“Egypt’s first priority in the post-Mubarak era is to build a national project around which all citizens can feel a stake in, and participate within.” Those are words from Dr. H. A. Hellyer who talked to us about the current political situation in Egypt.
Since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, many have argued that what actually occurred was a military coup. More recently the forced retirements of the long-standing Defence Minister and Chief of Staff have also been explained in similar terms. Do you believe it would be accurate to characterise events in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak as a military-led coup?
I think the problem with that statement lies in its view that military involvement in the public sphere began on the 11th of February 2011, or in the midst of the 25th of January revolution. My own view is that the military has been playing a rather substantial role in the Egyptian state for much longer than that, and that former president Hosni Mubarak was a part of that establishment. Thus, to describe it as a ‘coup’ is somewhat misleading. The military establishment has been in a highly privileged position with particular interests for many, many years. When it deemed that one of its own (Mubarak) was a liability in terms of that position, wilfully or otherwise, it removed him. In a somewhat different, yet not far removed way, it may have been similar to the retirements of Tantawi and Anan.
What, in your opinion, are some of the critical steps President Morsi must take for Egypt's democratic progression?
This again assumes that Dr. Morsi is an independent actor, whereas I am not sure this is indisputably the case. However, were I to assume as such, and if we are referring to specifically political issues relating to the democratic transition rather than a wider question that would include the economy, foreign relations, and other matters, I would insist on the following as a bare minimum. The first is to recognise that this is a revolutionary period, and not a normal transition from one elected administration to another.
At present, Dr. Morsi is progressing as though his electoral victory against Ahmed Shafiq, and that of his Freedom & Justice Party in the parliamentary elections gives the Muslim Brotherhood freedom to engage in state adjustments and state-building independently. In other words, without building consensus with other political forces.
Of course, they do have that right: they won the elections. Moreover, I’m not convinced that all those who complain about the MB’s lack of consensus building would try to be any less partisan if they were in the same position of power. It is easy for less powerful actors to complain about lack of altruism from a powerful one: but all of those actors need to be honest as to whether or not they would themselves be the exemplars of ethical politics, if it was not in their favour.
Nevertheless: Egypt’s first priority in the post-Mubarak era is to build a national project around which all citizens can feel a stake in, and participate within. This is a historic moment – an extraordinary moment – a revolutionary moment. One would hope, individuals, parties and all of civil society should be advocating that as this is a historic, extraordinary, revolutionary moment, then all forces should be acting in a historic, extraordinary, revolutionary way.
This, I believe, was a key characteristic of Tahrir Square during those 18 days – a pluralistic, cohesive project, within which all were able to not only co-exist, but thrive alongside each other. This was not a dream. It happened. People were extraordinary. They were revolutionary. And they made history.
No single political force can undertake the building of that national project – it requires as many as possible. As the largest political force at present, one would hope the Muslim Brotherhood would take the lead in bringing other political forces into the effort. It is unfortunate that the past 18 months have resulted in substantial distrust towards the Muslim Brotherhood, for reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood itself must bear at least partial responsibility for. There’s blame, to be sure, to be spread around, without a doubt: but as the largest, most powerful political force, the Muslim Brotherhood has a larger job to do.
As such, in order for that national project to begin, Dr Morsi will be obliged to engage with all non-MB forces in a manner that increases trust between them. Without this inter-political shift from distrust and suspicion, it is hard to imagine Egypt’s democratic transition being anything more than superficial.
Do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood's brand of Islamism can accommodate a civil constitution or tolerate full religious equality?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s form of Islamism is not a cohesive whole, and is internally being disputed by different factions within the movement. One could imagine that certain interpretations of that politicised ideological heritage would be very different than others. We will have to wait and see – and other non-Islamist political forces should assume they may have allies on certain points and not on others.
Will Article 2* of the Constitution have any effect upon the legislative process, should it be dropped if Egyptian democracy is to flourish?
Article 2 is more or less a consensus point within the Egyptian political and social fabric. Some Salafi groups are trying to add language that would make the relationship between the religious establishment and the legislative process firmer but the establishment itself has rejected it. As it stands, Article 2 has not played much of an active role in legislation – rather, it served, quite rarely as a limiting role on creating new legislation. Its existence, I believe, is not necessarily an obstacle – but part of that depends on the non-Islamist parties engaging in the discussion on what article 2 actually should mean in practical terms. At present, they appear to have been silent, or vague – and this will not be sufficient for much longer. Unless, of course, they believe that Islamism is Islam, and the Islamist approach to article 2 is the correct one, which I don’t think they do.
Do you see a Coptic or Female president as a real possibility in the next 10-15 years ?
For many reasons, I doubt this very much.
Do you anticipate any changes to Egypt's relationship with Israel under Morsi's presidency?
There may be some micro changes to the relationship – but on a macro level, I expect it to stay more or less the same.
What steps do you feel should be taken to counter the threat of militancy in the Sinai Peninsula? For one thing, it would be nice to know precisely what is going on. The lack of transparency over what has been happening in the Sinai, for years, inhibits a fully practical and useful discussion. It is never as simple as just ‘lets bomb the terrorists into submission’. The best counter-terrorism strategy is always multi-pronged and draws on other strategies that have little to do with security directly – but just having that discussion requires and demands a level of transparency that Egyptians do not have at present. This is not a problem that exists simply under Dr Morsi’s administration, but a long-standing one.
And finally, are you optimistic about Egypt's political future?
Without a doubt. Anyone who supported the revolution of January 25 can never allow himself or herself to fall into despair. The memory of those 18 days in Tahrir can never be allowed to become a memory that is only recalled by the naïve – it must always serve as proof to every Egyptian, and every human being of what people can truly accomplish when they try. I am firmly convinced that in years to come people will call what happened at Tahrir a miracle, it was, but miracles are real – and they can happen again.
* Article 2: Islam is the Religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).
Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a Cairo-based analyst on the MENA region, and was previously the first Middle Eastern-based Senior Practice Consultant at Gallup, Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. He is a UN Global Expert on the West and the Arab region on political issues, pluralism, religion and security. www.hahellyer.com You can follow him in Twitter @hahellyer