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Reflections On A Post-Morsi Egypt – Azizur Rahman Patel

July 15, 2013

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Reflections On A Post-Morsi Egypt

By Azizur Rahman Patel

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 15 (July 2013)

Very recently, (28 June 2013) I posted an article on this site,[1] on the possibilities that lay ahead for Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, under the tutelage of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi. My main question was: Is Islamism on Trial in Post-Arab Spring Egypt? I concluded the article with the observation that:

It is now left to be seen how far the Islamists, who for now are currently at the helm of Muslim politics in Egypt, will themselves be amenable to transformation from below, that is, will they be able to listen to the disparate voices in their societies, including that of the ‘liberal’ and the ‘secular,’ and steer their societies in a ‘pragmatic’ manner, towards a ‘post-Islamist’ phase, given the social and cultural exigencies of the current era.[2]

At the time of writing that article, little did I anticipate that political developments in Egypt over the past fortnight would take on such a fast moving pace, that I would very soon be reflecting on post-Morsi and MB scenarios. On pursuing the press for comments, the main issues one encounters from those quarters that insist that Morsi, being a democratically elected president—and the first one for Egypt at that—should have been allowed to complete the remainder of his four year term. Before engaging with the protestations as scripted by many a commentator, as well as by political appointees of various state organs in South Africa as well as the African Union, firstly I would like to discuss the underlying anxieties that pervade the Muslim world during the modern era.

Since I am a scholar of religious studies, interested in the way religious ideology impacts on, and interacts with the political, I pay particular attention to the twin concepts of “sacred” versus “secular.” At the outset, it should be borne in mind that the “religious-secular” conceptual divide albeit a modern post-enlightenment concept, does have a comparable notion in the Islamic imaginary. In Islamic consciousness, these concepts are referred to as dīn (usually translated as religion, or matters pertaining to the holy), and dunyā (temporal matters, or those related to the profane).

To begin with, it should be noted that people across the globe generally, and religious fundamentalists in particular, repeatedly experience feelings of revolt against the pervasive moral decay they witness in modern society, and justifiably so for obvious reasons. In terms of how to remedy this moral degeneration, what sets religious fundamentalists apart, is their sincere conviction that the protection of their religious sensibilities and moral norms and values dīn, is dependent on harnessing and mobilizing the machinery of the state dunyā, in order to entrench their particular ideas and beliefs with regard to how society ought to be constituted. In their pursuit of this goal, fundamentalists arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to determine the will of whatever transcendent being or source they invoke in establishing their dominion over the rest of society. Furthermore, they endeavour to close themselves off from all forms of inquiry and criticism in their effort to stem the tide against the ravages of modernity.

This article is premised on the notion that Islamist organizations in the Muslim world—such as the MB and the Taliban for example—have two options available to them. Either they opt for their current stance of seeking supremacy and domination over the rest of the cultures of the world, by exploiting the very secular mechanisms of the state, in order to obtain the supposedly holy objectives of realizing a just, ethical and moral social order in the world, as envisaged by them. The second option available to them is for them to reconcile themselves towards a more provincial and accommodating disposition towards other cultures of the modern world. The former approach is a top-down approach, one which Islamist movements around the Muslim world cherish and aspire to—for example the Taliban reign in Afghanistan. The latter approach is a bottom-up approach, which Islamist movements such as the MB had invariably employed in Egypt ever since its inception in 1928. The very fact that the MB won a majority of votes in the first democratic elections in the post-Mubarak era—regardless of all the other possible variables to the phenomenon—proves the point I emphasize that a bottom-up approach in nurturing particular attitudes and mentalities, is a more viable option for any society. This holds true to the USA’s attempts at “democratizing the Middle Eastern and Islamic lands,” as for any other value system. Having said that, it should not be forgotten that while the MB and other Islamist organizations in the Muslim world did enjoy the “luxury” of cultivating grassroots community interests, other secular liberal entities were not so lucky.[3]

