Political Culture, Islam and Public Participation in Modern Egypt

Seminar Paper 2004 32 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Near East, Near Orient



1. Introduction

2. Historical Introduction
2.1. Development of participatory institutions in Egyptian history before the revolution of the free officers
2.2. Egypt after the revolution of the free officers

3. The state and power structure
3.1. Executive: The Presidency and his cabinet
3.2. Legislative: The People’s Assembly and The Shura Council
3.3. Judiciary

4. Preconditions for Public Participation
4.1. Education, Literacy, with special regard to the status of women in Egypt
4.2. Freedom of expression and press - state repression

5. Effectiveness of institutionalised forms of participation
5.1. Definition of basic concepts
5.2. Empiric Data on voter’s turnout
5.3. The electoral process of the People’s Assembly and the party system
5.4. The party system
5.5. Assessment of constitutional forms of participation

6. Islam and Civil Society in Egypt
6.1. Definition of basic concepts
6.2. Islam: development of political ideas and relation of state and religion
6.3. Islam and development of democratic ideas in Egypt
6.4. Principles of Democracy and Islam
6.5. Islam and Civil Society: The Muslim Brotherhood
6.6. Woman, Islam and Civil Society in Egypt
6.7. Militant Islamist groups and Government Repression
6.8. Civil Society in Egypt

7. Conclusion

8. Literature

9. Newspapers and Periodicals, Online Editions

10. Other Internet Sources


In the vast field of political culture on the one hand and public participation, respectively democratisation, on the other hand I will start by limiting the field of my study by defining its aims. My first guiding thesis is that there is a cleavage between state and society in Egypt and I want to show some aspects and dimensions of its present status and its historical origins. The two central fields of my study will be firstly the actual secular state practice and its ideological origins and secondly Islam, its influence in Egyptian society, and its compatibility to liberal trends, the concept of civil society or democracy in general.

To look at public participation in any state is an ambitious task, for the field of participation isbroad and hard to measure. I will deal with political public participation. There are not onlydifferent forms but also different levels and aims of political participation. By forms I meanofficial or constitutional as opposed to informal participation. By levels I mean on the onehand national as opposed to regional or communal; on the other hand the possibility forwomen or minorities to participate. Furthermore participation can be limited to social groups,like syndicates. By aims I am referring to the fact that different groups have differentparticipatory intentions. For example syndicates are defending interests of certain groups andnot society as a whole. Here being quite evident, this aspect becomes more interesting whenlooking at Islamist groups. Their aims when claiming participation have to be analysed: Whatis their final vision of society, do they want to limit the possibilities of participation when theyattain power?

Looking at public participation is at the same time looking at democratic processes andpolitical culture of the society being analysed. This includes regarding in what way thepreconditions for political participation are provided: Freedom of opinion and expression,freedom of assembly, freedom of press and last but not least education. Political cultureincludes as well many cultural aspects of the society analysed, here Islam comes in as areligion as well as a theoretical system for a society respectively a state. All those beingcomponents of political culture, the basic research questions are consequently: What is publicparticipation, or rather what will be the definition I will base my study on? What are thecomponents of Egyptian political culture? What definition of civil society is adequate forEgypt? Is civil society only a term employed by “Western” scientists based on “Western”concepts and developments and thus not appropriate to describe Egyptian society?

The second central thesis of my study is that Egypt, still an authoritarian state, has begun aprocess of liberalisation to provide the possibility of political participation to its people. The aim of my research is to investigate how far this liberalisation went until today and what consequences this process has for Egyptian society. Thus the question of legitimacy will be a central one. This thesis leads to my primary research questions: How far went the democratisation process in Egypt? Is it even legitimate to speak of such a process? What constitutional forms of participation exist in Egypt today? What other forms of participation than the constitutional ones have Egyptians? Is the Egyptian government still viewed as legitimate by most Egyptians? Is there a conflict between state and society?

