POMED Notes: Challenges Ahead for Egypt
The Middle East Institute hosted an event Wednesday (11/14) entitled “Challenges Ahead for Egypt.” The panel included Amr Hamzawy, president of the Egypt Freedom Party; Nathan Brown, professor at George Washington University; Jonathan Brown, associate professor at Georgetown University; Nancy Okail, Egypt director at Freedom House; and was moderated by Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Amr Hamzawy began by listing the reasons for liberal boycott of the Constitutional Assembly in Egypt: Islamists are creating a political process of their own, there is a dominance of political parties in the assembly, liberals are unsatisfied with the organization of the assembly, women and non-Muslims have been marginalized, and the assembly was created based on negotiations which were dominated by Islamists. He continued by pointing out numerous issues with the current draft of Egypt’s constitution: equality and personal freedoms have been eroded, the “principles of Sharia” language is highly contentious, the separation of church and state is in danger of being stricken, the diminishing role of parliament is troubling, the system of local government is flawed, all while social and economic rights are not well protected. His overall perception of the draft process was incredibly bleak.
Nathan Brown said the overall civility of politics has been good thus far, but the Muslim Brotherhood still has no effective process to engage in meaningful dialogue with outside parties. In his mind, the Egyptian constitution seems like a reasonable compromise; however the Islamists are clearly dominating the debate. Because of this, secular parties can only threaten to walk out on the process, which would mean a constitution of non-consensus. Brown said the Freedom and Justice Party just wants a simple consensus draft to be agreed upon. If the assembly cannot produce a suitable draft, the Muslim Brotherhood would be held responsible for the failure. Brown said Egypt today is a fundamentally freer and more pluralistic society than it was two years ago. He warned, however, that “five years from now, Egypt could be the ‘wrong Turkish model’ which is dominated by one political party.”
Jonathan Brown explained that the Salafis are a theological and legal school of thought, and that the term Salafi itself is highly misused by the mainstream. He said Salafis have had a strong political voice, but most do not see politics as a useful endeavor. Their main purpose for political involvement has been to gain more protection for conservatives, as well as moving Egypt toward a basis on Sharia law. Brown said there has been tension between the Nour Party and the religious scholars, based on the fact that politicians must deliver a shift toward Sharia, in addition to public goods and services. He pointed out that Egyptians have gone to the polls and said they want a more Islamic government. He was “surprised that Sharia has not been more present in the current draft of the constitution.” Brown was confident that “slightly more inclusion of Sharia will not change the legal, and certainly lifestyle, characteristics of the Egypt we know today.”
Nancy Okail said civil society were extremely restricted during the Mubarak regime, a fact that has caused problems for organizations in the contemporary setting. However, she felt that the revolution has given more credit to civil society groups. She alleged that the Egyptian foreign minister has engaged in a smear campaign against civil society, and has deliberately misrepresented their aims. Okail concluded by saying that civil society holds governments accountable, and that there is still much more work to be done in Egypt.
During the Q&A session, Jonathan Brown said Islamist thinkers have made some convincing arguments for how to accommodate minorities under Sharia law, and should be included in the debate. He said the “elite must change their rhetoric which has told Islamists that their ideas have no place in the political sphere.” He added that “polls speak and you have to listen to them. They say the Islamists won.” Nathan Brown said the debate must continue over who decides the outlines of Sharia. “Hoping the Islamists will go away is not effective strategy,” he added. Hamzawy concluded the session by railing against the confusion of political Islam and the Islamic identity of Egypt. “The constitution should not mandate an Islamic system or agenda. Furthermore, the Islamists do not speak for all Muslims,” he said.