Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pragmatic-ideological Tension in Egyptian Politics

Conventional wisdom on Egypt is that Islamists and liberals engage with – and gain from – the political superstructure in Egypt in a wholly linear fashion, each according to a set of pre-established values. For instance, the positions of the parties regarding the different election debates in Egypt are often characterized as falling along a neat Islamist-secular divide, with Islamists pushing for elections to be held on time and liberals calling for supraconstitutional principles to protect the civil nature of the state. Though certain elements of such an Islamist-secular duality are present in recent events, each political party in Egypt asserts itself based on a set of unique calculations about its principles, constituency and relationship with the current regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

An often overlooked dynamic in Egyptian politics is the “pragmatic-ideological” dialectic – an internal tension that can be found in both the liberal and Islamist camps. Both sides face this pragmatic-ideological conflict, with neither acting solely on principle or political expediency. Instead, the degree to which pragmatism is embraced – or rejected – by each faction is motivated by unique considerations, and every action by a party has a heterogeneous effect on the party’s political salience vis-à-vis various constituencies.

The protests in Tahrir Square over the past month illustrate the interesting recalculations of each political party as it attempts to contend with and gain mastery over the Egyptian political sphere. The protest against the Selmy Document of supra-constitutional principles on November 18 and the protest and sit-in against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on November 25 show the fundamental alignments that undergird party politics in Egypt today and offer one explanation for the ability of each party to mobilize voters, specifically the poor performance of the liberal parties in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

Between a rock and a hard place: Egypt’s liberal parties

The consequence of the pragmatic-ideological divide in Egyptian politics has taken a significant toll on the campaign capabilities of Egypt’s liberal parties. Although it is certainly untrue to say that Egypt’s liberal parties lack all pragmatic sensibilities, the current pragmatic-ideological divide has alienated the liberal parties from the other power centers in Egypt as well as from their natural allies and potential campaign ‘foot soldiers,’ the politically-active youth of Tahrir. Because these parties are trying to tap into the legitimizing power of Tahrir and build up their profile with the youth of the revolution, they try to stay on top of the waves of popular unrest, hoping that standing with Tahrir will somehow launch them into positions of power. In the case of the November 25 protests, this led many of these parties to issue statements supporting an electoral delay until security had returned to Cairo’s streets, a view that placed them at odds with both the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF, but aligned them with the protestors in Tahrir.

At the same time, in the eyes’ of the idealistic Tahrir protestors, these parties often do not go far enough in condemning the SCAF and the Egyptian cabinet. These secular parties espouse liberal values, such as democracy and equal rights for all, while at the same time supporting many of the articles of the Selmy document that puts constraints on the power of the incoming parliament to form a constitutional-drafting assembly.

The generally-speaking liberal youth activists, who one imagines as the natural base of support for these parties, also eschew almost all political deals, the types of compromises that were the currency of Egyptian politics for at least the last thirty years. As the liberal parties have sought to establish a presence on the ground, these politically-active youth of Tahrir have been distracted from the electoral battle by a number of other political battles like that against military trials for activists and have been alienated from these parties by any move they view as legitimizing the rule of the SCAF. The position of these youth is best captured by the position of parties such as the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, which took a strong stance against Selmy document and took part in the anti-SCAF protest between November 19 and 25.

Best of both worlds: Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour

The Muslim Brotherhood’s vacillation between protest and pragmatism, in contrast, does not cost them at the ballot box; in fact, it probably helps. Most parties in the Revolution Continues Alliance, the Islamist Alliance, and the Freedom and Justice Party-led Democratic Alliance opposed the Selmy Document, as did the unaffiliated parties of al-Wasat, and al-Adl. The dominant view expressed by these groups was that the document was undemocratic because it sought to impose supra-constitutional principles before elections were held and permanently granted the SCAF a set of powers outside of civilian oversight. While spearheading the November 18 protest against the Selmy document, the Muslim Brotherhood was careful to focus on one fundamental issue – the undemocratic nature of the supraconstitutional principles – rather than call for the overthrow of SCAF, an unabashedly undemocratic body of military officials. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party did not participate in the November 25 demonstrations against SCAF, claiming it would endanger the country’s stability. This move illustrates the Brotherhood’s characteristic political expediency only a week before parliamentary elections which its Freedom and Justice Party was certain to fare well in.

Notably, the Salafi al-Nour party, which participated in the protests from November 18 through November 24, also announced its withdrawal from the square ahead of the November 25 protests. While seeking to position itself as a pro-revolution force, al-Nour, like the Freedom and Justice Party, also garners legitimacy from its religious work in the community and, therefore, relies more on these religious networks to activate their constituencies rather than the politically-active youth of Tahrir. It may also illustrate a tactical difference in their approach with SCAF – while making statements and going to the streets to protest major issues for them, such as the Selmy Document, the Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood recognize that they developed important networks under the old regime and are positioned to lose more than gain with a total overthrow of the system.


The tension between cooperation and protest with the larger system is an important factor in determining the political strategies of both the liberal and Islamist political parties in Egypt. The evolution of this pragmatic-ideological tension within each party’s strategy will play a crucial role in determining their respective salience in Egyptian politics in the months ahead.