Published on 3 Feb 2011 Sections , , ,

Israel: a model for the future of Egypt?

As the struggle goes in Tahrir Square on for the soul of Egypt, foreign policy analyst Ziya Meral says that the shape of country’s political future may be closest to that of Israel.

As the struggle goes in Tahrir Square on for the soul of Egypt, foreign policy analyst Ziya Meral says that the shape of country's political future may be closest to that of Israel.

While President Mubarak and his faithful inner circle are pulling all of their usual tricks to maintain power, the international community is busy conceiving scenarios for the future of Egypt.

For some, the future looks bleak. Doomsday projections include an immediate Islamist takeover of the country which would result in Islamisation of the seemingly secular country structures, end of neutral relations with Israel, cooperation with the “war on terror” and issues regarding Palestine, stability in economic relations, and access to key transportation routes. The archetype, which the process in Egypt is likened to in these scenarios, is Iran.

For others, the future looks bright. The word “revolution” evokes strong feelings of excitement and exhilaration. The long-awaited era of democracy, human rights, and socio-economic flourishing is seemingly right around the corner. Egypt will be able to accommodate both of its conservatives and liberals in an economic progress-driven, bold and independent government. The archetype, of which the future of Egypt is likened to by the optimists, is Turkey.

Yet, neither Turkey nor Iran is where Egypt’s today and tomorrow lies. The dynamics of the 1979 revolution in Iran and the socio-political and religious structures of the country differ dramatically from Egypt. With no uniting figure like Khomeini, who can appeal to a broad range of people and who can offer a new coherent and radical vision to ‘save’ the country, the Egyptian unrest does not have a specific path to follow. Unlike the strong hierarchical nature of Shi-ite faith, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood is divided within itself and has no clear or coherent vision for the country, save for discourses on morality and religiosity accompanied by some rhetoric of democracy.

The vast majority of Egyptians do not want a backwards-looking Islamist country, but as Muslims, they want a government that is just and fair and upholds moral codes of Islam.

While the influence and actual capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood is often exaggerated, due to our own fears of Islamism and terror, the complexity and polyphony of the Egyptian social and political landscape are often overlooked. The vast majority of Egyptians do not want a backwards-looking Islamist country, but as Muslims, they want a government that is just and fair and upholds moral codes of Islam.

This is where the image of Turkey as a role model for Egypt seems to make sense. After all, the ruling AKP government in Turkey is just what Egyptians seem to want: a conservative Muslim government with a pragmatic appetite for financial gain and diplomatic independence. However, the factors which enabled AKP to formulate and achieve a new political horizon – such as the long historical process that has modified Islam and Islamists in Turkey, multiple political parties and free elections and strong external pressure for reform due to EU accession talks – are not readily available to Egypt.

Egyptian politics might eventually look like Turkey one day, but in order for that to happen, the country must be willing to endure a chaotic and often paralyzing political stage. Ironically, that first stage will look a lot like Israel.

The only current political narrative that can unite Egypt is nationalism, embodied by the Armed Forces and their positive stand amongst all segments of the Egyptian society. Thus, just like Israel, we have seen and will see more military figures seizing the moment and pursuing political careers.

Just like Israel, Egypt will find a working, but imperfect balance in accommodating religious and secular populations.

The social tensions between the Islamist, mildly Islamist, culturally conservative, socialist and liberal segments of the Egyptian society will continually be a point of contention, just like in Israel. And just like Israel, Egypt will find a working, but imperfect balance in accommodating religious and secular populations.

Increasing political freedoms in Egypt will result in formation of political parties that will reflect all of the colours of Egypt from its 12million-strong Coptic Christians to its Islamists and liberals, all competing to represent their agendas and visions. Thus, with no party having clear majority, subsequent Egyptian governments will be weak coalitions trying to bring together completely opposing political visions, just like Israeli politics.

But for now, the immediate outcome of this month’s social unrest will not be a “revolution” – a word which is now empty of meaning thanks to its frequent metaphorical use – but an “evolution”. And for all we know from our biological evolution, it will be a rather messy process before such an evolution reaches its excellence.

Ziya Meral is a Turkish analyst and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre, based in London.