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Egypt: Between Hope and Reality – Professor Hussein Solomon

July 29, 2013


Egypt: Between Hope and Reality

by Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 17 (July 2013)

It is not the easiest thing in the world as an analyst to admit to being wrong. It is, however, the honest thing to do. So, it is with great humility that I freely admit that I was wrong in my analysis on Egypt. When President Morsi and his Muslim Brothers came to power over a year ago, I was ecstatic. While recognizing the dangers inherent in their Islamist ideology, I thought that like Turkey’s Islamist AKP party, they would self-moderate. After all, all politics is about compromise. I also assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power might also hold promise further afield – in that they would also get Hamas to moderate their stance. For a time, my analysis seemed correct. After all, it was Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who brokered the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas[1].

Unfortunately, the honeymoon between the Egyptian people and Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was not to last. Far from breaking with 6,000 years of Egyptian authoritarian rule, Morsi was perpetuating it. Fareed Zakaria referred to this as an ‘illiberal democracy’ which he defined as “…the troubling phenomenon of elected governments systematically abusing individual rights and depriving people of liberty”[2]. Far from attempting to reach out to the 48 percent of the electorate who did not vote for him, Morsi behaved as if he was accountable only to the Muslim Brotherhood[3]. He also seemed to have forgotten that the 52 percent of the electorate who had voted for him also included many liberals who did not wish to vote for the other candidate – a former Mubarak-era Prime Minister. Worse, under Morsi, the distinction between party and government became blurred with many key decisions being taken in the office of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide[4]. Given the polarised nature of Egyptian politics, it would have been politically astute for Morsi to reach out to the political opposition. Instead, he sought to ensure that almost every key position was filled by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of his more controversial appointments was the appointment on 16th June 2013 of a member of the Islamic Group to the position of Governor of Luxor. In 1997, this person took part in a massacre of Coptic Christians, police and 58 foreign tourists in Luxor[5]. To say that his appointment was insensitive to the citizens of Luxor would be an under-statement!

At every step, the authoritarian impulse of the Muslim Brotherhood was self-evident. His attempt to undermine the independence of the courts, the media, a neutral civil service, army and police was deeply resented. His attempt to legislate through a Senate which only represented 10 percent of voters was widely condemned[6]. His decree to place himself above the judiciary repulsed many while the Brotherhood’s decision to adopt a new constitution without consensus alienated ever more Egyptians[7]. Worse, still, was the general incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood whilst in power this past year. Foreign exchange reserves and the Egyptian currency have both plummeted, whilst inflation spiralled upwards. Youth unemployment passed a staggering 40 percent under Morsi’s watch, whilst electricity blackouts and petrol shortages became the norm. Crime, meanwhile, soared with the murder rate having tripled since the revolution. It was however, not only urban dwellers who suffered under the incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Farmers, too, were not being paid for the wheat that they produced[8]. Religious minorities also expressed great unease under Muslim Brotherhood rule. When armed thugs would attack Coptic Christians and Shia Muslims, Morsi remained silent[9].

Faced with mounting criticism and public protest, Morsi remained defiant. In November, 2012 the chief of Egypt’s armed forces – General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – attempted to break the impasse between the Muslim Brotherhood and the political opposition as well as various civil society formations by inviting Morsi to a lunch together with other political and civil society leaders. Morsi, however, spurned the invitation very publicly – earning him the ire of the military[10]. Under the circumstances, the youth mobilized under the banner of Tamarod (meaning rebel) launching a signature campaign calling on Morsi to go. By June 29th 2013, 22 million signatures were collected[11]. Morsi’s continued defiance resulted in people going to the streets once more. 14 million Egyptians took to the streets calling on Morsi to leave[12]. Morsi’s continued recalcitrance in the wake of another appeal from the military to reach an accommodation with the opposition, resulted in his eventual ouster.

In retrospect it is clear that my initial optimistic assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood was based more on hope than on hard analysis of the nature of the beast itself – more specifically the ideology driving the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to this ideology that we now turn since the one year the Muslim Brotherhood was in power illustrated, in my view, the failure of political Islam. Political Islam or Islamism has been described by Zeynep Kuru and Ahmet Kuru[13] as “…an ideology that emerged in the twentieth century in reaction to colonialism and modernization.  Political Islamism aims to create an `Islamic state’ ruled according to the Shari’a. Although political Islamist movements can be categorized as part of the Islamic religious resurgence, these movements are primarily political. Political Islamists regard the foundation of the Islamic state as the sine qua non for the attainment of a complete Muslim life. The key ideological components of the political Islamists programme are: taking the Quran as the source of political, legal and social systems; and claiming to return to the example of the Prophet Muhammad”.

Here, however, Islamists run into problems since only one percent about Islam is actually about politics[14]. Given the paucity of the Islamist intellectual project they have turned to virtue. Leaders are chosen on the basis of their virtue (their piety really); the state exists to create virtuous Muslims, etc. The French social scientist Olivier Roy[15] is scathing about this: “There is no true Islamist political thought, because Islamism rejects political philosophy and the human sciences as such. The magical appeal to virtue masks the impossibility of defining the Islamist political programme in terms of the social reality”. Consider the following: whilst Islamists spend much of their energy on the capture of political power, they have not reflected on the nature of political institutions and how they are supposed to function. Similarly, whilst the amir or leader occupies central space in the Islamist polity, there is little thought on how he is to be selected (other than piety), what mandate he has, whether he has term limits, mechanisms of accountability and so forth. Should we then perhaps be surprised at the incompetence displayed by the Muslim Brotherhood once in power?

Even more importantly, for the subject of our discussion, is the centralizing, authoritarian tendencies displayed by Islamists – seeking to monopolize all power, whilst stifling dissent. Imbued with the arrogance of those who believe that they speak on behalf of God, the party model often adopted by these latter day fascists is the Leninist model, “…presenting itself as an avant-garde aiming to conquer power and denying legitimacy of all other parties”[16]. It is in this vein that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood sought to govern Egypt and failed so dismally. Ultimately the failure reflects the failure of Political Islam. As I write, news reports indicate that Tunisia’s Islamists are also facing a popular revolt whilst in Tripoli, the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices have been attacked by crowds of Libyans who are resisting this kind of authoritarianism.

[1] Karl Vick, `Street Rule: Egypt’s elected president is felled by mass demonstrations: Can a democracy be run by protest?,’ Time, 22 July 2013, p. 22.

[2] Fareed Zakaria, `After the Coup: Egypt Must Reach Out to the Islamists It is now jailing,’ Time, 22 July 2013.

[3] Vick, op.cit., p. 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] `Egypt’s Tragedy,’ The Economist, 6-13 July 2013, p. 11.

[7] Vick, op.cit., p. 22.

[8] Egypt’s Tragedy, op.cit., p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vick, op.cit., p. 22.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Egypt’s Tragedy, op.cit., p. 11.

[13] Zeynep Akbulut Kuru and Ahmet T. Kuru, `Apolitical Interpretation of Islam: Said Nursi’s Faith-Based Activism in Comparison with Political Islamism and Sufism,’ Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 99-111, January 2008, p. 100.

[14] Ibid., p. 99.

[15] Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam. I.B Tauris and Co. Ltd. 2007. London, p. 71.

[16] Ibid., p. 46.

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