July 27, 2012 ▪ Interviewed by Viktor Kaspruk
Professor of Political Science at the University of California Steven Fish told The Ukrainian Week about the future of Egypt
U. W.: Professor Fish, can the Egyptian president achieve mutual understanding with the Egyptian people?
President Morsi enjoys a tremendous opportunity to cultivate a broad base of support in society. His main goals—curtailing the influence of the military, bringing officials from the Mubarak regime to justice, reducing official corruption, establishing a more just society, and enhancing the place of Islam in public life—are widely shared by his countrymen.
He is not tainted by close association with the Mubarak regime. He has a strong organizational base; the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he has been a leading figure, is the best-organized political force in Egypt. He will also have considerable support in the legislature, which was popularly elected. He is not really a charismatic figure. He is an accomplished engineer who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and who worked as a professor in America in the 1980s before returning to Egypt, but he is not a glitzy personality.
In fact, he was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second-choice presidential candidate; the Brotherhood’s first choice, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified on the basis of a technicality shortly before the election. El-Shater, a celebrated dissident and very wealthy businessman who spent over a decade in prison before the popular uprising of 2011, was in many ways a more prominent figure than Morsi. Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a medical doctor and respected activist who until recently was also active in the Muslim Brotherhood, and whom Morsi defeated in the first round of the presidential election, is also arguably a more charming figure than Morsi.
But Morsi’s lack of a flashy public image may actually help him. He is more of an Egyptian everyman than are the well-heeled el-Shater and the urbane Aboul Fotouh. He may turn out to have an effective common touch. Many analysts did not think that he would make the second round of the presidential elections, much less become president. Yet he proved to be a more appealing figure than most observers expected him to be.
U. W.: Morsi will struggle for power with the military — can he win?
Many observers now appear to be convinced that the military is destined to control Egyptian politics for the indefinite future. While I agree that the military is a formidable force, I also believe that skilful politicians can push the military back to the barracks, where it belongs, and out of the corridors of power, where it has no legitimate place.
In Latin America in the 1980s, many people feared that militaries, even as they formally relinquished political control, could never be definitively pushed out of power. Yet talented elected politicians throughout Latin America managed to liquidate the political power of military organizations. In the course of a decade, militaries in Argentina and Brazil went from being hegemonic forces to supplicants of the good will of elected politicians. Similarly, the military in Indonesia, which held great power at the end of the Suharto period in the late 1990s, has seen its influence diminish sharply over the past decade.
It is always difficult for unarmed people to get armed people to relinquish power, but it can be done. In the case of Egypt, Morsi’s ability to push the military out of power may be bolstered by two factors in particular. First, Morsi is passionately committed to reining in the military; doing so is a high priority for him.
He and many of his colleagues have been persecuted by the military for many years, and he personally despises the elements in the military that insist that they enjoy legitimate claim to political power. Second, military leaders have done such a miserable job at running the country since Mubarak exited power in the spring of 2011 that they have forfeited much of whatever good will they once had in society.
Most Egyptians share Morsi’s distaste for military control. Many people who do not like Morsi or support the Muslim Brotherhood voted for Morsi in the second round of the presidential election mainly because they saw him as the anti-military candidate, and his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, as the military’s man. Egyptians can be expected to return to the streets in protest if the military makes a habit of blocking the implementation of policies made by elected, civilian politicians.
U. W.: Egypt’s problems cannot be tackled all at once. But president Morsi does not have long to prove that he is up to the job. All the world is watching what he will do…
It is true that both Egyptians and observers abroad expect a great deal of Morsi and have high hopes for his administration. At the same time, most Egyptians, as well as many astute foreign observers, are perfectly aware that he cannot possibly solve Egypt’s complex political and economic problems quickly. What is more, most people realize that his power is still highly circumscribed by the military.
