After the Arab Spring, what’s next for the new Egypt?

In a long feature article on the new Egypt, Stephanie Nolen reports: In a late-night conversation in his living room, filled with gold Louis XIV-inspired furniture, Mr. [Amr] Darrag, a congenial and clean-shaven engineer [who is a senior Muslim Brotherhood member who chairs the “foreign relations” committee of its Freedom and Justice Party], says his is the most reluctant of governments, and came about only because the Brotherhood was forced to abandon its pledge not to field a presidential candidate.

“We never intended to run for the presidency, we’d been saying that all the time. But at a certain moment we realized that, if we want to move forward, the only thing to do is to field a candidate for the presidency … because we were told that, ‘You have no hope’ – not we as Muslim Brothers: Egyptians. They will not have any say in the executive power of running the country.”

He says the military had made it clear it did not intend to cede power to a civilian ruler, and only a Brotherhood candidate could rally the Egyptian people sufficiently and thus display the authority needed to oppose the military successfully. The other candidates running against Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era cabinet minister who for many represented the return of the old regime, had only small parties and no such authority.

And indeed, Mr. Morsi challenged the military and pulled it off. Last month, in his one bold move to date, he shocked the nation (and international observers) by cutting a deal with some second-tier generals and putting them in charge of the armed forces, forcibly retiring Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister seen as the architect of the military’s bid for ever-greater political power.

He also cancelled a decree that gave the military the power to, essentially, supersede the constitution – and thus checkmated the strongest threat to his government. Egyptians of every political persuasion were thrilled to see Mr. Tantawi gone – and then began to speculate about what Mr. Morsi intended to do with his new clout.

Such suspicion frustrates Mr. Darrag. “People insist on getting their view of what we would do from what the Taliban does or what Iran does. We’ve been [in power] for months now, and look at TV, look at the streets – nothing changed and there is no inclination to change anything.”

In fact, he adds, “You cannot change these things by force. Look at some other countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, where by force, by law, women have to cover their bodies totally – if you travel to Saudi Arabia, and look at what happens on [departing] airplanes where women take off their [veils] and put on full makeup and then go out.

“We don’t want that; this is hypocrisy, in our opinion. We want people who really willingly follow the Islamic tradition, the Islamic rules. Not by force. Because, if you enforce that, they will just give them up the first moment they are allowed to. This is not what we’re after. We would like to have a person with a better relationship with God.”

Mr. Darrag’s breezy assurances are typical of the public face of his party. But for Egyptians concerned about the Brotherhood’s ability to govern, the embassy attack is emblematic of a key issue – it suggests the government’s hands are tied by its Islamist ideology and the flowering of conservative political groups in the wake of the revolution.

For example, Salafis criticized the Brotherhood for its willingness to participate in earthly politics under Mr. Mubarak – but then got into the game themselves in the first election, organizing an Islamist bloc led by al-Hizb an-Nour, the Party of the Light, that claimed 127 of 498 seats, second only to Freedom and Justice.

Now, some Salafis appear to sense an opportunity to push the envelope: The embassy attack is one of many examples, as is the recent arrest of blogger Alber Saber, accused of atheism. He was first detained by ordinary citizens; then the police he called for protection instead chose to jail him.

Tamer Mowafy, a veteran researcher with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, says the Brotherhood, speaking a public language of freedom of belief and tolerance, wants no part of such actions, but cannot move swiftly against these actors because it has a pious public image to protect.

“The critics know the state is weak and the Muslim Brotherhood can’t punish them for certain things because they are supposed to be defenders of Islam, so we can expect attacks to come from everywhere,” he explains as activists hunch over laptops in every corner of his smoke-filled office.

“The bureaucracy is suspicious of [the Brotherhood] and they know it, the military doesn’t like them and they know it, and the Brotherhood is not willing to go against other forces, either – not against liberals or NGOs defending human rights.

“Right now, they don’t want to struggle with anyone, they want to take steps cautiously, and it’s making them look weak. They are not in full control.”

The Brotherhood knows it needs the co-operation of the military, and appears to have tacitly reassured the behemoth institution that it will not try to wrest back control of the estimated 15 per cent of the Egyptian economy that it controls as a private fiefdom. Even cronies of Mr. Mubarak are being welcomed into senior political positions and big business deals, as the Brotherhood tries to solidify its position. No one on either end of the political spectrum likes that.

But Mr. Mowafy says that, above all, the Brotherhood is characterized by its long-term view. “They take their time, and it may be a very long time, but they get to what they want.

“You have to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want, as an organization, to take control of the state – they want the state to become the organization. Every Egyptian should be a Brother. Not today or tomorrow – they want to plant their seeds and watch them grow.”

A critical indicator of what seeds are being sown – what plans the government has for the future face of Egypt – is the new constitution, which is months past its deadline. Until it is accepted in a national referendum, now tentatively slated for November, no new parliament can be elected and all else – bailouts from international financial institutions, reform of the vast public service, changes to a deeply skewed subsidy system that does little to help the poor – remains on hold. [Continue reading…]

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