Interview with Abdallah Schleifer on the Egyptian Elections

UNAOC Global Experts Interview with Abdallah Schleifer


CAIRO, EGYPT: June 28, 2012– Professor Abdallah Schleifer weighs in on Egypt’s presidential election results through his exclusive interview with Global Experts. The following conversation was conducted over Skype.

Global Experts: How does Morsi’s victory affect Egypt’s future?

Abdallah Schleifer:  Well you know there are a couple scenarios. The best scenario, the most hopeful scenario is the fact that since the election, the Brotherhood has been taking a conciliatory line stressing its commitment to pluralism, stressing its commitment to the declarations of the reformist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which lost out in a power struggle a couple years ago within the Brotherhood. So, the people who have adopted that position opposed it within the Brotherhood a couple years ago. But it’s possible, it’s hopeful that exposure to the world, encountering other political forces, not having to operate like an ingrown fingernail – as a clandestine outfit operation. The brotherhood has always been semi-clandestine. The Brotherhood has been very often severely repressed. Above all by Nasser. At times [it was] allowed something equivalent to full liberty by Sadat, except toward end of his regime, and repressed but lightly and sporadically by Mubarak, except for the past two years prior to his overthrow and even then it was light. They weren’t sent off to hard labor camps like times of Nasser and usually they were out. So, if the best hope we have, when I say we: I’m talking about my friends, myself, is that it will be the reform perspective which is a recognition of pluralism. And the Brotherhood, according to reports, has been offering posts to its rivals among liberal secularists.

So, that’s the hope: It will be a government that’s a broad coalition and that they will follow what I call the “Tunisian model” which they had rejected in the past, as recently as a few months ago when the prime minister of Turkey came here and praised a secular government.

The point is if the reformists’ perspective is adopted by Morsi and the leadership, then hopefully you will have a coalition government. We will have a prime minister who is not from the Muslim Brotherhood, you will have representation for women, for Christians. There will be a government that will affirm, I think it will be a government that expresses its’ ethics from the perspective of Islam. We are not talking about an ideological, Islamist state which is simply an ideological variation on any late nineteenth century, early twentieth century European theme of a fascist state, a communist state, a socialist state, even a democratic state.

The French revolution was a self consciously republican [Res Publica state] and I don’t mean the American GOP. The American Revolution not only drew upon a classic sense of the republican state derived from the Roman Republic but that sensibility was filtered through the constitutional monarchist thought of Edmund Burke The reformed or pluralist Islamist perspective of this group Al-Wasat that broke off and never was recognized by the Mubarak government, I think quite consciously because that sort of movement or party, a Muslim, rather than Islamic meaning: you recognize the religious character and the power of the culture, but you are not turning your religion into a governing ideology, which is not religion its ideology. So, that is the most hopeful.

Are there any reservations?

AS: So, the fear is that it won’t be a coalition, but it will end up a one party state. That it will be coercive rather than pluralistic. It will be coercive, repressive, and that freedoms will be curtailed. We will have an ideological state that is more likely to resemble possibly Iran, than lets say Tunisia where the equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood has formed a broad coalition with two secular parties and is having to confront Salafi extremism. Either they’re going to confront it or they will going to have a crisis, but they say they will confront it and which has affirmed and which welcomed the Turkish prime minister there when he appeared there. He talked about, without calling it the American version of secularism, but he talked about that: where you do not have a secularism that is anti-religious as in the French, European historical dimension, but simply it gives latitude and freedom to all religious practices.

Explain the significance of Egypt’s first democratic election.

AS:  That’s one of the myths. It isn’t the first democratic, by democratic we mean fair, free [election]. I mean relatively speaking, there was parliamentary democracy described here in what is described as the liberal era: roughly the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s when you had elections. There was corruption, but there can be corruption anywhere.  You had free elections with different political parties who ran different candidates office. It was during the monarchy when you had a constitutional monarchy here. Sure, the palace was influencing behind the scenes, but you had parties and had fair and free elections. So, number one: that’s one of the myths of Tahrir you have that this would be the first. It happened before during constitutional monarchy that was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which the Muslim Brotherhood functioned until its secret organization started bumping off some members of the government in the 1940s and the police forces retaliated. But, they still survived and went into coalition with Nasser on the eve of that revolution. Then they had a falling out. So, it isn’t the first. Very old Egyptians still around who can remember that before 1952 you did have a parliamentary system here.

Do you think Egypt is ready to adopt a democracy?

AS: Well, there are still some people old enough to remember that there was a parliamentary system here, as a part of a constitutional monarchy, and whether that recollection [is] among a very small percentage of the population. But you know, it might help. It’s going to be difficult.

