With Syria dominating the news from the Middle East, there has been relatively little news in the main-stream media about what might be happening in other places of earlier great interest, such as Tunisia, Libya, and, particularly, Egypt. Of course, there have been some incidents that have commanded attention, such as the occasional arrests of the remaining Muslim Brotherhood leadership, following the violent suppression of the anti-coup protests, and the recent events in the northern Sinai in which Brotherhood activists, supported by Hamas from Gaza, captured a busload of Egyptian police officers and executed them one by one. This was swiftly followed by an Egyptian military operation which resulted in the death of most of those responsible. Other than these events (and the very recent assassination attempt on the Egyptian Interior Minister) Egypt has been relatively quiet since the protests following the overthrow of President Morsi, nearly two months ago.
The crucial question now is, will this relative quiet persist, or will the two violent incidents noted above be a harbinger of substantial insecurity to come? Time will tell. But what is now beyond doubt is that the de facto ruler of Egypt is now Army Chief of Staff, General Said El Sisi. As noted in my earlier posting, this is manifestly a challenge to our central notions about democracy, especially those concerning the primacy of free elections (‘Experiments in Democracy’, 5 July). It also raises the possibility that Egypt’s future is nothing more than a return to the past, i.e. indefinite military dictatorship. On the other hand, it may be that El Sisi is to be taken at his word: that he does intend to stabilise the situation with a view to re-establishing democratic institutions, through an appropriate process. The Egyptian ‘street’ seems to support him in this, or, at least, they have conspicuously failed to support Brotherhood protest activity. They also clearly desire quiet and the restoration of some sort of economic normality.
So what does El Sisi intend? What might be his vision for a future Egypt? Interestingly, we have some clues about this. Seven years ago, then Brigadier-General El Sisi, was a student at the US Army War College, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In the course of his studies, he wrote an academic essay on the problems of bringing democracy to the Middle East. This is now in the public domain. In 5,000 words, under the title “Democracy in the Middle East”, the General identifies many of the commonly-perceived challenges to the advancement of this project, such as lack of education, and traditional religious and governmental practices, including the impulse to dominate and control the economy (El Sisi favours free markets). Because of these difficulties, he concludes that bringing democracy to a country in the Middle East (he doesn’t specifically refer to his own) ‘will take time’ and that the security forces of the nation will have a crucial role to play in the process. The following is from page 2 of his paper:
“(I)n essence the security forces of a nation need to develop a culture that demonstrates commitment to a nation rather than a ruling party. Furthermore regime populations need to be prepared to assume a participatory role in a democratic form of government. This will require time to educate the population as well as develop the democratic processes that will enable democracy to gain traction.”
And later (page 3):
“It will take time for people and the nation’s systems to adjust to the new form of government and free market system that will emerge.”
All this is reminiscent of the reform programme carried through in Turkey in the 1920s and 30s by Mustapha Kamal, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, following their defeat in WW1. Many rude political words were spoken about this highly autocratic regime at the time but it was subsequently recognised as having created the basis of the modern Turkish state, through its enfranchisement of women and its assault on religious and aristocratic privilege.
The General is certainly well aware of the ‘religious’ problem in bringing ‘democracy’ to the states of the Middle East. Democracy, as a ‘secular entity’, he says, ‘is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith’. He has clearly given the matter some thought. Taking the US Constitution as a model, he envisages three branches of government (Legislative, Executive and Judicial), with the major tenets of the Islamic faith, ‘represented in the constitution or similar document’. How this latter might be done and, particularly, what it might specify, he does not say. Given the problems that western nations historically have had in separating church and state, we might recognise the difficulties here. But, certainly, he does not seem to favour the theocratic state.
If the programme laid out in ‘Democracy in the Middle East’ is what General Sisi has in mind for Egypt, we might wish him well with it. And we might even give him ‘time’ to enable ‘democracy to gain traction’. Whether his fellow citizens do so, remains to be seen. Particularly, we shall see whether the extremist minority will be able to successfully undermine reform by creating perpetual disorder.