From the Mosque to the Presidency: The forthcoming Egyptian presidential elections

Originally published by Al-Majalla Magazine

By Elizabeth Iskander and Minas Monir

Published: Friday 13 August 2010 Updated: Friday 13 August 2010

The run up to the 2011 Egyptian presidential elections will be a crucial period for Egypt’s political future. There is the potential for real change but the indications are that the key figures will once again cynically use religious sentiments to win legitimacy. If ElBaradei is serious about reforming Egypt’s political culture, he must avoid this strategy.

In late 1798, on the shores of Alexandria, Napoleon addressed a letter to the people of Egypt justifying his invasion. He spoke to them about his respect for Islam and his willingness to cooperate with Muslim clerics. It was the same step taken by Alexander the Great when he came to Egypt thousands of years earlier. Alexander visited the temple of Amun where he was praised as the Son of Amun and consequently he was accepted by Egyptians. Both of these great leaders entered Egypt through the gate of religion.

Even in the era of Arab socialism, ushered in after the July 1952 Free Officers revolution, the writer of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches, Mohammed H. Heikal, punctuated Nasser’s words with the name of Allah. Anwar Al-Sadat, who succeeded Nasser to the presidency bringing capitalism with him, was called the “faithful president.” He described himself as a Muslim president of a Muslim nation.

The situation has not changed in modern Egypt. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), has sought to keep the loyalty of the major religious foundations in Egypt; namely Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. The support of these national religious institutions has served to give the NDP a veneer of legitimacy before the Egyptian public. Yet as a result of so visibly involving religious figures as political actors the Egyptian political space has been polarized into the NDP and radical Islamist camps.

This complex relationship between the state and religious bodies was illustrated during the 2005 presidential elections. The government used Al-Azhar by encouraging the institution’s scholars to publicly undermine the religious credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim was to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood could not influence the outcome of the vote. For its part, the Coptic Church backed president Hosni Mubarak absolutely. Pope Shenouda and the Coptic Holy Synod published statements in the official church magazine declaring their full support for Mubarak and even went so far as to bus Copts to polling stations.

The next presidential election in 2011 will be even more hotly contested. The return of Nobel Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, to Egypt and his dramatic entry into Egyptian politics has added a new dynamic.  ElBaradei founded a National Association for Change but ironically there are signs that he will succumb to the established pattern of seeking recourse to religion.

ElBaradei initially identified himself as an independent candidate.  This created a problem because Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution prohibits independent candidates from contesting the presidential elections.  A candidate must be a member of a recognized party and should have been part of its senior leadership for at least one year. Consequently, he has judged that he needs to gain broad public support and fast, in order to call for an amendment to the constitution.

As indicated, the general public has typically been accessed through the language of religion. This explains why ElBaradei symbolically started his campaign by visiting the mosque of Al-Hussein in the heart of old Cairo. Despite his secular liberal speech, in his first interview after arriving back in Egypt in February, ElBaradei did not rule out a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and has appeared to become increasingly aligned with the group.

On Friday, the 4 of June, ElBaradei traveled to El-Fayoum city where he began his rally by performing Friday Prayers at Mubarak mosque along with thousands of supporters, many of whom were Muslim Brotherhood members. Mustapha Awadalla, a Muslim Brotherhood and Parliament Member, stood beside him during the prayers and presented him to the public afterwards.

At the same time as courting the Muslim Brotherhood, ElBaradei is trying to access Copts from the same point of entry, namely religion. Such support could be pivotal for ElBaradei, particularly because the Coptic patriarch is not merely a spiritual father for the Copts but also the political leader and representative of the Coptic minority before the state. In the last four decades, this patriarchal role in the social and political life of the Copts has reached its climax due to the charismatic role of Shenouda III.

However, being the official Christian religious foundation in Egypt, the church is in a full and complete alliance with the government, giving its support to the NDP in the recent Shura Council elections. This close relationship to the ruling party led to the snubbing of ElBaradei at the Easter liturgy presided over by Pope Shenouda and attended by Egypt’s leading political players. ElBaradei claimed he was invited by Pope Shenouda, yet on arrival he was intentionally ignored and his reserved place was deliberately moved to sit him away from the cameras

It seems then that this gate is closed to ElBaradei, at least for the present. This realization and the knowledge that the secular liberal political streams cannot offer ElBaradei the support he needs to push for the amendment of Article 76 have pushed him further into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei is counting on this to bring him the “silent majority” because the official Islamic foundation, Al-Azhar, no longer has the credibility to provide alternative access to the Muslim vote. Therefore, although he admits that there are “some differences,” ElBaradei has affirmed that he welcomes the Muslim Brotherhood into his Assembly. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood will surely call for promises based on the religious ambitions which were spelt out recently in their manifesto for the 1 of June Shura Council elections.

Using the mosque as the springboard for his leap into Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain momentum for the Association for Change indicates that ElBaradei understands the importance of religion to the Egyptian public. However, this strategy does not support his campaign for reformation. There is a danger that this will increase the spirit of radicalism, which has already served to ignite sectarian tensions in Egypt. When Sadat began to rely on religion for legitimacy, Egypt witnessed its worst period of sectarian violence.

To avoid further fragmenting Egyptians into Muslims and Christians, ElBaradei needs to establish a new base for his campaign. He has so far avoided joining or starting a new party that could develop and promote his agenda without the need to compromise with the radical political streams. Having a political party would also help him overcome the obstacle of Article 76. A new party with the capacity to bring together the other political movements in an alliance or a coalition may help him to change the future of the political landscape in Egypt without making recourse to religion.

Using religion to reach the public is easy because it is expected and even accepted. But it also hinders the ability of a democratic culture to mature and take root. Although the impact would be less immediate, changing this reliance on rhetoric that politicizes religion could eventually lead to the real change that the Egyptian street is calling for.

Elizabeth Iskander – Director of the Next Century Foundation’s research program. A Middle East analyst and writer based in London, she has published in both the English and Arabic language media and has a particular interest in the politics, law and society of Egypt and Iran. She is also currently a PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Minas Monir – Cairo-based journalist, translator and writer. He works on the politics, culture and religion of the Middle East. The author of several books, his main areas of expertise are Egyptian affairs and political theology.

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