Lenn Goodman observes that like all postcolonial people, Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, recapture their past with a sense of pride in their early history. That Muslims civilization has experienced substantial decline since the days of their glorious past, is no understatement. This decline and sense of loss is often blamed on “foreign domination—as if to say: our conquests were great, even godly achievements; theirs were brutal, godless acts of aggression.” However, according to Goodman, “[w]hat makes Islamic culture a lesser presence in the world today is a lesser openness, a loss of confidence, a crabbed defensiveness and chafing chauvinism grounded in insecurity.”[4]

This defensiveness and exclusivism is aptly demonstrated in the contrasting approaches adopted by one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most celebrated scholars al-Ghazālī, and the two modern-day arch ideologues of Islamism, Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb. These two men fostered a “militant vision of Islam.” In contradistinction, Ghazālī advocated “absolute trust in God to be the highest expression of surrender to God’s will.”[5] While Ghazālī encouraged humility as the most favourable ethical standard for humans, Qutb advocates a more hostile form of “triumphalism that appeals to Western guilt over colonialism, even as it demands worldly rule:[6] Qutb’s belligerence towards other cultures, especially the West, is exposed in the following quote:

Truth and falsehood cannot coexist on earth. When Islam makes a general declaration to establish the lordship of God on earth and to liberate humanity from the worship of other creatures, it is contested by those who have usurped God’s sovereignty on earth. They will never make peace. Then [Islam] goes forth destroying them to free humans from their power. . . the liberating struggle of jihad does not cease until all religion belongs to God.[7]

The Fall of the Islamist Regime in Egypt

In this section, I will summarize the anticipated fears that a “second revolution” would produce, by a well known scholar of Islamic studies, John L Esposito, in the Huffington Post of 20 June 2013 hereunder.[8]

Firstly, Esposito fears that a popular uprising against Morsi, and the MB’s rule will threaten the recently attained “democratic process in Egypt”; that those, especially the secular elements who are opposed to the nascent Islamist government should “insist upon government reforms” instead, of mass mobilization, for fear that it would usher in “military intervention” and a “return to authoritarianism in the guise of a restoration of a secular, safe secure future.” [9]

He fears that “illiberal secularists, who care little for democracy” and are much more interested in “their own power and privilege,” are in fact “individuals and institutions that represent the deep state legacy of the Mubarak regime, that seek to topple a democratically elected government.”

Prior to the June 30 uprising, Esposito advised the Egyptian people to “take advantage of their right and freedom to speak out loudly and boldly in their criticism and demand reforms but not be seduced by those whose goal is to topple not just a democratically elected president but, more importantly and dangerously, the democratic process itself.”

Finally, he concedes that the Islamist MB government has “indeed made many mistakes, mishandled opportunities to reach out more effectively to build a more representative coalition government and implemented policies that outraged, marginalize and alienate sectors of society loyal at the same time to the nation’s system of government.” In order to rectify this state of affairs, he counsels the broader Egyptian society to make this an “opportunity for all Egyptians to embrace the notion of loyal opposition” and resort to the mechanism they have at their disposal “to remove Morsi and any future presidents or members of parliament and that is the next round of elections.”[10]

By implication, what this translates to is that the Egyptian people had to patiently wait and endure the Islamist hegemony brought to bear upon them for another three years. All forms of media are currently replete with numerous pontificators patronizingly counselling the Egyptian electorate to good-naturedly wait their turn at the ballot box and employ constitutional processes in order to remove the MB and Morsi from power, if they so wished at the time.

Democracy not only about elections

The contrary viewpoint made by opposing observers is that firstly, democracy is not only about elections. Elections are merely a means of gauging the popular will in terms of providing a mechanism for electing legitimate public officials who are mandated to govern, not in terms of their particular narrow sectarian or ideological interests, but in the interests of the society at large. Such an elected body will be bound by the fundamentally agreed upon rules, norms and values that the society in question has come to agree upon.

