The future of Egyptian democracy:

Egypt and the elusiveness of shar’iyyah

posted by Mbaye Lo

Political legitimacy in the Arab world has often been derived from Islam. Both sharia (Islamic law) and shar’iyyah (legal, legality, and legitimacy) derive from the same root word, prompting traditional Muslim scholars to argue that political legitimacy is only valid when legitimized by sharia. This explains why Mohamed Morsi’s supporters during the June 2013 conflict were identifying themselves as the camps of shar’iyyah and sharia.

The word shar’iyyah has a remarkable presence in Morsi’s public speeches. He was dedicated to its retention and faithful to its application through his last stand against the Tamarod movement that led the campaign to topple him on July 3, 2013. Shar’iyyah appears more than 70 times in Morsi’s final address to the Egyptian people, which has become known as khitabu al shar’iyyah, “the legitimacy speech.” The pro-Morsi movement opposing the current regime is known as the National Alliance for shar’iyyah. Morsi’s online legacy—whether defending him or mocking his deposed government—has also been constructed around shar’iyyah. Morsi’s critics have accused him of reducing democracy to a notion of legitimacy that relies on electoral procedures but does not necessarily guarantee a process of political pluralism.

I sense another profound dimension to this debate, one that has been overlooked in framing the legitimacy discourse. Electoral legitimacy is based on voting, warranted by an implicit political trust that all parties will abide by the rules of the game (fairness, term limits, etc.). And it is through public trust that the elected party will abide by the law that confers legal legitimacy. In societies like Egypt, going through transition with no recorded democratic experience or independent judicial system, what is the basis of this trust? How can competing parties believe that opponents will respect the limits of their temporary custodial powers and will return to the people to renew their trust when election time comes?

There is a significant consideration for economic and political performance and for political socialization in fostering political trust in transitioning societies. But how do partners behave in the absence of these variants of trust, as was the case with Morsi’s Egypt? What are the reasonable guarantors of respect for the rules of the game in the absence of an agreed-upon constitution, as was the case in Egypt?

There were many competing blocs of legitimacy following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak: the old order versus the new, the religious versus the secular, and the traditional versus the modern. There was the military, one of the most popular national institutions in the country; the fragmented religious legitimacy of the old al-Azhar establishment and Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi clusters; and the imposed legitimacy of international agencies (often lead by the US). And then came the initiators of the revolution, the driving force behind its motto of “bread, freedom and respect”—the “Revolution 2.0” generation, as Wael Ghonim likes to portray his revolutionary colleagues.

Unlike the other blocs, the revolutionary bloc drew its legitimacy not from the socio-historical processes of the traditional authorities, but from universal declarations of the citizenry’s rights (as opposed to a locally constructed morality of patriotism and citizenship responsibilities as defined by the Egyptian state). Because this bloc’s legitimacy was only ethically supported by what Henry David Thoreau calls men’s right “to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable,” the revolutionary bloc was the weakest. The revolution never accomplished its intended apocalyptic irruption into the old order of Egyptian politics in its dual existence—authoritarians corruptly ruling and Islamists desperately opposing. Instead, revolutionary legitimacy was quickly defeated by military might and traditional Islamist legitimacy.

As soon as Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) officers descended on Tahrir Square, hugging and thanking the revolutionary groups and encouraging them to go home. Recognizing the army as the hero of the people, revolutionaries swept the streets of Tahrir as a gesture of good will and chanted the motto al Jaysh wa asha’ab iid wahida (“the people and the army are one hand”). Egyptian journalist Ebrahim al-Bahrawi has succinctly captured how the relationship improved between these two groups six months after the Revolution, saying, “I think that, the basis of the intellectual and emotional state for the desired reconciliation between the army generals, parents who are responsible for the government, and the revolution youth, the children who are the beating heart of Egypt, has now begun to emerge.”

But available stories and anecdotes on the progress of the revolution have not been favorable to the Islamist bloc. There appears to be a focus on their earlier condemnation of the revolution, their secret negotiations with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman while the revolution was ongoing, their rejection of a new constitution before elections, their depiction of Egypt’s notorious police force as brothers in the revolution, and their characterization of revolutionary leaders as agents of foreign interests. Egyptian feminist activist Nawal El Saadawi observed a turning point in the itinerary of the revolution after the military and Islamist blocs decided to hold elections before drawing up a new Constitution, contrary to the request of the revolutionary protesters at Tahrir. On July 11, 2011, after meeting with a group of Tahrir revolutionaries, she wrote of the push toward “holding elections first, before the Constitution, despite the fact that the revolution had clearly declared, ‘The people want the Constitution first.’ The Brotherhood, the Salafis, and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya groups had agreed with the military Council’s decision to postpone the Constitution until after the elections. And some election supporters described Constitution supporters as agents of Zionism, following the agenda of the infidels and atheists. Something really weird.”

