Today, we interviewed for you Tarek Osman, one of the Global Thinkers we included in our List this year and author of the acclaimed book “Egypt on the Brink: from Nasser to Mubarak” (Yale University Press, 2010).
Today, we interviewed for you Tarek Osman, one of the Global Thinkers we included in our List this year and author of the acclaimed book “Egypt on the Brink: from Nasser to Mubarak” (Yale University Press, 2010). By taking a historical perspective, the book presents a deep but accessible analysis of the Egyptian context leading to the democratic upheavals in the country in 2010-2011. In this interview, Mr. Osman sheds some light on the evolutions in the structure of economic and political power which have happened in Egypt from then to today, highlighting how the balance of power between Islamists and secularists now relies on the capability of solving the socioeconomic issues the country is facing.**
1. **After Mubarak’s fall, militaries, Islamists and liberals became the main political forces in Egypt. Can you please briefly describe their current strengths and weaknesses? **
The scoping of the question is correct. Egypt’s political landscape is indeed so polarised nowadays that it makes sense to speak of different camps. The most conspicuous one, of course, is the Islamists’ one. They are divided along many lines, but in general, you can group them according to their commitment to having an Islamic frame of reference for the society. As you can appreciate, this is not a political stand point per se, it is a view for the whole society. This camp has several strengths. For decades, it was the most powerful part of the opposition – not to President Mubarak’s rule, but to the concepts upon which the first Egyptian republic was founded. Because of their long history in political activity, they also have immense experience in mobilising supporters, raising funds, and working on the ground, especially in the poorer areas of the country.
A related point, which is a key strength for the Islamist movement, is their sophisticated services infrastructure, which in many parts of the country rivals the social services that the state provides (or fails to provide in many cases). But the key historical strength for political Islam, in general, is its positioning as the representation of notions that the pious Arab societies are unwilling to debate, such as for example the supremacy of the Islamic Sharia, and religion as the ultimate frame of reference for the society. But this leads us to the weaknesses. The more the leaders of the Islamist movement focus on their religious message, the more diluted that message becomes. At least during the last decade, they have not been presenting themselves as the bearers of Islamic Sharia (jurisprudence), but as groups which – yes, are Islamic – yet have ideas and pragmatic solutions to many of the country’s socioeconomic ills.**
2. **How about the non-Islamic parts of the establishment? **
The distinction with the current liberal opposition is most striking in the light of the previous question. Because the liberal opposition comes from heterogeneous backgrounds, most of which revolve around specific individuals as opposed to organized institutions, and because most of these have very limited presence on the street, the liberal opposition focuses on the political process – the drafting of the new constitution, the transition process, the election law, etc. – but with limited innovative ideas relating to the real socioeconomic problems which are facing the country. Their real strength hence lies in the current inability of the Islamists to solve socioeconomics problems, which are costing a lot of support to Islamists. The fundamental question therefore becomes: “will the programs and development plans that the Islamists are putting forward be able to confront the country’s major problems?”
3. **So, what is in the end the balance of economic and political power between the main actors of the revolution? Will it hold in the medium term, in your opinion? **
There is now a relative balance of power, because – as I have just mentioned– the Islamists are bearing a lot of responsibility (and people’s anger) as they are seen as the party which should solve the problem because they are in power. So the secularists are gaining some ground because the Islamists are suffering the anger of the street. But this is a temporary situation. The key variable that would really make a difference in the medium term will be: which side will emerge as the one that can govern properly and effectively amidst very difficult socioeconomic conditions?**
4. **Is Egypt going towards democracy or a different, new regime? Which scenarios do you foresee in case of elections?**
Egypt is definitely going towards the route of much less centralization of power than it has even witnessed in the past two centuries. This is a monumental change. We are already seeing the emergence of different power centers in the country. But whether this de-centralisation, dilution of power and emergence of different centres would mean a move towards genuine democracy will depend on the choices of the most important players in Egypt today: the 45-million under 35-years old. This is the largest, most vocal, and most important demographic group in the country. And they will shape the future. Many of them are under-educated, under-employed, and under-sexed, living in difficult conditions, and amidst lack of hope; these could – without intending to – raise the level of tension in the country. But there are also millions with excellent potential, and their choices will be conducive to stability. Which forces will prove with the bigger leverage is another fundamental question which will affect tomorrow’s Egypt.
5. **The new establishment in Egypt is changing historical relationships with neighbors. What do you consider the most meaningful act in foreign policy of the new establishment?**
I don’t think we have seen yet the orientation of Egypt’s new foreign policy. I think the Islamsits and the secularists are consumed by the internal power struggle and the socioeconomic challenges they face, so that foreign policy receives limited attention. Also, I think both sides have macro lines they follow in their international relations, but it is not clear whether there are sophisticated, well-thought strategies guiding these international relations. I think we are yet to see Egypt’s new stance in the region.**
6. **Can Egypt regain its pivotal role in the Middle East? **
There is an inherent danger in lacking a coherent strategy. The Middle East is already being transformed. The Syrian crisis, Iran’s nuclear issue, the effective fragmentation of Iraq into different power-entities, the challenges facing Lebanon’s internal stability, the slow but conspicuous changes taking place in the Gulf, and the future of Libya – all of these are strategic dossiers of immense impact on the future of the Middle East. As of now, Egypt is missing in all of them, despite the fact that all of them have strong impact on Egypt’s future.**
7. **Is the Arab spring still alive? If not, why? Has there been a role of the war in Syrian? What’s the role of Egypt in this story? **
I never liked the term “Arab spring”, I prefer “transformation of the Middle East”: this is what is happening right now. A new phase of this region’s history is being written. And the key variable here are not the uprisings which are dislodging old regimes, not the civil wars, nor the power struggles in different countries, but – again – the choices of the young generation of Arabs.
Keep in mind that of the 330 million Arabs, roughly 200 million are under 30 years of age. Their choices shape the future. Their choices could today be highly assertive, but sooner or later, these choices will become social frames of references, political orientations, economic policies, ideas about the role of religion in societies, and many other matters. This is the key issue any observer of the region needs to look at closely and reflect upon.
Thank you very much Mr. Osman for your time and very insightful contribution.
(Interview by Luca Marcolin* and Matteo Minchio)*
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