I personally believe that in Arab-Islamic societies, at the very least,  a constitutional monarchy makes more sense: where you have the best of both systems. You have a figure, at least in formal terms, is above the partisan to and thro of different factions, who represents the whole country because there is a feeling, intrinsic in Islamic culture, that factions can be rather difficult, unworthy or bad because they destroy the unity of the community. So a king or sultan or what you call a dynastic ruler, dynastic which means also that you have rulers who are training from childhood to rule and have an understanding of politics.

I personally feel that and I will give in a defense in that position the fact that if you look around the Arab world in terms of republicanism [Res Publica] has invariably led, and I’m not talking about the American republican party, but about the idea of nonhereditary, royalist rule or non-aristocratic rule. Republicanism has invariably led to tyranny of the worst order to the police states of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, countries which, however much may be criticized by the purest of NGO, democratic orientated groups nevertheless, they too will acknowledge the most certain degree of human rights in which the ordinary citizen is not at the mercy of a police establishment [such as in] the kingdom of Morocco and the kingdom of Jordan. Generally, in the last couple of decades, you would have more of a sense of human rights being observed in the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies and not in those countries that have been committed to republican rule for 50 to 60 years: Egypt Syria, Iraq where instead you have had police states. So, that’s my own personal perspective.

Describe the country’s current security situation.

AS: Every body was surprised how Shafiq did so well, but you know a lot of working class people voted him for him because the issue for them is security. Crime is worse in the poor neighborhoods and insecurity and lack of employment is really hard hit. So, it was a surprising degree of support for Shafiq in the working class districts, certainly in the countryside and in upper Egypt.

The police never returned in full. Why? Well there are all sorts of theories about why, are they scared? Are they being kept off the streets by forces associated with SCAF which want to send a message to the Egyptian people: This is what comes from lack of authority of a protract demonstrations. It’s not as outrageous as it was the first 48 hours [after the fall of Mubarak] But there is a marked increase of things like muggings, car theft, abandoning, a general lack of caring. Some policemen are even bitter when people come and complain and well you’re the ones who were against us, so what do you want us to do? It’s hard to pin it down. But generally, you have not had the effect of law and order that you had here, and I don’t consider those bad terms: law and order. I mean any body who does, I welcome them to come live in a lawless neighborhood and get beaten up, their women raped and stolen from. I mean, law and order is a necessity for a decent society.
This has created a sense of lassitude at best a sense of we’re living in a society that is not as law abiding as it was two years ago, maybe it was law abiding for the wrong reasons but it was law abiding and add on the fact there has been very little new investment, in fact a lot of capital that goes into investment has left the country. Shops have closed, people don’t have money maybe the very rich have money because it’s stashed away. But people do not have money, shops get closed, people close them down, people not buying, people not getting hired, people have been laid off, salaries are being slashed, and this is felt particularly by the lower middle class and the working classes. They have felt it.

Do you think this government will have close ties with Hamas?

AS: You would think there would be close ties.  I can’t say it’s obvious because often times things that seem obvious are not so. That’s one of the mysteries of the Middle East. Things that seem obvious are often not so. Things are veiled. So, structurally there is a close relationship between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Gaza Muslim Brotherhood because after all Gaza was under Egyptian rule from 1948 until 1967 when the Israeli’s conquered Gaza. It was sort of under Egyptian rule and so there would be obviously connections. Young people from Gaza of the Brotherhood would study under Egyptian universities and whatever.

One the actual relations are, in the end, the Muslim Brotherhood is not some tight Comintern, you know like the Communist movement was, directed rather ruthlessly by one man at the top. Stalin had the power to purge. He had the power from distance to purge European Communist parties if they got out of line. There’s the Muslim Brotherhood as a name and a sort of loosely linked international organization, groups identifying with it, but they have their own interests and sometimes those interests conflict. That’s actually happened. In 1958, there was a civil war in Lebanon. At that time, the Muslim Brotherhood was locked in a really bitter quarrel with Nasser. They were striking at him and he was putting them in jail. It was really nasty. But Nasser in his foreign policy was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon which was among the groups that were in a mini civil war at the time and Nasser supported the Arab left, the Muslim left which is not just Muslim brothers but other Arab nationals versus the predominantly Christian right which the American government ended up backing at that time in 1958.

So, you have Nasser repressing the Muslim Brotherhood and being the big villain in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt while helping the Syrian and Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood on the other side of the Levant. So therefore, I hesitate to jump to any quick conclusion. We do know the Hamas leadership has been very happy and Hamas people have been demonstrating in the streets, celebrating the victory of the Muslim brotherhood as they perceive it both in Parliament which has now been dissolved and the presidency. But what that means in actual relationships is very hard to say.  You just can’t predict these things.


Source:  Global Experts.  Professor Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran journalist who has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for more than thirty years. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the American University in Cairo.


Google