Among those competing for legitimacy, the military appears to be the most successful in leveraging its legitimacy and maintaining the upper hand. It has also been the most rational actor, so far, in the political game. Mubarak was a military general in a civilian government: he served as the Supreme Commander of SCAF and most of his governors were retired military officers. Given this, it was logical for the revolutionaries to frame the revolt against Mubarak’s regime as a revolt against the military; the military knew this and responded quickly by disassociating itself from him. Egypt’s Shorouk News captured this when its front page on June 3, 2012 highlighted a popular judicial decision: “Mubarak is guilty and his regime is innocent.”

The military has clear advantages over civilian society in Egypt. First, the military tends to exude a stronger morality of mission and is usually commended for that. Its members commit to sacrificing themselves for the society while accepting subordination to civilian rule. The armed forces are treated similarly in the US: we thank the military for their “service to our country” and for “protecting our freedom,” and we publicize this appreciation in our most-watched entertainments, like the Super Bowl. In Egypt, this widespread celebration of the military, reinforced by the narratives of heroism in wars against Israel, its historical role in driving national projects, (especially during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser), and its universal conscription policy, gives the Egyptian military’s legitimacy an edge over civilian legitimacy—Galal Amin of the American University in Cairo’s book The Story of the Egyptian Economy from the Era of Muhammad Ali to the Era of Mubarak suggests that Egypt’s major economic achievements and projects were mostly developed under military rules. Military legitimacy also outweighs competing forces in times of instability and factionalism.

Islamists do also enjoy a significant sphere of legitimacy in Muslim Egypt. It is my understanding that Mubarak’s 30-year tenure did not create an Islamist state, but it did establish a religious system. Sayyid al-Qimni’s book, Shukran Bin Laden (Thanks, Bin Laden) has painfully illustrated how much censorship power the authoritarian rule of Mubarak ceded to religious institutions and groups, in everything from intellectual censorship to policing public morality. Al-Qimni, a dissident public intellectual, has argued that the formula of censorship is as follows: state agents highlight the target political or intellectual dissent, religious institutions issue a fatwa that demonizes the idea, and religious groups mobilize public opinions to banish or punish it. In this “pact of havoc,” as al-Qimni calls it, each faction benefits from the unstated collusion of the other.

The perceived connection between shar’iyyah and sharia signals another important dimension in the evolution of political Islam. In 1925, Ali Abdel Raziq, a renowned judge and graduate of al-Azhar University, published al Islam wa Usul al Hukm (Islam and the Foundations of Governance) in which he contested many perceived traditional connections between Islamic law, governance, and Islamic khilafah (caliphate), thus endorsing the civil base of political legitimacy. The book was confiscated and Abdel Raziq was tried by al-Azhar’s Senior Scholars Committee. He was stripped of his graduate degree, his argument was dismissed as antithetical to Islamic legal tradition, and many books were published to debunk his argument. Three years later, the society of the Muslim Brotherhood was established. Against this backdrop, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, rooted political legitimacy in the concept of Islamic khilafah, thus making the Qu’ran and the Sunnah the ultimate foundation of true legitimacy. This interpretation has largely persisted in the ideology of all branches of the Brotherhood. Morsi’s belief in electoral legitimacy thus represents a U-turn in the ideology and practice of Islamic politics.

It is not surprising that Islamists who oppose democracy do so by claiming that it substitutes human agency for God’s legitimate will. A few months before his killing in a US-led drone attack along the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, former al-Qaeda number two Abu Yahya al-Libi published a critical article highlighting the non-Islamic bases of democracy, noting that “Democracy is the idol of the modern [age].” In a letter to the people of Syria, the self-nominated Amir of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned the Syrian people not to substitute dictatorship with the oppressive realities of democracy, saying that the people of Iraq are their “predecessors, and it was also applied in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and look at their conditions and what they ended up with.”

Given the magnitude of each of these contending legitimacies, Morsi’s party required political trust to supplement its electoral legitimacy. Furthermore, in the absence of real economic and political performance by his party, Morsi’s bloc needed a record of political socialization that would reassure other contending parties. The literature on Islamist politics or ideology of political socialization was not supportive. Distrust for Islamist governance was widespread.

Islamist involvement in the democratic process has often been approached with skepticism, and there has been constant doubt regarding the seriousness of engaging in elections “when victory is not an option.” Hani Raslan, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies), is an expert on Islamist politics in the Nile Valley region. He often argues that existing models of Islamist governments have proven that these governments believe in the doctrine of tamkin, the strategic process of empowerment by making political appointments based on walaa (loyalty), rather than kafaa (competence and qualification), in order to institutionalize support. Generally known as fiqh al tamkin, jurisprudence of empowerment, the concept has been elaborated and developed in both the classical and the modern literature of Islamism, institutionalized by Hassan al-Banna and profoundly theorized by Sayyid Qutb.

Palestine and Sudan are two of the most-cited examples of how Islamists could stifle democracy and monopolize power, and they have not helped to dispel the mistrust of Morsi’s intentions: Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir only declared the end of tamkin in December 2013, accepting the demand made by political opponents of his Islamist regime to terminate the “politicization of public service.”

