of any word of praise in any language that I have written in praise of the Iranian regime, otherwise he would be exposing himself to the readers here as a liar and fabricator. I am willing to debate people who want to argue with me about things I have actually said or written but I won’t argue or debate with people who making statements up and attribute them to me.

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