As Heba Farouk Mahfouz brings to our notice that: “How many rulers had been elected and turned out to be mass murderers?” She further elaborates that the motivation for the majority of people voting for Morsi was that they did not want “military man Shafiq in power.”  This revolution was based on the idea of “freedom, equality, bread and social justice.” However, the biggest mistake the Ikhwan (MB) made was to exclude all other forces from the political scene. Immediately after the ouster of Mubarak, the people chanted “Down down with military rule” when the armed forces declared that they had “an alternative political roadmap for us.” After having expressed disapproval of the military’s role at the time of the uprising, the people discovered that in actual fact, the military only served to gather the disparate political forces, of al-Azhar (the bastion of Islamic learning and religious authority in Egypt), the Church and the “Tamarod youth” (i.e. the youth of the secular revolutionary forces) for talks. They did not impose any of their views on them. It was these Tamarod youth who can be credited for having “done all the work” in the revolt against Mubarak by roving the streets of every single city, “gathering signatures against him.” This was their way of democratic mobilization.[11]

She further clarifies that: “Saying that the army is the one making decisions and ousting Morsi is not only unfair, but delusional too. Turning a blind eye to the 33+ millions who marched against Morsi and to the 22+ millions signatures against him is delusional.”

She then asks:

What legitimacy? What democracy? We have elected a president based on his promises of reform, and he has done nothing concerning this regard. Worse, he has made it worse. Military trials for civilians had not been stopped, killing of protesters, jailing journalists and activists for TWEETING, and putting Egypt at the doorstep of a civil war, are all part of Morsi’s achievements.[12]

She then goes on to list a litany of abuses of human rights carried out by the forces of the Morsi regime. Hazem Kandil lends weight to the assertion that among the factors that contributed to the downfall of Morsi’s regime—regardless of the merits or demerits of Islamism—was “the Brothers’ dismal performance in power.” In addition, “[t]here was nothing Islamic about the movement’s policies. On the contrary, the moral image they projected was quickly comprised by the shabby deals they tried (and failed) to strike with old regime institutions, and foreign powers they had previously condemned. . . Egyptians became rapidly disillusioned with Islamist incompetence, paranoia, double-dealing and, above all, profound arrogance towards people they regarded as less religious than them.”[13]

In fact, Kandil suggests that Morsi’s primary goal was “to consolidate power for his Islamist cause.” He badly “misread the message of the revolution that brought him to power,” by treating it as “a revolution of the Brotherhood,” instead of a revolution of the Egyptian people. He in fact set himself up as an “Islamist Pharaoh.”[14]

Blessing in disguise?

Could we look at the election of the MB and its president Morsi as a blessing in disguise? Kandil certainly thinks so. He explains that:

If he had lost the presidency, Islamism would have remained the path not taken. But today, millions of Muslims have voted with their feet against Islamist rule. Those who grieve over this affront to ballot box democracy forget that Egypt, like any new democracy, has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system. Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind. I asked the old, bearded man standing next to me in Tahrir Square why he joined the protests. ‘They promised us that Islam is the solution,’ he replied. ‘But under Muslim Brotherhood rule we saw neither Islam nor a solution.’ The country that invented Islamism may well be on its way to undoing the spell.[15]

By winning last year’s elections, the MB/Morsi brigade were certainly given a chance, call it a “God-sent opportunity” to prove the effectiveness of their ideological position. It was an opportunity for them to prove their secular liberal detractors who are in the main intellectually opposed to Islamism, to be wrong. It was possibly a golden opportunity to win over those from among the secular liberal camp, who were perhaps honestly eager to embrace their approach and abandon their commitment to liberalism, as “converts” to the Islamist course.

Was it a Coup or a People’s Uprising?

