For a long time, Egypt has had three major political forces - secular political parties, the military and the Islamist (and Islamic) parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The military had backed the secular governments and kept MB under check for decades, though the party's candidates began contesting elections as independents at the turn of the century. Now, they have won the parliamentary elections.
Even after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the three remain the main political forces in Egypt. But the balance of power has undergone a radical change. The National Democratic Party of Egypt, the largest secular party, was dissolved in 2011. Secular forces were seriously weakened, while the Islamists saw an unprecedented rise in their support.
During the Mubarak era, Egypt had 20-odd political parties, while now there are more than 40 - 12 Islamic political parties, nine political parties formed by members of the now dissolved NDP, six centrist parties, five liberal parties, five center-left parties, two (former president Abdel) Nasserist parties, two socialist parties, a few old political parties such as the Umma, and some parties without political affiliations or clear political views.
In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Freedom and Justice Party formed by MB won 235 seats and became the largest party in the parliament. The Al-Nour Party, floated by the Islamist Salafi group, won 107 seats, becoming the second largest party. Altogether, the Islamist and Islamic parties won about 66 percent of the seats.
In June, MB candidate Mohamed Morsi won the presidential runoff by a narrow margin over Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister under deposed leader Mubarak. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the votes and Shafik, 48.3 percent.
But even before the new president had taken office, the military swung into action and set up barriers in MB's path. On June 17, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued the Supplemental Constitutional Declaration that stripped the president of some of his powers and dissolved the parliament. On July 10, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court rejected President Morsi's decree ordering the dissolved parliament to resume session.
But the newly elected president has tried to wrest his full powers through a series of political decisions. On Aug 12, Morsi sacked Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, and Sami Anan, the chief of staff of the army. He also ordered the navy, air defense and air force commanders to retire prematurely. The president named career army officer Lt Gen Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to replace Tantawi and Lt Gen Sidki Sayed Ahmed to succeed Anan. Tantawi and Anan were appointed advisers to the president and given Egypt's highest medal of honor.
Simultaneously, Morsi annulled the Supplemental Constitutional Declaration of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and issued a new constitutional declaration that gave him the power to choose a new assembly for drafting Egypt's new constitution.
Morsi's political purge has given him the upper hand against the military. Whether the constitutional commission can finish drafting a new constitution in time and, if yes, the nature of its content will determine Egypt's future: Islamist (or Islamic), or secular.
The power game, however, will continue among the various forces even after the military's status is lowered or its wings are clipped.
The Islamist parties now hold the legislative and the executive, and will not miss this "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to get their political (religious) beliefs embedded in the constitution and practiced in society, especially after being repressed for decades. But if they go too far in their Islamization drive, they will have to confront the secular elites and the military leading to social unrest. And this is not something any of the parties desires.
Therefore, Egypt faces a future of constant competition and compromise between the secular and religious forces. In other words, Egypt's stability depends, to a large extent, on how far Morsi will go in his Islamization drive.
Morsi will promote the rapid growth of Islamist forces in Egypt and help expand the reach of Islamist forces in the Middle East. Besides, MB's victory in Egypt should come as "good news" for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Islamist forces in Iran, Jordan and other countries.
Experience tells us that Islamic waves have not necessarily played a positive role in helping promote democracy in the true sense of the term in the Middle East. It is impossible to achieve sustainable economic development without peace and stability. And without a solid economic base and a modern legal system, it is impossible for a country to embrace sound democracy.
No country can achieve democracy overnight. Nor can democracy be ushered in through street demonstrations. Middle East countries can establish a democratic system only by achieving stability, accelerating their economic development and building a modern legal system, and this road for them seems to be tortuous.
The author is a researcher in Middle East Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 08/27/2012 page9)