U. W.: Can we say democracy has won in Egypt now?
No. As long as the military holds a large measure of political power and is not controlled by elected civilian politicians, we cannot say that the people control the state; and as long at the people do not control the state through their elected representatives, we cannot say that democracy exists. Egypt has made great strides over the past eighteen months. It has held highly competitive elections for both parliament and the presidency. In both sets of elections, voters enjoyed a broad menu of choice. The presidential elections featured vigorous competition among serious public figures. The contrast with Russia’s recent presidential election, in which Putin essentially appointed a group of lackeys, useful idiots and perennial losers as his opponents and disqualified or intimidated any serious opponents, could not be starker. The media in Egypt are now open and public debate is free. The trend in Egypt is exactly the opposite of what we see in the largest countries of the Slavic world. While Russia has returned to a primitive, predatory form of autocracy and as democracy withers in Ukraine, the largest country in the Arab world has made a leap in the direction of self-government. But as long as the military retains substantial political influence, we cannot say that democracy has triumphed in Egypt.
U. W.: Will this Islamist president uphold universal values and respect the rights of all Egyptian citizens, including women and religious minorities?
That’s a very important question that is relevant to experiments with democracy around the Muslim world. When we think of Islamist political systems, we tend to think of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Sudan, or perhaps Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq. Yet in all of these cases the leaders gained power by force, not at the ballot box. Islamists who come to power and maintain power in fair elections are a relative rarity. The behaviour of the few Islamist governments that have won power in free elections provides some grounds for optimism. Tunisia’s recently elected government, which is led by an Islamist party, as well as Turkey’s Islamist-led government, which has been in power for a decade, have demonstrated a commitment to pluralism. Neither has curtailed women’s rights. That said, neither Tunisia nor Turkey has a substantial non-Muslim minority. The populations of both countries are almost uniformly Muslim. Egypt has a large Christian minority. It remains to be seen how Egypt’s Islamists will deal with non-Muslims. So far Morsi has adopted a rhetoric of inclusiveness, which is encouraging. Morsi understands perfectly well that three-fifths of voters in the first round of the presidential elections cast their ballots for avowedly secularist candidates—most prominently for Shafiq, as well as for the former Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and the Nasserite socialist, Hamdeen Sahabi. Morsi realizes most Egyptians do not seek theocracy. His appreciation of that fact, far more than any desire on his part to placate the United States or any other foreign power, accounts for why he has adopted an inclusive tone and taken pains to portray himself as the president of all the Egyptian people.
U. W.: What does the future hold for Egypt?
Egyptfaces a long, uphill climb. Its economy, which is partially dependent upon tourism, has been battered by the upheaval of the past eighteen months. Egypt has never known real democracy, and its political and economic development has been stymied by a decrepit dictatorship for decades. Its security situation has deteriorated. The military continues to exercise sway and to wield its power with stunning incompetence and brutality. But I am an optimist about Egypt’s political future. Egyptians have proven that they are ready and able to pay a high price in order to gain their freedom. The demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak regime were brilliantly planned and organized by many thousands of highly motivated young people. Each time the promise of the revolution has been threatened by retrograde elements of the old regime, the people have taken to the streets again, showing that they are not about to let fatigue set in. A vigorous new political class is emerging rapidly, and it includes bold, intelligent figures of many political orientations, including Islamists, Arab nationalists, socialists, and liberals. Egyptians are just at the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long, tortuous journey, but I believe that journey will lead to progress.
Steven Fish is a professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in democracy and regime change in developing and post-communist countries, religion and politics, and constitutional systems and national legislatures.
Fish is the author of Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford, 2011). He also authored Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics (Cambridge, 2005), which received the Best Book Award of 2006 from the Comparative Democratization Section of the American Political Science Association, and Democracy from Scratch: Opposition and Regime in the New Russian Revolution (Princeton, 1995). Fish is coauthor of The Handbook of National Legislatures: A Global Survey (Cambridge, 2009) and Post-communism and the Theory of Democracy (Princeton, 2001).
He served as a Senior Fulbright Fellow and Visiting Professor at the Airlangga University, Surabaya, Indonesia, in 2007 and at the European University at St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2000-2001. In 2005, he received the Distinguished Social Sciences Teaching Award of the Colleges of Letters and Science, UC Berkeley.
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