A New Political Culture Emerges in Egypt

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of parliamentary elections held in November of last year, Egypt's younger generation of political activists and journalists are attempting to break with the moribund political system and its leaders.

After 14 years of president Mubarak's rule, there is a feeling amongst the majority of the political and cultural intelligentsia that the experiment in democracy begun shortly before Mubarak came to power in 1981 has not gone far enough. And, further, that political institutions and leaders which should be challenging the state are incapable of doing so.

Egypt's political parties are all led by men over 60 years of age and some over 80, who tend to regard the parties they lead as personality cults. The leftist Tagammu party's Khaled Mohieddin was one of the Free Officers who helped lead Egypt from its British-influenced monarchy to the Nasserist Republic; the Wafd's Fouad Serag Eddin, is a luminary from the pre-Revolutionary Wafd party which fought the British occupiers in 1919 and instituted constitutional democracy; the Labour Party's Ibrahim Shokri is a founding member of the Young Egypt Party whose chief claim to fame is that he helped step up the fight to rid the country of the British in the 1930s, and the Liberals' Mustapha Kamal Murad is a former Nasser and Sadat confidante. Most of the parties were established with the blessing of the state which saw for them a specific use and purpose when Sadat decided to make peace with Israel.

Until recently, the elder the better was the established mechanism for change in the Muslim Brotherhood, the major opposition force in the country. In January a new spiritual guide, 75 year old Mustapha Mashhour was chosen to succeed 84 year old Hamed Abu Nasr who died after only three weeks in the job but still, say analysts, dynamic leadership is lacking.

"Mashhour is in his seventies but is a bit more charismatic than his predecessor," says sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldou Research Center, "but in no way is he a match for the founder of the Brotherhood Hassan Al Banna or for Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party in Turkey."

"The question of charismatic leadership in the Islamist movement in Egypt has become a real problem now," says commentator Dia Rashwan of the Al Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Center. Since the execution of former Brotherhood leader Sayed Qutb in 1965, Brotherhood leaders have striven to work a modus vivendi with the state, and despite the repression of the movement last year - 54 activists were given prison sentences of up to five years in controversial military trials - the trend favouring non-confrontation with the state remains dominant within the organisation.

This situation has pushed younger members who were saved the ravages of state persecution of the Brotherhood last year to break ranks with the organisation's ageing leadership, who have opted to lie low while the state rages against them - a significant gesture in a group known for its Masonic-style discipline. They hope to set up Egypt's newest political party, Al Wasat, or the Centre, and this presents the first open dissent by the young generation of syndicate activists in their 30s and 40s.

The idea behind Al Wasat is not only a sign of unease within the Brotherhood's ranks but also of restlessness among young activists across the political spectrum. The party includes prominent Christians, leftists and Nasserists who see Al Wasat as one way out of the political dilemma facing the country: the Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most popular political movement, is for Muslims only - legalize it, say apologists for the regime, and the Christian Copts will demand a political party too, thereby opening the door to sectarian strife as potentially violent as that of Lebanon during the civil war.

"The reality is that there exists a very powerful Islamist movement in Egypt and we must take this force and establish peaceful and moderate channels for it to express itself," says Rafiq Habib, a Christian and one of the party's founders, "the opposition in general, as it is at present, is only meant to be decor. …