As we are aware, Egypt’s political scene is divided along many fault-lines and fraught with a number of conflicting internal struggles, particularly those which have to do with the identity of our nation-state. These struggles have, for the most part, divided and separated followers of Egypt’s political life into two distinct camps, between those who support the proliferation of political Islam and the establishment of a religious state, and those who reject the notion of such a state and would prefer to see the rise of a newly defined civilian one.
However, not all of those who oppose political Islam are supporters of true democracy, particularly those who are still sympathetic to the old regime, and would seek to see the re-establishment of a strict, repressive dictatorship. That being said, within the context of the struggle between political Islam and secular civil society, there is yet another internal struggle within the latter between democratic and non-democratic forces.
The last round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections saw a fierce battle take place between these three forces, although the main focus rested primarily on the struggle between Islamists and proponents of a civil, secular society, regardless of their specific political leanings. This characterisation of Egypt’s political fault lines naturally sparked the rage and ire of the country’s left wing democrats, who seek to view specific social policy as the prime bedrock upon which true political polarisation should be defined.
This, however, ignores the reality, which is that true political polarisation does not come as a result of individual decisions made, and labels imposed by one party or another, but rather as a result of extenuating circumstances that force political parties to take sides on various issues and form alliances.
That being said, political polarisation may take many different shapes and forms depending on the specific circumstances of any given period of time, with the possibility for social divides to be defined primarily on secular and religious grounds, as was the case during Egypt’s parliamentary elections, or between democratic and non-democratic forces, as was the case immediately following the announcement of President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration.
However even during this last period, a number of parties, such as Misr al-Qawia, the Egyptian Current, and the Egypt Party, continued to emphasise the religious/secular aspect of the divide, claiming that religion was being used as a pretext to revive dictatorship.
Since the revolution there has also been a fourth dimension to this struggle, whose manifestations have largely abated and remained below the surface, between those with “money” and those with “power”. Where do these terms come from? I’ll give an example. During weddings, there is always an MC who is tasked not only with playing music for the attendees, but also greeting the guests, leading the celebrations, and serving as the unofficial (or official?) spokesman of the party.
Years ago, my interest was sparked when, at a wedding I was attending, a well-known and famous MC shouted with a loud voice into the microphone, greeting the guests and saying, “Welcome to those in possession of pounds! Money is more powerful than power itself!” It was at this moment that my interest was first drawn to this fourth dimension that exists between those with money and those with power.
I discussed the issue with a number of friends, who by all intents and purposes could be considered “powerful” people, and asked them, “Who are those with ‘power’? Are they army officers and members of Egypt’s security forces? Are police officers included in this category? Or does it include a wider network of people whose identities remain unknown?!” Those who possess money, on the other hand, I assumed to be businessmen, financiers or investors involved with Egypt’s economic markets.
Either way, the question must be asked: is money really more powerful than power itself? Or was the MC speaking more about what he wished to be true as opposed to reality? After many years, I’ve concluded that those with “power” are all those who advocate for the expansion of the state and a bloated bureaucracy, operated and run by the country’s security forces, similar to that which has existed in Egypt since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This system traces its roots back past that of Muhammad Ali, who worked to establish a modern nation-state within Egypt, and all the way back to the beginning of our country’s history. Yes, it must be acknowledged that at its core, Egypt is a strong, domineering state, united by will and by mission, which has twice in its recent history undergone campaigns of modernisation and renewal. Both of these campaigns occurred little more than 100 years apart from each other, the first during the reign of Muhammad Ali, and the second during that of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Even during the period between the reigns of these two leaders, continued efforts were made to modernise the country but always by adapting to the state of the outside world as opposed to getting in touch with Egypt’s history as an independent nation. Despite this, commentators such as Saad Zahran claim that what we see today should not be considered that different from what existed in past eras, even ones as ancient as the conquest of Egypt by Darius I. Although I agree with much of what is said by Zahran, I would say that the Nasserist era differed from that which came before it, specifically from 1919 to 1952, as it was a period characterised by socialist, and particularly Stalinist ideology, as opposed to mere nationalism.
That being said, those who call for the revival of a traditional, strong, domineering, kingship-like state are largely those we can label as being the holders and possessors of “power”. They flourish and exist within Egypt’s populist, bloated, bureaucracy, considering themselves to be not only the ruling fist that governs Egypt, but also the arteries that pump blood into the regime and its various branches and institutions through its wide network of military officers and security personnel.
During the height of the Nasserist era, it was these officers who exerted the most influence over state policy, even more so than businessmen who may have been richer than them. With the introduction of free and open markets during the Sadat era, however, those with money began to make headway in an attempt to secure their place in the power structure of the state, albeit slowly.
Often, these businessmen sought to employ former army officers and military personnel in an attempt to further expedite their rise to power and help protect their interests, and it was during the Mubarak regime that a relatively fair balance was struck between these two entities; those with money, and those with power, with a slight bias given in favour of those with power. In the 2005 elections, for example, Mubarak represented the “power” faction of society, compared to Ayman Nour and Numan Gumaa, who represented the newer, and ever-growing, “money” faction.
That being said, was the military’s refusal to accept the presidency of Gamal Mubarak a result of their opposition to the notion of succession as an inherent violation of democracy? Or was it rather their refusal to accept the ascendancy of someone from within the new, competing, “money” side of Egyptian politics? Also, if the country’s felool and the proponents of Mubarak-style dictatorship are naturally more inclined to lean towards the “power” side of politics, does that mean that the Muslim Brotherhood will naturally fall in line with those from the “money” side of the spectrum? Furthermore, should proponents of true ‘democracy’ also fall in line with those on the “money” side of politics?
The question remains: if the balance between “money” and “power” in politics is set to change, whose side will the army take? Will the balance between these two entities change in the same way that the divide between “Islamist” and “secular civil” has changed so many times over the last two years? Or does the real split still exist between those who advocate for democracy versus dictatorship?
We must take time to think deeply about these cleavages and fault lines, and return to discuss them next time.