Paul Pillar

Pluralism in Egypt

The Egyptian presidential-election campaign is getting more interesting all the time. It certainly offers more variety than the presidential-election campaign in the United States, which consists of an incumbent and a bunch of other guys who all say that Barack Obama is the worst thing ever to infect the American body politic and that it will take a severely conservative candidate to root him out of office. In Egypt, a more diverse spectrum of candidates are vying for the top job. And they are vying for it despite not knowing what powers a yet-to-be-written constitution will confer on the new president.

The Egyptian race discombobulates commentators who customarily deal in simplistic portrayals of good guys versus bad guys and make arguments for supporting the good guys. What is one to make, for example, of the latest entrant into the race: Omar Suleiman, who was Hosni Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief and briefly his vice president? One might say he represents an old order dragging down the new, but he also was a trusted interlocutor of the United States who was closely associated with still-valued things such as maintaining the peace with Israel. He is just the sort of multifaceted candidate who confuses pundits to whom both the “freedom agenda” and Israel are important.

Then there is Hazem Abu Ismail, the white-bearded candidate who represents the Salafists, the harder-core portion of the much-feared Islamists. Currently his main problem is the recent revelation that his late mother had acquired U.S. citizenship. That reminds me of a comment recorded by NPR from a Republican voter who said that Obama should be disqualified from the presidency because “in the Constitution it states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States.” The U.S. Constitution doesn't say that, of course, but the current Egyptian electoral rules do say that a presidential candidate and both his parents can have no citizenship other than Egyptian. So Abu Ismail appears to be headed for disqualification. Should we regret that or welcome it? For an Egyptian president to have an American mother seems like a plus for the United States.

Staying with the Salafists but going beyond the presidential candidates, there are other interesting details about personal inclinations. My favorite concerns the member of parliament for the Salafist Nour Party who, with his face in bandages, claimed that he been the victim of an assault. It later came to light that he instead had undergone plastic surgery on his nose. Plastic surgery is a no-no for ultra-conservative Salafists. The member resigned his seat.

Then consider presidential candidates who have been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—i.e., the part of the Islamist spectrum that is more moderate than the part with the leaders who have American moms or get nose jobs. There are more than one such candidates, but the officially endorsed candidate of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is Khairat al-Shater, who, besides being the Brotherhood's deputy leader, is also a multimillionaire businessman. Whatever he may represent regarding a goal of instituting a more Islamic social order in Egypt, he has made a lot of money in a largely secular economy.

The overall picture is one of political leaders with cross-cutting interests. Political scientists have a word for this; it is called pluralism. It is a pattern that helps make any democracy, including a newly emerging one, healthier and more stable than it otherwise would be. It means that destabilizing divisions are tamped because compromises are made within the minds and hearts of individual leaders (and many individual voters). It means that simplistic assertions about who are good guys and who are not, and whom we on the outside ought or ought not to favor, are misdirected. It means we should not get especially alarmed about any one possible outcome of the Egyptian election.  And it is one of the reasons that attempts at blanket criticism of Obama for how he has reacted to events in Egypt, or in some other locales of Arab Spring turmoil, tend to dissolve into the kind of self-contradiction that includes criticism both for supporting Mubarak and for not supporting him.