21 August 2012
The fall of the Mubarak regime provided Egypt with an unparalleled opportunity to reshape and redefine its political identity. Today, we discuss with the CSS' Lorenzo Vidino the extent to which the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has changed Egypt's political identity and consider the implications of this change for Cairo's foreign and security policies.
Prepared by: ISN staff
ISN: Egypt's Constituent Assembly is currently drafting a new constitution that identifies the country as 'Islamic', 'Arab' and 'related' to Africa. How do you interpret these declarations?
Lorenzo Vidino: The vast majority of contemporary Egyptians – irrespective of background and political persuasion – do not see themselves as Africans but rather as descendants of one of history’s most ancient and glorious civilizations. They also regard themselves as the intellectual and cultural leaders of the Arab world. It is therefore not surprising that the draft of the new constitution reserves only a marginal role to "African-ness." I think one of the main difficulties the Constituent Assembly – a body that since the fall of the Mubarak regime has been at the center of heated debate between various political factions in order to determine its composition – will face is that of determining the balance between "Islamic" and "Arab." The Assembly will face severe challenges in determining various practical issues, and particularly in allocating powers between the president, the legislative assembly and the military. But there is no question that whether the emphasis of its charter is on the Arab or the Islamic components of Egyptian identity, this will set the tone for the rest of the document and the country’s future political life. The issue is hardly academic. An emphasis on the Islamic side has obvious and immediate repercussions for all Egyptians, starting with the large Christian community.
To what extent is Egypt’s identity being reconstructed at the moment?
It is still far too early to fully assess the consequences of the events that followed the fall of the Mubarak regime. However, there is no doubt that Egypt is going through momentous and arguably irreversible changes. Unlike the populations of many other countries throughout the Arab world, Egyptians have a strong national identity. Entities such as Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq are the products of decisions and cartographic experiments made by European powers during the first half of the 20th century and based largely on those powers’ interests rather than the identity of the populations that inhabit the region. Egyptians, on the other hand, have a very strong identity that predates modern Egypt. Nevertheless it is undeniable that the resurgence of Islamic consciousness over the last four decades and the political developments of the last year and a half are changing that identity, emphasizing the Islamic aspect of it over others.
In your view, does this reconstruction of identity help overcome political cleavages?
There is no question that the fall of the Mubarak regime electrified the vast majority of Egyptians, making them conscious of the power they have in choosing their own rulers. This new development certainly influences the self-perception of most Egyptians and transcends political cleavages. But the real redefinition of Egyptian identity is over the role of Islam. And it is evident that there is a huge gap between Salafists, Muslim Brothers and some of the more conservative cross-sections of Egyptian society on the one hand, and Copts and more secular elements on the other. How much Islam defines Egyptian identity and daily life will be a contentious issue in the months and years ahead. Indeed, there are already worrying signs pointing to a rather acrimonious and potentially violent confrontation over this matter.
The Muslim Brotherhood has become the most influential political force in Egypt. How does the Brotherhood define Egypt’s identity?
The Brotherhood has traditionally emphasized the Islamic aspect of Egyptian identity without discarding the Arab aspect, knowing how well engrained in the collective psyche the latter is. But there is no question that the Brotherhood subscribes to a worldview that transcends national borders. In the Brotherhood’s view, nation states are man-made (and often Western-imposed) entities that divide and therefore weaken the ummah, the global community of Muslim believers. A quintessentially pragmatic and politically savvy organization, the Brotherhood is fully aware that for the time being it has to operate in an environment dominated by nation-states and therefore globally it organizes itself in national branches and, where possible, engages in local political life. But there is no question that its long-term vision transcends the current national divisions. It was not surprising therefore to hear one of the Brotherhood’s most influential clerics say at a massive rally last June in support of the group’s then presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi that "the United States of the Arabs will be restored by the hands of that man [Mursi] and his supporters. The capital of the [Muslim] Caliphate will be Jerusalem, with God’s will." The Brotherhood will balance these impulses with more pragmatic policies dictated by the current realities, but there is no doubt that a pan-Islamic view shapes the group’s long term vision.
Do you expect this view to carry the day?
Over the last eighty years the Brotherhood has operated at the grassroots level, spreading its political and religious vision through a complex and extremely effective network of charities, schools, hospitals and other activities that filled the gaps left by the inefficiencies of the regime. There is no question that as a consequence of such efforts, large sections of the Egyptian population embrace at least some of its ideas, as the group’s success in both parliamentary and presidential elections has shown.
Moreover, the group adopts a quintessentially gradualist approach, patiently laying the groundwork for its every step for years to come. Unlike Salafists, the Brothers, for example, do no advocate the introduction of some of the most extreme aspects of the sharia, fully understanding that Egyptian society would reject them. What they advocate is a patient intellectual work through which society is slowly introduced to and educated about those aspects, so that at the end, be it after 10, 20 or 50 years, it will accept them. It is difficult to foresee in what direction Egyptian society will go. But the fact that the Brothers’ sophisticated organizational machine, deep grassroots reach, cunning mobilization skills and, most recently, control of important leverages of power, vastly surpass those of any competing force could be seen as an indication of the potential success of its vision.
How would an identity redefined in these terms influence Egyptian foreign and security policy?
There is a lot of speculation regarding the future course of Egyptian foreign and security policy and the situation is so in flux that it is impossible to do anything more than make educated guesses. But it is fair to assume that a more Islamist-leaning, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt might be less pro-Western and pro-American, even though its leaders are fully aware of the potentially extremely negative repercussions that extreme positions against the country’s traditional Western allies might have on Egypt’s economy and global standing. But a pan-Islamist outlook might shift Egypt’s position on other issues, starting with Israel. Despite the Camp David agreements the Mubarak regime always conducted a ferocious rhetorical campaign against the Jewish state and anti-Israeli - if not anti-Semitic - positions are common throughout Egyptian society. There is the obvious fear that an Islamist Egypt might take these widespread sentiments a step forward, shifting from rhetoric to action. A pan-Islamist Egypt might also adopt a more favorable view of Iran, which had a very antagonistic position towards the Mubarak regime. Many of the foreign policies adopted by Mubarak did not resonate with most Egyptians and it is arguable that the Brothers are making their usually prudent cost-benefit analysis to see which policies they can change and which are better left untouched, at least for the time being.