Customary Formation of Politics: Muslim and Christian Examples

The Pink Finger Signals a Vote Cast

Generally speaking, the customary rules of politics issue and evolve from hard earned consensus historically and informally negotiated among public figures and society. Eventually these are crafted into constitutions and laws to formalize the political system along grounds to which all agree. The success of the political system rests in the degree to which all political forces submit to the system and recognize its equity.

Under the nearly thirty year presidential administration of Mubarak customary rules of politics did exist, and political forces largely submitted to the system. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, though outside the formal structure of politics, acceded informally to the relationship between society and state. Few, however, either inside the system or outside it – and the vast majority of the Egyptian population was outside – recognized its equity. Eventually this disquiet, among many other factors, led to the Egyptian revolution.

Now eight months into the transition to democracy, the rupture caused to customary politics has not yet been repaired. Egypt does have a liberal democratic tradition to recall, but its benefit is largely in legacy, as the experience was lost through successive autocratic presidencies. Meanwhile, there is great debate over the nature of the constitution to come, let alone the specific formal rules of the political system. Depending on the rhetoric, civil and Islamic political forces either agree in substance on nearly all but nomenclature, or else have vastly different visions for the future polity of Egypt. This is natural, for building anew a political system forces even the most fundamental questions to be reconsidered. Who are we, and how will we get along to balance our interests?

During this interim period one of the old rules of the system was recalled, though perhaps customarily adjusted to new realities. It has long been forbidden in Egypt for a political party to be based on religion. This was one of the difficulties facing the Muslim Brotherhood, and caused their candidates for parliament to formally run as independents. There was no deception, for everyone knew the nature of the arrangement, which also signaled essential Brotherhood submission to customary politics, even as they railed against it.

Post-revolution, then, though it was clear the Muslim Brotherhood would no longer be an outlawed political force, what structure would emerge to legalize them, and others like them? Guarding the fabric of religious life and protecting national unity, the ruling military council maintained the law forbidding religious political parties. The nuance which emerged, however, allowed for political parties with a religious reference. The difference is not at all clear, but a practical result has been an effort to enroll at least some Christians into the new Islamic-reference parties. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, for example, includes a Christian vice-president, and boasts 100+ Copts among their 10,000 members. Though I am unaware if other Islamic-reference parties also have Christian members, the precedent set for the Freedom and Justice Party of the Brotherhood has led also to a party for al-Jama’a al-Islamiya and various Salafi trends. No semblance of a Coptic party has yet emerged, but the Free Egyptian Party, financed by wealthy Coptic businessman Naguib Siwaris, is composed 30% of Copts, far above their percentage in population.

Like their Muslim counterparts, Egyptian Copts have been long depoliticized. Many are fearful of the Islamist developments in politics, at least partially explaining their membership in the Free Egyptian Party, representing liberal trends. Yet the effort to draw Copts further into the emerging political system has been slow going, and leads also to an anecdote illustrating the in-flux nature of customary and legal politics.

My family and I attend St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi, Cairo. My wife regularly attends a mostly women’s Sunday School meeting, and on this particular day it advertised the speaker would address the topic of ‘Raising Political Consciousness’. Eager to hear how the topic would be presented, I also joined in the meeting.

The speaker was a member of the church, though not of the meeting, and delivered an engaging lecture on the basics of civics. There are different types of political systems, he explained, and went through the basics of American democracy, various European examples, as well as the Egyptian system under President Mubarak. He explained the technical aspects of the new election laws, in which half of the representatives would be selected in a winner-take-all election, and the other half in a list-based party arrangement. As an American, I recognized our standard winner-take-all individual candidacy approach, but I took closer interest in the unfamiliar list-based system, used more frequently in Europe.

Under this arrangement, political parties submit a list of candidates for election, which may be done in coalition with other parties. Voters then select one entire list among the different choices offered, and the percentage of votes received determine the percentage of candidates elected. If the list contained ten names and this party received 30% of the total vote, for example, the top three candidates named on the list would be victorious.

It is still unclear how the combination of winner-take-all and list-based elections will exist side-by-side, and most political parties are unsatisfied with the system issued by the military council and interim government. Yet the speaker tried to educate the group about a possible deception which might occur as parties lobby for Coptic votes, especially on the part of Islamic-reference trends. For example, the Freedom and Justice Party (not specifically named by the speaker) might place a few of its hundred Coptic members on their official list, and proclaim how they are not just a Muslim party but also seeking election of Coptic representatives. Yet if these Coptic names appear near the bottom of the list, it will be extremely unlikely they will reach the percentage threshold necessary to be elected. If a party placed a Coptic candidate near the top of a list, or in the winner-take-all election, that would be a different gesture entirely.

