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Egypt’s Next Parliament: A Defining Role for the Business Community and the Salafi Islamists?

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Parliamentary elections in Egypt are set for next October 18 and 19. The new Parliament will enjoy unprecedented powers under the current constitution. While these powers may represent a temptation for authorities to forge the results, a practice common during Mubarak years, the risk of any fool play is high this time around. Internal security agencies know by now that forging the results of the 2010 elections was one of the reasons of the revolt that took place one year later. Furthermore, the eyes of the world are focused on the elections as a way to gauge the extent to which Egypt progressed towards a normalized political life, particularly in view of the intense criticism addressed at Cairo for its dismal human rights record. But the one reason that makes forging the results needless is that the regime of President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi is already popular the way it is. There is no motive to steal legitimacy out of the pockets of voters if the volunteer it willingly.

There are many things to watch, however, in this coming elections. We will name two here that are of particular interest. The first is if the legitimate business community in addition to the remains of Mubarak cronyism and corruption and the usual “men of all epochs”, will form a joint front to attempt to control as many seats as possible. The business community can back sympathetic runners or even direct representatives of its own, but it can also “buy” those who are for sale for the right price. The agenda of such a front, if formed, will be to preserve and expand their interests through the new Parliament. The second thing to watch is the percentage that the Islamists, represented by the Salafi Nour Party, will gain in the public vote and in terms of the numbers of seats in the new Parliament.

The significance of the business community’s heavy involvement in the elections could be read in the zig zag that marked its relations with Sissi since he took power in summer 2014. Sissi resorted to the armed forces as the main implementers of a chain of infrastructure projects aimed at giving Egyptians a feeling that the country has returned to the right path. This quick fix is as needed by Egyptians to feel there is hope as it is needed by the regime to gain a period of relative quiet until the country is pulled out of its current impasse.

Using the armed forces in projects gave Sissi the expediency and the reduced cost in times when resources were scarce and when the population needed to be reassured that there is hope in the future. But the business class expressed discontent with its new role of being a mere subcontractor. It perceived the role of the armed forces as infringement and unfair competition. Aware of the lack of resources, Sissi was not ready to pay much because he did not have much. The margin of profit of the armed forces was in many cases equal to zero. He even pressured the rich to contribute to a special fund he created to finance infrastructure projects. The response was lukewarm.

The tension found its way to media channels, some owned by big business interests, and was threatening more troubles in an extremely sensitive environment security wise. The Muslim Brotherhood, just toppled by Sissi, were waging an intensive campaign to destabilize the new regime. The Egyptian President did not need to add another front to his political fight and reached a kind of modus operandi with business community.

More or less the silent “understanding” between the two sides still exists. But as the lines between both sides are movable, this understanding may be subject to changes after the Parliamentary elections, if the business community got a substantial block of the seats. While tension in this case will not be expressed in any blunt form, there are many ways for the business community to harvest the fruits of the gained new leverage in case they get such a leverage through the new Parliament.

It is true that Sissi, with his overwhelming popularity, ultimately enjoys an upper hand among Egyptians. Yet, in legislative moves, it is not only a matter of popularity. It is a vote count. While the front of the regime-business community is currently stable, no one can exclude some future skirmishes in the real life twists and turns of any relation between political authorities and businesses. The business community in Egypt will seek to increase their cut in the pie. More is defined subjectively.

As for the Salafis, they position themselves now as the inheritors of the “Islamic Trend” in Egypt after the sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The relentless pressure on the MB almost terminated any role of the organization in Egypt’s political life.

During Mubarak years, authorities allowed Salafi groups to work almost freely so long as they do not do politics. The Salafi, an ultra-conservative Islamist trend, was active in recruiting youth and expanding presences on purely religious bases. Its objective was to “Islamize”, or in more accurate term “Salafize”, the Egyptian population. Their main enemies, as they state in their pamphlets, is the Sufists which is a centuries old spiritual way that characterized popular Islam in Egypt, the secular, the atheists, the Shias and the Coptic Christians.

Under the deal with Mubarak security apparatus, the Salafis were assigned the role of informers on any subversive activities in return for a large degree of freedom of movement. This allowed the trend to expand quickly.

When the 2011 revolt occurred, the Salafis switched camps in a relatively short time. They turned against Mubarak and moved into the realm of active political role with their bag of teachings and backward way of understanding Islam. They said openly that it was time to implement what is their books through political power. These teachings included the restoration of female genital mutilation, reducing the minimum age for marriage to allow girls to 13 years old, banning any “un-Islamic” scenes in media and a host of other incredible stuff.

Yet, due to ling years of active expansion and recruiting, they won almost 28% of the seats of the 2012 Parliament. During early Parliamentarian sessions they called for legalizing their demands after they labeled it social “reform”. They forced the MBs, who got almost half the seats of the same Parliament, to either appear as un-Islamic by publicly opposing the proposed “Islamic” legislations, or support it and turn itself into the laughing stock of Egyptian urbanists and a watching world. The Salafis also refused to stand for Egypt’s national anthem, as it was a sign of a political state not of a unified Islamic Caliphate. Egyptian liberals were getting ready to fight, but the MB convinced the Salafis, in tough talks behind closed doors, that time is not ripe for implementing such legislations and that they have to be patient.

The current political authority in Egypt adopted a policy towards the Salfis that is slightly different than that of Mubarak. It allowed their main party, the Nour Party, to participate despite a constitutional ban on any political parties that is based on religion. “Nour party will be judged by the voters. It has a religious background, but it is a political party nonetheless. We did not exclude this group from the political dialogue with the presidency”, Sissi said recently.

The reason why the Egyptian regime kept the door opened to the Salafis lies in a complex political calculus. Recently, when Sissi called for reforming the Islamic discourse in Egypt, Al Azhar, the official religious establishment, succeeded in putting limits to the proposed debate while expanding what it saw as the “Islamization” of the society. It called, successfully, for a ban on any critic of the ultra-conservative teachings from public appearances. Sissi needed a valid Islamists “alternative” to the MBs. As the Salafis were not using violence like the MBs, they could be tolerated for the time being.

The truth is that the Salafi trend has a substantial presence in Al Azhar itself. Furthermore, it is difficult for Sissi to crack down on the MBs and the Salafis at the same time (Though it is not certain that he will curb the activities of the Salafis even in a better security environment in the future).

But the Liberals in Egypt are moving swiftly to counter the activities of the Salafis on various grounds. A petition to prevent Nour from running based on its nature and the fact that the constitution prevents religious parties from even existing, let alone running in the elections, is gathering momentum. Videos of Salafi Sheikhs banning Egyptian Muslims from even saluting Egyptian Christians, the Fatwas related to female oppression and other self-incriminating statements are distributed widely.

The Nour Party has a sizable support in rural and southern backward regions. Yet, the isolation of the MB, though approved by the Salafis in order to gain political favor with the government and to inherit the bases of their brethren, is not helping the party. Egyptians believe that “All bearded are crooks” as they commonly say. The fall of the MB damaged the popular stand of all organized religious groups though with varying degrees. Yet we estimate that the Nour Party will gain anything between 10 and 15% of the seats of the next Parliament. The party is competing for 60% of the seats.

While the Egyptian government is unlikely to interfere in the fairness of the voting process, it tries to keep the elections within a strict pass not to cause a worsening in the security environment. Yet, and hopefully, the elections could be a step forward towards normalizing the political life and ending the usual paranoia and excesses of the security machine.