Power Sharing Agreement Looms in Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood will likely ally with the liberals while the army continues to set foreign policy.

The contours of a post-Mubarak political reality in Egypt are becoming clearer in the wake of the longtime president’s removal from office last year. The military, which has since governed the country on an interim basis, is reportedly reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the largest political faction in the new Egypt, in an attempt to maintain the influence it has had in defense and foreign policy for many decades.

The military council previously insisted that the army’s status must remain “unchanged” and the Muslim Brothers may be wary of challenging the generals on their own turf to engage in adventurism abroad, whatever their opinion of Israel and the West.

Even if they nearly secured an absolute majority in parliament, the Brothers fear a backlash from secularists and the army as happened in Algeria in the 1990s. When Islamists won free elections there, it sparked a civil war and ushered in two more decades of military rule.

The Brothers therefore remained on the sidelines when major anti-Israel demonstrations erupted in Cairo in 2002 and again a year later, when Egyptians took to the streets to protest the Iraq war. They belatedly joined the effort to oust Hosni Mubarak in February of last year to the chagrin of some of their own, younger members and appear to have little desire to fundamentally uproot the way Egypt conducts itself on the international state.

The military meanwhile will not want to jeopardize Egypt’s ties with the Americans nor will Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League who is set to become president in June.

Despite lingering protests against military rule in the capital, the vast majority of Egyptians probably cares less about foreign policy and more about finding a job and being able to provide for their families again.

Their yearn for a return to normalcy is evidenced by the official results of recent parliamentary elections in which the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and the puritanical al-Nour Party together won 72 percent of the vote. Both support expanded access to education, health care and housing. The Brotherhood has provided food, medical aid and shelter to Egypt’s poor for several decades as a charitable organization which accounted for its strong showing even in the cities where voters otherwise tend to be less conservative. al-Nour would like to provide all these services for free.

A radical Islamist government of the two parties seems unlikely to emerge as the Brotherhood says to prefer a coalition with the liberal New Wafd Party which has 38 seats in the legislature. They have considered an alliance before and now control a majority.

A religious revival may occur nevertheless as the forced secularization of Egypt under sixty years of authoritarian rule comes to an end and some 90 percent of Egyptians is Muslim. This should be of particular concern to the tourist industry which employs two million people and accounts for 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

The Brothers have said to favor a ban on alcohol and wish to see pious Muslim women wear traditional garb, a practice that was frowned upon during the Mubarak era when it was associated with religious extremism. The party may be prepared to make exceptions for tourist areas. al-Nour is not. It advocates an alcohol ban across Egypt as well as the erection of a dedicated police agency to ensure that people fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Even if the Wafd become part of the government, liberalization of the economy may prove difficult. The mere notion of “economic reform” has been tarnished by the halfhearted privatization and free-trade policies of the 1990s which opened Egypt’s economy up to the world but also institutionalized corruption and strengthened single party rule.

The need for a pro-growth program is pressing all the same. A year of political upheaval has left the economy in shambles. Foreign direct investment has virtually come to a standstill. Economic expansion has stalled while the Islamist parties, including the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, tend to be hostile to globalization and wary of international trade.