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On Egypt: What Should America Do Now?

March 9, 2011

Analysis by Steven Kull

Reprinted from the Harvard International Review

HIRlogo.jpgFor decades, the United States stood by as the Egyptian government suppressed the freedom and democracy of its people, sowing anti-Americanism in the masses. As the Egyptian people rose up, demanding greater democracy, the Obama administration succeeded in realigning its stance so as to support this development, bringing US policy into greater harmony with its values.

But what should the United States do now? The path to the future is not at all clear: there are numerous forces within Egyptian society gearing up for conflict in the process of reshaping the face of the Egyptian government, both in terms of its domestic policies and its international role. The United States will inevitably be a player in this process and must choose its steps carefully.

A key driver in America's past acceptance of the suppression of the Egyptian population was the concern, stoked by the Mubarak government, that a more democratic Egypt would lead to the ascendance of Islamist forces, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. Such an ascendance, it was feared, would ultimately lead to even greater suppression of human rights and democracy in the name of Islamic law, as well as hostility to the United States and to Israel.

Despite the chanting of liberal democratic themes in Tahrir Square, these fears have not gone away. Nor should they. While it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood has the broad support to quickly achieve a dominant role, polls show that large majorities do sympathize with many of the key principles of Islamist thinking including the goal of making sharia the foundation of Egyptian law. Hostility toward US foreign policy, expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other groups, is widespread in the Egyptian public.

The US government has well-developed resources at the ready, with expertise and experience that can help facilitate the development of democratic elections. It may well be tempting for the United States to counter-balance the Islamists to favor the development of new liberal secular parties or to strengthen the existing secular parties that have formed a weak opposition in the past. However, doing so would likely elicit a backlash.

Favoring secular parties would perhaps make sense if the Egyptian society were divided between those who favor liberal ideas and those who favor Islamist ideas. However this is not the case. The polarization between liberal and Islamist ideas in Egyptian society is more within individuals than between them, essentially an internal clash of civilizations.

Polls conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO), an international research project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, over the last few years show large majorities embrace liberal democratic principles. Eighty three percent said that "a democratic political system" is a good way of governing Egypt and an extraordinary 98 percent agreed that "the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government." Ninety-seven percent said that the will of the people should have more influence than it does presently in Egypt--foreshadowing the demand for greater democracy.

Support for liberal ideas of human rights is also strong. WPO found eight in ten saying that it is important that people have the right "to express any opinion, including criticisms of the government or religious leaders." Nine in ten said that it is important for "women to have full equality of rights compared to men." And the same number said that "people of any religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs."

But equally large majorities also embrace Islamist ideas, some of which seem on their face to contradict liberal principles. Ninety-two percent agreed that "Islam should play a central role in the government." Contrary to the principle that the will of the people should be the basis of government, a Gallup poll found that two-thirds said that sharia should not only be one source but "the only source of legislation." WPO found six in ten saying that sharia should play a greater role in the Egyptian government than it presently does and three quarters saying that all laws should be subject to approved by a council of Islamic scholars who would determine whether the law conforms to Islamic law.

Clearly there are large numbers of Egyptians that endorse both liberal and Islamist views even when they are arguably at odds with each other. Because both of these ideas exist within most Egyptian individuals, were the US to try to promote liberal secular forces in Egypt, it would likely elicit a counter-reaction that would harden commitment to Islamist ideas. Egyptians are already wary of American intentions: 82 percent told WPO that they think it is a US goal to "make Muslim societies less Islamic."

Promoting the development of political parties in a truly even-handed fashion would be a better approach. But it may be awkward for the United States to provide assistance to Islamist parties. Furthermore, the development of political parties should not be seen as the highest priority. If the political discourse shapes itself into a battle between secular liberal parties on one hand and Islamist parties on the other, the Islamist forces are more likely to gain the upper hand. They are better organized and they have stronger claims to legitimacy. Liberal ideas are strong, but identification with Islam is stronger.