Concerning the structure I will start with a historical introduction, taking in its first part a look at the development of participatory institutions before the revolution of the Free Officers, and in its second part at the main political trends in the time after the revolution until now. The main focus of my study will still be the current political system and recent developments, but many of these can be better understood when taking a look at the historical roots. Thus, even after this historical introduction, I will often go back in history when describing for example the evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I will begin the main part with taking a look at the state and power structure. This shouldshow which institutions have what power. The next step will be a look at the preconditions forpublic participation based on liberal ideas, followed by an analysis of the effectiveness ofinstitutionalized forms of participation, foremost the electoral process and the party system.Here the aim is to show how people could influence the decision process through stateinstitutions. In the next step I will look at the concept of Civil Society, Islamic political ideasas well as Islamic organisations as part of the Civil Society and outside of it.

My research method will be historically descriptive, based on research in scientific literature. Furthermore I will use the Egyptian semi-official newspaper Al Ahram Weekly to get an insight into the current standings of the debate on political liberalisation in Egypt. I will also include interpretations of statistical material collected in the UN Human Development reports concerning preconditions for democratisation as well as empiric material on election results. In the end all this investigations should have shed some light on Egyptian political culture, led to a closer understanding of the process of democratisation, if it is possible to speak of one, and to some perspectives for public participation in Egypt.

2.Historical Introduction

2.1.Development of participatory institutions in Egyptian history before the revolution of the free officers

The roots of participatory trends in Egyptian politics are to be found in the national movementafter the end of the French colonial rule at the wake of the 19th century. A popular movementsucceeded in attaining power in opposition to foreign powers like the Ottoman Empire, theBritish, and the Mamluks. The leaders of this movement referred to the right of the Muslim todisobedience if the government does not respect the sharia (Islamic law). They elected finallyMohammed Ali, who had provided military support und leadership during the revolution. Hedeveloped a concept of cultural renewal, nahda, and began a partial secularisation concerningadministration, economy and education with the aim of a fundamental modernisation of thecountry, using European concepts to combat the influence of the European powers.

Alongside this secularisation he accepted to respect the rights of the Ulama(religiousscholars) and to respect the results of their consultation.1 The institutionalised expression wasa consultative council, formed in 1825 of province governors and representatives of socialgroups. Its political power was limited: it could only make propositions for the mostimportant problems; the real power of decision was in the hand of a bureaucratic, centralisedsystem.2

Mohammed Ali also built an efficient army and began a military expansion which led to an intervention of Russia, Austria and Britain to regain influence over the country. His military defeat was also a setback for participatory trends in Egypt, with foreign powers gaining influence on the political system. This was the first important setback for participatory trends in Egyptian history caused by foreign powers.

Mohammed Ali’s son Said laid the fundaments for the expansion of public participation whenhe declared Arabic the only official language and invested in the educational system. Hissuccessor Ismail founded a consultative council fundamentally different of the one underMohammed Ali: It was the first council elected by the Egyptian citizens.3 Under these tworulers foreign powers continued to increase their influence, notably the Ottoman Empire, ofwhich it was an autonomous province, and European powers, leading to a conflict of societyto state: Emancipating groups of the population questioning the legitimacy of a government formed by foreign powers. A revolutionary movement under the leadership of Urabi fought with some success for more independence and a republican system instead of the monarchy. The political measures concerning public participation were the demission of the current government, the installation of a chamber of delegates (some kind of parliament) based on a constitution and the abolition of European control of financial and political decisions.4 In 1882 Great Britain occupied the country, officially to end the instable situation and reestablish the order and political stability.

The occupation was the second important setback for participatory trends in Egypt. The British dismissed the newly founded chamber of delegates and installed two councils which had no real political influence. In the period of the British protectorate the Egyptian national movement concentrated on eliminating foreign rule. Nationalism was the guiding idea of this movement, playing an as important role for the regime of Nasser.

In 1922 Britain declared Egypt officially an independent constitutional monarchy, imposing many rights which fundamentally conserved their influence over the country until 1952. However, at this point Egypt received a constitution which included individual rights and freedom, though limited, as well as the creation of a parliament. The dominating party was the Wafd Party. The king had the right to dissolve the parliament, and used it if the result of the election did not please him. Women did not have the right to vote.

2.2.Egypt after the revolution of the free officers

To structure the second part of my historical introduction I will not opt for a linear approach, but propose different forms of periodisation from the revolution of the Free Officers in 1952 to the present day concerning the main topics of my study.