In conclusion, the speaker recommended that his listeners do indeed take part in shaping the emerging political system, especially as many are fearful their rights could be trampled upon if the next government is Islamic. Up until now the lecture was basic, educational, and a very valid plea to overcome lingering de-politicization. When he stated clearly they should enroll in liberal political parties, however, my American ears began perking up. When he further mentioned the political party of his participation, and invited anyone to come and take literature about it, my eyes began to bulge.

In American politics it is both customary and illegal for churches to endorse particular parties or candidates. There is customary leniency on issues, but the non-profit and tax-exempt church is forbidden from using its religious leverage to serve a political cause. As stated earlier, the laws in Egypt are still emerging, and customary procedures are under debate.

To be certain, the literature made available was rather innocuous. It stated very little about the particular party, and instead was a general call to recognize politics as an essential part of life – the best means to defend your rights. In fact, it specifically states,

It is not important that you become a member in a party, it is important that you work for the benefit of your neighborhood.


If there is any respectable man you would be honored to have him represent you, encourage him to nominate himself. If the ideas of any party impress you, join it.

By no means was this partisan literature, yet the name, logo, and contact information for the party were clearly and prominently visible. The speaker was careful not to be forceful in his invitation; rather, he was almost sheepish. He stated later, however, that he did not take permission before making the party literature available. No one in the audience seemed to be offended; some approached for literature while others left and went their way. One person I asked later did state that the action was a bit controversial, and may have been uncustomary, but that it was not a big deal.

St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi is in an upscale neighborhood, and many of its members have lived or studied in foreign countries, and are familiar with (and envious of) their political cultures. To a degree this may help explain the hesitation experienced in the meeting. Yet according to many media reports, such decorum is completely missing in many of Egypt’s mosques. This is not surprising, given that Western, Christian influenced societies have largely accepted the notion of separation of church and state. Many Muslims, however, and especially Islamists, believe that politics is an essential component of religion, as Islam encompasses all of life.

The upshot was most visible during the constitutional referendum of March 19, in which the population was asked to either validate or reject the military council roadmap to amend the current constitution, paving the way for legislative elections, which would select the council to draft a new constitution, followed by presidential elections.

Though it is true the referendum was somewhat hastily organized, and the consequences of either choice were not clear, many Islamist leaders urged Muslims to vote ‘yes’, with a few even declaring it to be a religious duty. Not a few liberals also voted yes, finding the rapid return of the military to its barracks to be the best outcome of the transitional process. Still, the religious influence was unquestionable (though probably not decisive), and 77% of voters approved the referendum.

Following the approval of this roadmap, liberals realized the gain made by Islamist parties. Weak liberal penetration into the countryside and among the poor was well known, and likely Islamist success in elections was admitted. Yet the roadmap dictated the current uncertain rules of politics during the transition would be formalized by the coming parliament. If the legislature would be dominated by Islamists, perhaps they would craft laws to their advantage, and in establishment of an Egyptian Islamic identity. Or, maybe they would not, and would respect the will of the revolution and promises made to liberal parties to establish a civil democratic state through cooperation. Egyptian politics has since been dominated by the elusiveness of this answer, with most liberals leaning toward distrust.

America endured thirteen years from its declaration of independence to the ratification of its constitution. This period was full of sharp rhetoric between federalist and anti-federalist political camps, each with a radically divergent belief on the best shape of governance. America inherited a customary political process from England, but its formalization was much more difficult, negotiated in light of her particular history. In the end the federalist position triumphed, and political forces fell in line. Significant evolution in American democracy has continued to the present day.

It is hoped this history may be of encouragement to Egypt. Yes, issues being discussed now are of vital and foundational importance. After seven months, however, the renegotiation of customary politics into formalized structures has only just begun. It is contentious, and it should be. It requires, however, all parties to play the game, and eventually to fall in line. If not there will be either a reemergence of autocracy or a descent into anarchy. Politics being the art of compromise, though it may take significant time, all things being equal, Egypt will find its way.

What's your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s