Egypt: Ikhwan at the Crossroads

chandra muzaffarEgyptian opposition parties and their supporters should accept the results of the new Egyptian Constitution. There is no solid evidence of systemic cheating or massive manipulation of the referendum by the Mohamed Morsi government, as alleged earlier.

64% of those who voted endorsed the new Constitution. True, only 32% of the registered voters exercised their right. That in itself is not an argument against the validity of the poll. In some Western democracies, the voter turn-out is lower and yet no one questions the outcome of their referendum or elections.

Many Egyptians are concerned that the Constitution may adversely impact women and non-Muslim minorities. The changes stipulate that scholars from Egypt’s premier Islamic institution would now oversee a wide spectrum of activities since Islam is a complete way of life. Critics of the Constitution are worried that it might lead to conservatism that is inimical to the essence of Islam as understood by a significant segment of Egyptian society for centuries.

Dr. Morsi, elected President in June 2012 under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin) with only 51.7% of the votes cast, should address the concerns arising from the new Constitution with sincerity and honesty. He should incorporate credible personalities from non-Ihkwan backgrounds into governance. Building a national consensus to tackle the challenges facing the nation should be Morsi’s principal aim.

The most formidable of these challenges are those related to the economy. According to some sources, 51% of Egypt’s population live below the poverty line. Between 20% to 25% of the work force are unemployed. Inflation hovers around 11.7%. There is a huge national deficit. Foreign reserves are depleting rapidly. The yawning gap between the rich and poor has widened considerably in the last ten years. Egypt’s military owns or controls between 10% and 45% of the national economy. The vested interests linked to the military have undoubtedly distorted the economy.

How will Morsi correct these distortions and transform the economy? In its economic program, the Ikhwan spells out its commitment to a free market; an industrial policy based upon export substitution; reducing public expenditure; controlling the budget deficit; increasing the minimum wage; introducing a progressive income tax structure; and raising the ceiling for tax exemptions. The economic program also emphasizes building new power plants, water treatment systems, roads and bridges.

The Ikhwan hopes to gain control over the so-called slush funds of the deposed regime to finance development projects for the people. It is an open secret that the Ikhwan is, at the same time, negotiating a 4.8 billion US dollar loan from the IMF. There is a great expectation of aid from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the European Union, and the United States.

Many of the goals of the program are laudable; specific objectives linked to wages and taxes are commendable. However, critics are skeptical about the program relying so heavily on the private sector to overcome poverty or to narrow the wealth gap. Historically, institutions which are part of the public sector play a pivotal role in addressing challenges which are intimately connected with issues of social justice.

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The State will have to limit and eventually eliminate the military from the economy, while formulating an effective system to bring development to the poorer strata of society. Private capital and the institutions related to it will not be able to perform these tasks.

The US elite and other Western elites want Egypt to continue liberalizing its financial sector, deregulating its economy and privatizing its public assets. They want financial capital in particular to be welcomed with open arms. The US wants the Ikhwan based government to be under the tutelage of the IMF.

How the Morsi led government relates to the global capitalist system will be one of the three things that the US and its allies will take into consideration in their evaluation. They will also assess the Ikhwan’s attitude towards the US military presence and power in West Asia and North Africa (WANA).

The US’s most critical criterion in judging the Ikhwan is how it conducts its relationship to Israel.  Both the US and Israel and their European allies expect the Ikhwan government to preserve and protect the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Israel and its friends will not agree to any attempt to re-visit any aspect of the Treaty, a Treaty which is extremely unpopular with the Egyptian people. Egypt’s relations with neighbors who are perceived as mortal threats to Israel’s existence will be watched closely. Morsi has chosen not to antagonize Israel and the West. Indeed, in the ongoing bloody conflict in Syria, he is clearly on the side of the US and its other Western and WANA allies.

The three criteria that the US and its allies are employing in assessing the Ikhwan – fidelity to US-led global capitalism; acquiescence with US military hegemony; and subservience to Israeli interests – are also the yardsticks they are using in evaluating other Ikhwan affiliated Islamic movements that have come to power. If the Ikhwan in Egypt continues to seek the endorsement of the US, there is a danger of losing popular support among society over time, especially if as a result of its adherence to US-led capitalism it fails to deliver justice to the poor. If the Ikhwan accords priority to its own people and others like the Palestinians, over US interests, it will certainly lose US patronage but will gain the affection of the masses.

In reality it may not be a stark “either or” choice. The Ikhwan should demonstrate that it has the integrity and the courage to move in the direction of enhancing Egypt’s independence and sovereignty. If the Ikhwan moves in such a direction, it would have ensured justice and dignity for its people, while having a huge impact upon the entire region.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a JUST World (JUST), an international NGO based in Malaysia, which seeks to critique global injustice and to develop an alternative vision of a just and compassionate civilization guided by universal spiritual and moral values.