Firstly, concerning the political leadership, three periods are to be distinguished: Thegovernment of Nasser from 1953 to 1970; the government of Sadat from 1970 to 1981 andfinally Mubarak from 1981 until today. The vision of the leadership of Nasser was not onlynational Egyptian leadership, but also for Egypt to take a leading position as an Arab state, asan African state, and as an Islamic state. This ambitious foreign policy was based on thepolitical success, even if it was not a military victory, of the war against Britain, France andIsrael in 1956 after the nationalisation of the Suez channel. These ideological orientationswere given up by Sadat and later Mubarak who concentrated on national politics. The peace treaty of 1979 with Israel was the most important reason for the loss of a leading position in the Arab World. Egypt was even expulsed from the Arab League, and re-admitted only in1989.

Concerning the orientation towards the Super-powers Soviet Union and USA two periods can be discerned: From 1955, the starting year of the foreign policy doctrine of “positive neutrality”,5 until 1976 Egypt inclined towards the Soviet Union. This can be observed very clearly under Nasser; under Sadat the orientation towards the “West” began, cumulating in the breaking up of the relations to the Soviet Union in 1976.

Alongside the political orientation under Nasser the economic orientation was socialistic. He“legitimised” his authoritarian style of regime with fulfilling the “basic needs” of the people,defined by him as having work and something to eat. Professor Ahmad Shalabi of CairoUniversity describes this policy as dimucratiyyat al-khubz (democracy of the bread).6 Sadat’spolitical fracture with the Soviet Union was accompanied by reorienting the economy fromstate controlled towards economic liberalisation, a policy he called infitah (opening up). Itsbeginning can be dated to 1973, the publication of the “October paper”.7 In theory this wasthe beginning of the opening up of the economy and the orientation towards a marketeconomy, but it progressed slowly: State control over economy has just diminished but stillexists on a broad scale.

Concerning Islam, under Nasser the regime ideology was clearly secular. Sadat, the “believerPresident” openly showed an orientation towards Islam. Mubarak, confronted with islamistpressure, started on the one hand a limited islamisation of laws, the constitution and theeducation. On the other hand, the state became more oppressive towards Islamic groups. It ispossible to imagine that such double strategy to contain the Islamic movement works in theshort term, but on the long run it’s hardly good for stabilising the country. The most importantpoint we will encounter later on is that the state in Egypt is a secular concept not taking intoaccount the influence of Islam and Coptic Christianity in Egyptian society. This is one reasonfor the conflictual nature of the state - society relation, thus political culture in Egypt.

3.The state and power structure

3.1.Executive: The Presidency and his cabinet

Egypt is a presidential state. This was the case under Nasser, and it still is under Mubarak. But it’snotonlyapresidentialstate;thePresidentreally “isthedominantpoliticaland governmental authority in Egypt. Any important policy or project must normally have the “blessing” of the President before it can proceed with a reasonable prospect of success.”8 The executive authority of the President is legally fixed in the constitution of 1971. From Nasser on the Presidents have all come from the military establishment.

The President dominates the Executive, and has influence on Legislative and the Judiciary, although these are constitutionally independent.9 Concerning the Legislative the President can propose laws, promulgate them and has the right to veto. He even has the possibility to issue decrees that have the force of law in special cases, i.e. when the Peoples Assembly (the Egyptian Parliament) is not in session and under certain circumstances even when it is in session. For example, Sadat was given the permission of the Assembly to issue such decrees in all economic matters. Concerning executive power the general policies of the state are stipulated by the President, and implemented by the Prime Minister and his cabinet. It should be remarked that Sadat held the post of Prime Minister himself.

A number of state organisations report directly to the President; for example the CAPMAS, Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. It is an important control instrument, as well as a source of information for every project conducted.

The general policies of the state conceived by the President are implemented by the cabinet whichisheadedbythePrimeMinister.Theministersarerecruitedfromdifferent backgrounds like university professors, engineers, lawyers, diplomats, economists and so on. The difference between cabinet compositions in the times of Nasser to Mubarak is the steady decline in number of ministers recruited from the military.10

“Through this Council of Ministers, over which he may directly preside, the President commands the sprawling state bureaucracy and can personally intervene at any level to achieve his objectives if the chain of command proves sluggish.”11 After the assassination of Sadat in 1981 “emergency laws” were imposed and are still in effect.

