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Kwasi Kwarteng: Democracy lacks roots in Egypt – and it's time we got real about it

KKKwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne

The events in Egypt in the past couple of weeks have stunned the world. The army forced President Morsi to leave office, barely a year after he was elected in Egypt’s first democratic election.

The army’s motives are unclear. Some people feel that they intervened because they were frightened by the militant Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Others have suggested that the army, which is believed to control up to 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy, acted swiftly to protect its interests. Whatever the reasons, the army’s intervention has been decisive and unambiguous.

I visited Egypt many times before I was elected to Parliament, and again as a member of the Conservative Middle East Council. I have been struck by how much Koranic principles, with regard to women’s clothing etc., have taken root in the past 15 years. The country I first visited in 1998 had been shocked by terrorist outrages but remained a bustling, secular nation.

Egypt today is a country in which Islam is the most dominant political force. The Muslim Brotherhood won about 50 per cent share of the vote in parliamentary elections last year. The Salafists, an even more uncompromising Islamic party, got about 25 per cent. This shocked the international liberal elite, who rarely stray beyond the confines of Cairo and the nightspots of the Zamalek district.

The second big power block, almost acting as a counter balance to this strong Islamic presence, is the Egyptian army. It was very quickly apparent visitors to Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that the future of Egypt would be determined by these two big interest groups. 

There is some overlap between these two groups – many officers are indeed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the army sees itself as a secular nationalist institution. It remains, very much as it was in the 1950s, the organisation dominated by Arab nationalism, by Nasser and the anti-colonial struggle.  The army particularly values its connections with the United States, which provides $1.5bn a year to the army’s coffers. In the heady days of the spring of 2011 there was much talk in Egypt about the “Turkish model” in which the Turkish army acted as a guarantor of that country’s secular constitution. In Turkey, the army was traditionally seen very much as a bulwark against Islamist political extremism.

I remember speaking to Egyptian friends in 2011 about the future of their country. They were generally drawn from the business classes, the wealthy elite, many of whom had done well under the Mubarak regime. It is fashionable to decry wealth creators and capitalists, but the truth is that they provided much capital investment, and much of the enterprise in Egypt had been developed by them.

The structure of the Egyptian economy is like that of Britain in the nineteenth century. There is a small entrepreneurial elite which is lightly taxed and whose commercial activities drive most of the economy. The twin fears they had concerned Islamism and socialism. Extremist religious fanaticism would kill the tourist trade in Egypt, they said. The threat of socialism and Nasser-style confiscation of property would drive entrepreneurs and capital out of the country in a few days.

By early 2011 this had already happened. Even by March of that year, a quarter of Egypt’s financial reserves – about $10bn – had already left the country. High end London property prices were supported in many instances by wealthy Egyptians seeking a refuge from the uncertainty.

This only made the economic situation worse. The Muslim Brotherhood, of course, were in no position to deliver on the lavish promises they had made in the run up to the 2012 election. The end of the Murabak regime had resulted in a level of lawlessness that was unprecedented. Ordinary Egyptians in Cairo no longer felt safe. The disturbances of the Port Said football match in February 2012, when at least 79 people were killed, only seemed to be yet another symptom of the general disorder.

Much of this had been foreseen in the spring of 2011. As one Egyptian friend said to me in a resigned, almost nonchalant way at the time, “in two years I can see a Pinochet here”. Financial collapse, the breakdown of civil order, and an army proud of its traditions, produced an ideal breeding ground for a military dictator.

The business elites, and even ordinary professionals, would often mutter quietly of the need for a “strong man”, an autocratic figure who would bring back order and security. My feelings in 2011 were somewhat pessimistic. Despite the enthusiasm of the democratic liberals, who wanted to bring a plural society and democracy to Egypt, I was unsure about how this could be brought about in the short term.

Islam is still a hugely powerful and significant force in most of Egypt. The outbursts of violence against the Coptic population (who, it should be remembered, have lived in Egypt for nearly 2,000 years) were proof of the prevalence of religious intolerance in Egypt. Even in 2011 it was clear that no genuinely secular democracy would take root in Egypt for a long time.

The struggle for the foreseeable future will always be one between political Islam on the one hand, and the army on the other. This is not an environment in which a thriving pluralistic democracy is likely to emerge any time soon. Any democratic settlement that does arise will be closely monitored by the army. The army will have the final say over which political parties are allowed to compete in elections. They may well, in the end, hand-pick candidates. They will depose, as they did two weeks ago, any candidate or elected official who displeases them.  

This isn’t real democracy. I think it’s about time that the West accepts that democratic institutions will not take firm root in the Middle East for many years to come.


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