Rami Khouri advises that “[w]asting time on whether the armed forces’ removal of President Mohammad Morsi [sic] was or wasn’t a ‘coup’ is a fascinating but useless exercise.” Instead, he states, the focus should be on “the more decisive operative principles of power, governance and order (and the sentiments of more than 80 million Egyptians who will ultimately decide the outcome in Egypt). These principles I would define as legitimacy, participation and accountability.”[16]

Khouri correctly refers to such “missteps in the early years of national sovereignty” as being a “pretty common” phenomenon, and “should not be exaggerated by Orientalist crackpots around the world who look at the Arabs today and wonder if we are able to democratize.” Referring to the example of the USA itself, which serves as “a beacon of democracy,” had in fact “for many decades only recognized the rights of white men who owned land.” He passionately contends that “[e]very democracy gets a second chance to get it right. Often – as we learn from Americans who do not tire these days from teaching us about democracy – the era between the first and second chances includes a civil war, genocide against indigenous peoples, institutionalized racism against blacks, and formal disenfranchisement of women, before a stable democracy emerges decades, or even two centuries, later.”[17]

So how should the coup that was staged by the Egyptian armed forces to remove Morsi from power be assessed? Khouri avers that this issue “raises the same political and ethical dilemma” that the world, as well as the United States was faced with at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He very pertinently asks the question: “How do we judge or react to a situation where a majority of the population supports a criminal act? Is the crime still a crime when the majority approves it? Or does majority support transform the crime into a stirring affirmation of democracy?”[18]

While acknowledging the “sloppy” nature of the transition process underway in Egypt, he emphasizes the point that all of the three major constituencies that make up the Egyptian political landscape today—the armed forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many supporters, and the citizens who took to the streets in their millions to oppose Morsi and the Brotherhood—are now presented with an opportunity to pursue the second phase of Egypt’s transition.[19]

For the MB and other Islamists, there is a lesson to be learnt from the events of the past recent weeks. It is hoped that they “are humbled by the realization that their divine confidence is not enough to perpetuate their incumbency.” Instead, one hopes that they have learnt the lesson “that they have to govern well and act pluralistically to stay in power.” In this there is a lesson for the armed forces also, who must have taken serious note of “the power of the populist legitimacy unleashed in the streets in January 2011 and again in June 2013,” that the Egyptian people will not settle for anything less than the implementation of genuine democracy in the months and years to come. Finally, it is hoped that the Tamarod movement led by the youth that “organized and mobilized for the June 30 demonstrations that ultimately triggered the end of Morsi’s presidency has learned important lessons about how to engage politically.”[20]

It should also be considered that Morsi himself, in no small measure, owed his indeterminate ascension to power, as well as his brief but precarious existence at the helm of Egyptian politics, to the army. Those who adopt a textbook approach to analyzing the recent tumultuous events in Egypt should therefore bear in mind the complexities of the political transition in Egypt in particular, and the entire MENA region in general.

We should also not become unmindful of the possibility of some Islamist formations resorting to cowardly acts of terrorism, since—as cited above, Qutb’s stance on engaging with the rest of the world of jāhiliyya (ignorance)—that it seems intrinsic to Islamist ideology, as articulated by many of its chief ideologues, that it seeks to exclude rather than include those who do not share their particular way of life and thinking.

Islamism is built on an “us versus them” mentality. The central tenets of their ideology is not predisposed to think in terms of “win-win, cooperative governance.” For them, the “winner takes all,” since “they are Allah’s chosen people.” And the rest of the world are “heathens, apostates, and enemies of Allah,” only to be vanquished.

Assessment

Comparing with the emergence of the French Republic,[21] political stability cannot be achieved by a magic wand in societies that are in flux. This is not possible in a single nuclear family that suffers from upheaval, let alone an entire country, and moreover, when it forms part of an entire region notorious for its political and social instability, and oppression, for the best part of a century.