But most important, most Egyptians do not want to be forced to choose between liberal and Islamist ideas. Most want to find a way to integrate them, preserving a sense of connection to their cultural roots, while also incorporating liberal ideas. But finding a way to do this requires a process of collective deliberation, something ill-afforded in the repressive political environment that Egyptians have lived in for decades now. Nevertheless, such a process may well lead to the emergence of ideas and ultimately political parties that bridge the gap within Egyptian society.

What then can the United States do? Clearly America has little to offer conceptually in helping Egyptians sort through their questions about the role of Islam in Egyptian governance.

There is something America can provide that can help facilitate this process and reduce the likelihood that one or another faction will gain ascendance. This is to provide the resources to promote the development of a voice of the majority public.

A critical aspect of democratic society is for people to gain some sense of the public as a whole. Equally important, because the majority of Egyptians have both liberal and Islamist views, helping to give voice to the majority will help build a political center, consolidate a common ground in Egyptian society and reduce the probability that either Islamist or secular parties will become dominant.

So how can this be done?

For starters, Egyptians should have greater capacity to conduct public opinion polls on public policy issues. While there are some nascent polling capacities in Egypt, these have been constrained by government censorship and limited expertise. The United States can help provide resources to strengthen these capacities in universities, media outlets, and NGOs. It would also be quite useful to provide resources to improve polling capacities within the government--on the condition that findings are made public. This would give officials in the legislative and executive branches the capacity to consult the people. Interestingly, such an agency already exists within the Egyptian Cabinet, though its functions have been limited. Egyptians were asked in a WPO poll whether the government should have such a polling capacity or if it should not be involved in this kind of thing, and three in four said that it should. Journalists--both reporters and columnists--should also be given more training in understanding and reporting on polls.

Not all of the questions and issues Egyptians face are ones that can be dealt with in the context of standard polls. Many require providing respondents with more information than they already have, as well as the chance to deliberate, as individuals or in group discussions. Broad questions about the structure of governance in Egypt or the role of Islam in government would certainly be examples requiring such greater deliberation, but there would surely be others.

Such methods have been developed in a number of countries under the rubric of public consultation. Like standard polls, these involve surveying representative samples. However, in this case respondents are presented key information and are also asked to evaluate a wide range of arguments on a topic, before coming to conclusions. In some cases such consultations can be conducted on-line, but in other cases it is necessary for people to gather in citizen assemblies to be briefed and to discuss these issues with others, sometimes even over a period of several days. Here too, the idea of such assemblies was presented to Egyptians, and they favored the idea by a two to one margin --and by a similar margin said they would have more confidence in the conclusions of such an assembly than they would in the decisions of the Parliament.

Finally there is the possibility of establishing a standing citizen advisory panel or a 'citizen shura' that could become an ongoing voice of the people. A representative sample of Egyptians would be scientifically selected and invited to be a member for a limited period. Members would be provided internet access if they lacked it. They would regularly receive briefings on the issues that the government faces and be asked for their views, which would be aggregated and presented to the government and reported in the press. For some issues they could also meet in clusters around the country to be briefed on issues and the range of arguments, and to discuss with others.

Such processes would address a wide range of issues and help stimulate the civic discourse that the Egyptian people need to come out of the mind-numbing repression they have lived under for decades. Fully engaging the range of views within, as well as among, the Egyptian people, would likely facilitate the integration of liberal and Islamist views in Egyptian society and reduce the likelihood that Islamists would gain the upper hand and suppress freedom.

Naturally all of these processes would need to have the oversight of a wide range of trusted Egyptian leaders and social scientists. Even if support comes from the United States, Egyptians would need to have confidence that the US government is not manipulating the process and is truly giving voice to the Egyptian people.

Egyptians, like many Muslims, are drawn to the values that America symbolizes, even as they complain that the US government does not live up to those values. Were the United States to support such processes, it would very likely help counter the widely held view that the United States is not serious about furthering democracy in Egypt. The bitter feelings of betrayal in American support for a regime that oppressed them will not evaporate immediately. To heal this wound, there really is no better path than to show genuine respect for, and seek to help empower, the will of the Egyptian people.


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