3.2. Legislative: The People’s Assembly and The Shura Council

Egypt has a two chamber legislative; the Parliament is divided into the more important lowerchamber, the People's Assembly, Majlis al-Shaab, and the upper Consultative Council, Majlisal-Shura. The Peoples Assembly has today an elected membership of 444 seats; the Presidenthas the right to appoint 10 additionally. 50 per cent of the members of the Assembly shouldbe workers and peasants, a legacy of Nasser, but actually not even under himself this was thecase.12

It was the only legislative body until1980, when the constitution was amended and aconsultative upper chamber, the Shura Council, was introduced. This assembly would becomposed of 140 elected and 70 appointed members. It is evident that this institution was andstill is even more strongly influenced by the Presidency than the People’s Assembly. It solelyhas advisory competences towards the President and the lower chamber of Parliament.13 In the area of Mubarak a curious electoral law was introduced: A party attaining less than 8percent of the votes would not be represented in Parliament, all votes and seats would in thiscase be added to the winning party, which has always proofed to be the National DemocraticParty (NDP), the President’s party. 30 seats in the assembly were reserved for women; thisprovision was cancelled in 1987.14 The ten appointed members were used by Nasser to getChristian Copts into this political body, who apart from this had no great chances of enteringthe People’s Assembly. This tradition continued under his successors.15 The Legislative has already constitutional disadvantages compared to the executive, as thePresident appoints the Prime Minister and the government. Constitutionally the Parliamentmust approve of the government and could remove it by vote of no-confidence. In practicethat has never happened, for the majority is held by the Presidents party. The President canlegislate by decree when the Parliament is not in session as well as passing by a governmentcontrolled plebiscite even if it is in session. Further possibility to legislate by decree is theloosely formulated laws leaving room for interpretation.16

3.3. Judiciary

Egypt has one of the oldest judicial traditions in the Arab world. The legal system is based on English common law, Islamic law, and Napoleonic codes. Constitutional provisions are strong, including right to litigation and the presumption of innocence as well as the independence of courts and judges.17

The Egyptian judiciaries is one of the most independent in the Arab world, from 1984 on aftera period of more executive influence, the right to appoint judges was returned to the“Supreme Judicial Council”, a body consisting entirely of judges and judicial personal.Having much independence for appointing judges, the judiciary has not as much budgetaryand administrative autonomy from the Ministry of Justice as it would like; still the situation isbetter than in other Arab countries. There is also some state influence to be noted on judiciaryprocesses, for example concerning the judicial control of the people’s assembly elections ofthe year 2000.

The independence of the Judiciary was very restricted under Nasser; Sadat started to reduce the state influence alongside providing more personal rights for the people. Under Mubarak this process continued.

Concerning the structure the judiciary is divided into branches, the court system reviewed by the Supreme Court, the council of state overseeing administrative decisions and the Supreme constitutional court.

4.Preconditions for Public Participation

4.1.Education, Literacy, with special regard to the status of women in Egypt

Table 1. Human capital formation18

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


1 Zeid, Abd elhamid (1991); p27ff

2 Ibid; p33

3 Ibid; p37

4 Ibid; p38

5 Klein, Menachem (1997); p677

6 Sadiki, Larbi (1997); p135

7 Hayes, Christopher: Die Zivilgesellschaft, der islamische Staat und die Demokratisierung in Ibrahim, Ferhad(1995); p11

8 Ayubi, Nazih N. (1989); p2

9 http://reference.allrefer.com/country-guide-study/egypt/egypt9.html; 8.12.03

10 for exact numbers see: Tripp, Charles and Owen, Roger (ed.) (1989); p4-5

11 http://countrystudies.us/egypt/106.htm 8.12.03

12 Ebeid, Mona Makram (1989); p28

13 Ayubi, Nazih N. (1989); p9

14 ibid; p13

15 Ebeid, Mona Makram (1989); p28

16 http://reference.allrefer.com/country-guide-study/egypt/egypt135.html; 12.1.04 9

17 Information in this chapter mainly from the part on Egypt from: Brown, Nathan J. (2001)

18 source: Egypt Human Development Report 2003; UNDP


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Political Culture Islam Public Participation Modern Egypt African Systems




Title: Political Culture, Islam and Public Participation in Modern Egypt