The most important lessons to be learnt by all the contending parties, not only in Egypt, but in the rest of the Muslim world is most succinctly rendered by Goodman, who maintains that:

The morally sensitive person is not the one who feels his own injuries most sharply and voices his own grievances most tellingly but the one whose sensibilities are most catholic and who is most able to conceive and articulate the joys and pains of all, himself included, in a system of mutual recognitions and respect. Similarly, it is a distinctive feature of world religions, of which Islam is surely one, that they relate their adherents not only to the natural cosmos but also to a social world in which their own constructions—their customs, rituals, myths, and narratives, even legislative systems—have a part, but not the only part. The distinctive feature of a sect is that its claims but not its sensibilities are universal.[22]

Goodman wisely counsels that sacred and secular values invariably “intertwine, support, and nourish one another, borrow and steal from one another, and occasionally seek to smother one another, never with perfect success” and that “[n]either secularity nor theocracy is seen here as ‘the answer’ for Muslims, or for anyone else.” While the sacred and the secular are seemingly opposed to one another, they often rally behind the scenes. Blinded secularism can become a religion in its own right and appropriate much of the very egotism that secularists very much despise “in the religions against which they rebel.” Theocracy on the other hand, can itself very viciously arrogate to itself the very secular goals and methods it seeks to combat. Extremism of any sort is the chief adversary of the human spirit. “Equilibrium” should be the foremost objective of any living system. However, equilibrium is never static. It requires a dynamic environment that is in constant need of fine-tuning and renewal.[23] Islamically inspired groupings, as well as those of a secularist bent, need to be acutely aware of the “possibilities” as well as the “pitfalls of a religiously constructed or religiously inspired way of life.”[24]

Finally, in my assessment, despite my conviction that military personnel belong to the barracks, that they are not cut out for the task of governing a country, the fact of the matter is, that extreme situations call for extreme measures. Just as the army needs to be ever ready to defend the country against external aggression, in the face of a threat of a country imploding upon itself, it becomes ever more vital for it to defend the national interest. So, this was no coup in the conventional textbook understanding of the term. It was indeed a people’s revolution, into which the army had no option but to step in. Certainly liberal democratically minded people wish that after an initial state of flux, good sense will prevail, and consequently, good governance. After all, is that not the ultimate goal that all freedom loving people of the world strive for?

Endnotes


[1] See Azizur Rahman Patel, (2013 June 28) Is Islamism on Trial in Post-Arab Spring Egypt? From Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA) available online at: https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/is-islamism-on-trial-in-post-arab-spring-egypt-azizur-rahman-patel/  (Accessed: 30 June 2013)

[2] Ibid.

[3] See my previous article, Patel, op. cit.

[4] Lenn E. Goodman. (2003). Islamic Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 7.

[5] Ibid. p. 14.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. (Goodman quotes this passage from: Yvonne Haddad, (1983) “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival,” in ed. Esposito, Voices of Resurgent Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 67–98. p. 82.)

[8] John L Esposito, Huffington Post (2013 June 20) New Threat to Egyptian Democracy. From Huff Post Available online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-l-esposito/new-threat-to-egyptian-de_b_3467982.html (Accessed: 21 June 2013)

            It should be well noted that Esposito is a highly acclaimed scholar of note, and very well versed in matters pertaining to the Islamic religion, as well as contemporary Islamic affairs.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Heba Farouk Mahfouz, (3013 July 07). A Dream Deferred. From Blogspot. Available online at:   http://hebafaroukmahfouz.blogspot.com/2013/07/ay-haga.html#comment-form (Accessed: 8 July 2013)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hazem Kandil, (2013 July 04) End of Islamism? From LRB blog: London Review of Books. Available online at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/07/04/hazem-kandil/the-end-of-islamism/  (Accessed: 09 July 2013)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Rami G. Khouri, (2013 July 06) Hearing echoes of 1789 in Cairo. From The Daily Star: Lebanon. Available online at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2013/Jul-06/222694-hearing-echoes-of-1789-in-cairo.ashx#axzz2YaVbTO36 (Accessed: 09 July 2013)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kandil argues this point in his article.

[22]Goodman, op. cit. p. 17.

[23] Ibid. p. 28. This paragraph inspired and paraphrased from Goodman.

[24] Ibid. p. 24.

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