The Future of Egypt's Political Soul

An Egyptian army captain kisses a national flag amid protesters in Tahrir Square on Jan. 31.

The ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak by massive street protests and an assist from the Egyptian military is setting the stage for a titanic battle for the future political soul of the country. After 30 years of repressive, autocratic rule, the future political orientation of Egypt will most likely be determined by five formidable segments of the Egyptian society.

 Those segments include the powerful, staunchly secular and economically entrenched armed forces of Egypt; the educated, technologically savvy, secular middle class who guided the 18-day uprising, deliberately leaderless; the Muslim Brotherhood, the grassroots political entity with deep roots in teachings and practices of Islam; the trade union movement, repressed in the last two decades but clandestinely kept intact at mid- and lower-ranking levels; and poor Egyptian families enraged by the massive corruption of the last 30 years and the repressive heavy hand of the state in all facets of their lives.

The armed forces of Egypt

Today, the generals are in charge. However, the generals, key players in the Hosni Mubarak government, are presiding over a radically changed Egypt thirsty for political and economic freedom. The military has stated publicly its determination to hand over power in six months to a democratically elected government. They have also suspended the moribund constitution and dismissed the fraudulently elected parliament. In addition, a referendum on a new constitution is likely to predate national elections.

However, the military has yet to end the hated emergency rule or release more than 5,000 political prisoners in Egypt. The military leaders in Egypt, sophisticated in domestic and regional politics, will attempt to reshape the future of Egypt in their vision: staunchly secular, conservative in ideology, and with the retention of a sacrosanct role for the military in state and economic affairs. The military will also come under pressure from the United States, provider of $1.5 billion in annual armament and training aid, to hasten transfer of power to a democratically elected government. One thing that can be written in stone for the present crop of Egypt military leaders: They will never hand over power to an Islamist party.

Young, educated, secular reformers

With demographics on their side, the young reformers represent a formidable force for change. More than half of 80 million Egyptians are less than 30 years of age. They had known no other leader besides Mubarak. It is not surprising that the young leaders of the successful uprising were the first opposition group to meet the senior leaders of the ruling military government.

Their quest for peaceful change represents the coming of age of a new generation of technology savvy, urbane young men and women no longer inspired by ethnic jingoism, religious differences or class warfare. However, what was an advantage in confronting a hated regime is now a potential handicap in the struggle for the political future of Egypt—namely, lack of public leadership and limited experience in operating national political structures. The young reformers face a fight against time to become a formidable force during the promised six-month window for political transition.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The most powerful grassroots political entity also showed remarkable agility during the 18-day uprising. By ceding limelight to the young reformers and the telegenic opposition figures known in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood shrewdly sought to burnish their image in nervous Western capitals and among suspicious secular reformers at home.

The organization throughout the uprising repeatedly stated their commitment to working with all strands of the Egyptian society in a post-Mubarak era. By preemptively announcing that it will not seek the presidency or majority in parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood assuaged a powerful internal foe: the current generals in the Egyptian military. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has an eye for the future, and an eventually run for the presidency. A major focus of the Muslim Brotherhood in the near term will be to control local governments as a prelude to national power. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood is aware of the current electoral math in today's pious but staunchly secular Egypt; an Islam-oriented party is unlikely to win more than 25 percent of national votes.

Trade unions

For the last two decades, the hitherto powerful trade-union movement in Egypt appeared vanquished from brutal, coercive instruments of the state. The government also installed cronies at the helm of most national labor movements. However, events of the last few days after the ouster of Mubarak revealed a well-known secret: The labor movement is alive and well in Egypt and capable of bringing the country to its knees through strikes and work stoppages in all sectors of the economy. The labor movement is poised to push for better pay, better conditions of service and long-lasting political reforms. In the next six months, the labor movement will be a formidable force in the maneuvers to encourage the military to keep their word on ceding power to a democratically elected government. Through strikes, intermittent work stoppages and street marches, the labor movement will keep the pressure on the military government.

However, the labor movement in Egypt faces the challenge of credible national leadership after years of government cronies in top positions. They also face the potential of becoming enmeshed in debilitating, internal ideological battles. In addition, the labor movement also faces the challenge of managing labor relations in the era of globalization and how to adapt to the changing needs of younger workers.

Poor, working families in Egypt

The young, educated reformers organized the protests. However, the heroes of Tahir Square were mostly poor Egyptians fed up with an autocratic, repressive government. Working poor families struggling to make ends meet became the immovable support base of the street protests. These families were also motivated by a fear of a ruinous future for their educated children. Many had unemployed, university-educated sons and daughters living at home years after graduation. The working poor in Egypt are poised to make their voices heard loud and clear in forthcoming elections.

If elections are believed to be rigged, expect another sustained street rage by the working poor. With time it is likely that historians will regard the rise of the working poor as the deepest lasting achievement of the 2011 revolt in Egypt. In the absence of viable civil society organizations during a 30-year dictatorship, the working poor in Egypt now face the challenge of how to work with equally new political parties to make their voices heard during the political transition in Egypt.

The six-months political transition

To face the superior position of the military rulers in Egypt during the promised six-month transitional period, the youthful organizers of the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood, the labor unions, long-term opposition figures and representatives of working families will attempt to work together. Despite current setbacks in the last few days to harmonize positions and leadership, these groups will select leaders to negotiate with the military government on political and economic reforms. They will also form political parties, select candidates for elections and enter into political coalitions to contest elections.

A tricky issue will be the choice of an opposition joint presidential candidate. Whoever emerges as the main opposition candidate for the presidency is almost likely to face a candidate backed by the military and the remnants of the nominal government ruling party. It will be a race against time in a country with little or no serious political activity to organize political activities, plan and implement transparent elections, and achieve a peaceful transfer of power from a military to a civil government. The democratically elected government at the end of the six-month period is likely to be seen as a transitional civilian government that sets the stage for deep-rooted political and economic reforms in Egypt.

For the next six months, Egypt will enter into one of the most important periods of its history. The struggle for genuine democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and property rights, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association will all play out under the watchful gaze of the rest of the world. One thing is certain: the Egypt of the last 30 years is no more. What is less certain is the Egypt that will emerge.

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