Recent high-profile rifts within the ranks of the Brotherhood have also shaken public trust in the inner workings of the organization. Leading members who abandoned the Brotherhood after decades of service commonly describe the internal culture of organization as restrictive of individual freedom with zero tolerance for political dissent. Kamal al-Hilbawi, a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad and its spokesman in the West, returned to Egypt after 23 years of exile and became one of the foremost critics of Morsi’s Brotherhood. In March 2012, his resignation was made public through television interviews in which he depicted the Brotherhood as untrustworthy, having failed to respect its public pledge to stay away from the presidential elections. Another figure who deserted the Brotherhood and became its rival was Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, one of the most dynamic figures in the organization’s modern history. Despite his well-respected public record of activism, he was dismissed from the Brotherhood due to his decision to run as an independent candidate in the presidential elections. Aboul Fotouh finished in fourth place in the presidential elections, carrying almost 18 percent of the vote with a political platform based on liberal Islamism, trustworthiness, integrity and political pluralism. He has often described the Brotherhood leadership as lacking political imagination.

If the opposition to Morsi’s government were solely from the military and the liberal elites, then the argument of collusion against democratic legitimacy might be valid. But the fact that all other Islamist blocs—from al-Azhar to the Salafis—and most revolutionary leaders agreed to delegitimize his government makes this discussion pertinent. Egypt is an old and deeply bureaucratic society with a rich modern history of political engagement, experimentation and cultural resilience that makes collective memory, wisdom, and gut feeling homegrown virtues. If there is a deep schism within the Egyptian political class, it is due to the painful coalition and collusion of these actors on the state apparatus. The simplistic treatment of Morsi’s opponents as mere liberal, non-democratic coup d’état supporters reflects fascination with events rather than processes, focusing on particular occurrences rather than on institutionalized development.

There is a great potential for the situation in Egypt to move forward constructively and inspirationally, but that also requires a vigorous examination of the genesis of the crisis. The fact that the Brotherhood has been banned for the third time in modern history, each time in a different political era and with a noticeable degree of popular support, suggests the need for critical self-examination. The murder of innocent civilians is a crime, and violence against protesters is unacceptable under any circumstances. But these horrendous transgressions should not overshadow the philosophical merits of the group, which has been and should remain part of Egypt’s politico-religious landscape and a potential soft power in its role in the Muslim world.

Crises of legitimacy are the norm for transitioning societies. Three decades ago, Seymour Lipset articulated a familiar paradox: “democratic regimes born under such stress [revolution] not only face the difficulty of being regarded as illegitimate by groups loyal to the ancient regime, but may also be rejected by those whose millennial hopes are not fulfilled by the change.” Legitimacy is not static, but evolving, and any legitimate government—whether brought to power through free and fair elections (as was the case with Morsi’s marginal victory), free and unfair elections (as was the case with Mubarak), or not-so-free but fair mandate (as it was with the Asam Sharaf-SCAF’s government)—is only accepted to the extent that it is able to maintain stability through political pluralism. The only constant in democracy is the elusiveness of legitimacy and the ongoing need to re-negotiate its decrees in times of popular unrest: once the majority of the public turns against a government; Egyptians need to get used to the culture of re-negotiating legitimacy.

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One Response to “Egypt and the elusiveness of shar’iyyah

  1. avatar Sara Steinfeld says:

    I will be the first to say that, even after reading this article, I’m not the most well-versed in Egyptian politics. However, what Lo brings up in this piece, the idea of political legitimacy being determined by sharia (Islamic law) is really troublesome, especially if any government system wants to claim a fair and democratic system. Once religion is used to legitimize any system whatsoever, all fairness is thrown out the window, and personal ideology completely takes over. John Rawls attempted to fight back against this problem with his idea of an overlapping consensus, and while many might feel that it stifles the voice of religious actors (which are still important and need to be heard), it makes it easier to govern a nation in an objective way. And, as an aside, Lo mentions the argument that traditional Muslim scholars make in order to make political legitimacy and religion one and the same (that both “sharia” and “shar’iyyah” derive from the same root, so they must be applicable to one another). This argument is truly absurd–we cannot decide how a government is run based on the root of a word. That’s a completely arbitrary matter.

    Further, I find it interesting that, according to Lo’s understanding (which I will have to lean on given my lack of expertise on the topic at hand), the authoritarian rule under Mubarak ceded so much censorship power to religious groups. This doesn’t offer Mubarak more power: it just creates a religiously oppressive state, and while it may keep Mubarak in alliance with the strongly influential religious activists like the Muslim Brotherhood, it ultimately detracts from his overall power.

    I’m not political scientist, and I do not pretend to know how governments can and should be run in the best possible way. However, I do know that once religion enters the mix, as it seemed to do under Mubarak and as the current government is trying to avoid, all political fairness is relinquished, which leaves the stability of the government up in the air.

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