The future of Egyptian democracy:

Is democracy the question?

posted by Sarah Eltantawi

Perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked of Egypt’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary process in the past three years is this: how can we properly diagnose the persistent incongruity between the slogan of the 2011 revolution—“bread, freedom, and social justice”—and the failures of all political entities in Egypt to achieve them? These entities include the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a transitional military regime that assumed power directly after the revolution (February 2011–June 2012); the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (June 2012–July 2013); and now, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new presidency and the immediately preceding civilian regime installed under his military command (July 2013–May 2014). In other words, how and why has every organized entity in Egypt since January 2011 failed to meet the basic demands of the revolution?

How have we arrived at a moment where large numbers of Egyptians have clamored to reinstate formal military rule? Why are so many Egyptians apathetic about the summary jailing of journalists and activists, to say nothing of the rounding up of those deemed “Islamist”?

I would argue that critically deconstructing the following three “assumed truths” can yield insights into these difficult social logics. They are: 1) that Egypt has been undergoing a democratic transition since January 2011; 2) that the transition was thwarted in June of last year by a military coup; and 3) that the term “democracy” conjures up a common understanding and was the implicit or explicit goal of the January 25 revolution.

Assumption One: Egypt Has Been Undergoing a Democratic Transition since January 2011

It may be helpful to speak concretely about what democracy has actually meant in Egypt since February 2011, when on the twelfth of that month, Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the presidency. At that time, a council of military elders under the auspices of SCAF took formal control. SCAF took advantage of the revolutionary moment to skillfully position themselves as benevolent, responsible elders of the nation who would safely transition Egypt to civil rule. They were ultimately convinced to adopt this posture because they saw an opportunity to rid themselves of Mubarak, as military elites were displeased anyway with the apparent grooming of his son, Gamal, for the presidency. SCAF endeavored to assure both ordinary Egyptians and Egyptian revolutionaries that they would meet the protesters’ demands, and thus everyone could leave the square and cease protesting—which they did.

There were many who were suspicious of SCAF’s role in Egypt’s transition from the start—a rational concern, given that the military was the very entity revolutionaries fought against in January 2011—but enough Egyptians, for various reasons, were willing to go along with the logic that the military should run the transition. It can be argued that there was little choice but to comply with this plan, since non-military and non-Islamist forces were not organized enough to strongly contest state power, if we assume in the first place that ascending to state power is the best way to actualize “bread, freedom, and social justice.”

A certain logic, momentum, and political dance commenced in which the military and the Islamists—Egypt’s largest organized opposition—jockeyed to outmaneuver each other for power, just as they had been doing for eighty years. It is important to understand that this particular dance has not much to do with the stated goals of the revolution of January 2011, though one could also credibly argue that these were disparate and difficult to summarize.

In March 2011, SCAF oversaw a referendum asking the Egyptian people whether they wished for parliamentary or presidential elections first. Enter here the Muslim Brotherhood’s first real appearance on the transitional scene. Given that the Muslim Brotherhood had assured Egyptians that they had no intention of running a candidate for president and only planned to contest twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats, it was curious that the group nonetheless campaigned very enthusiastically for a “yes” vote on the referendum, which would have mandated presidential elections first. This lobbying effort turned heads and raised some doubts and fears about the MB’s intentions.

In retrospect, it is difficult to believe that discussions were not taking place among the military regime, supposedly just overthrown in a revolution in which many young people lost life and limb; interested international forces; and the Muslim Brotherhood, long the most organized oppositional entity in Egypt, who occupy that role precisely because of their willingness to compromise with power. The Muslim Brotherhood were known for prioritizing their survival at all times, which in a certain sense is intelligent political behavior, although cynical. What this behavior does not point to is the prioritization of the revolutionary agenda, or any agenda not developed by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership itself.

Assumption Two: Democracy Was Thwarted in June 2013 by a Military Coup

When Mohamed Morsi won the June 2012 elections—by 0.3 percent of the vote, relying heavily on the liberal vote against an opponent who was the prime minister under Mubarak’s regime—it was widely celebrated as democracy having prevailed in Egypt. Despite intense hostility from liberal and old regime elements in Egypt from Morsi’s first day in office, a harmonious relationship played out between the Freedom and Justice Party and the military. In October 2013, for example, President Morsi managed to seamlessly transition Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from his job as head of the army and to install someone he found much more attractive—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

What we must now ask is whether Morsi’s presidency represented “democracy,” or whether it was “democratic.” Elections were held that brought Morsi to power. During his reign problems abounded, some of which were externally imposed and some self-created. Among the most serious avoidable problems, and a crucial misstep, was the Freedom and Justice Party’s radical inability or unwillingness to forge alliances with virtually all factions in Egypt, both within civil society and at the level of formal politics. This may have been due to their status as a closed group with a strict chain of command and a siege mentality.

The finer details of what happened during this time period differ dramatically depending on whom you ask, and are in fact the subject of the deep polarization in Egypt today, but perhaps there a few facts that can be agreed on that complicate the blanket “democracy” narrative:

  1. Morsi’s regime seemed to prioritize placing its cadres in positions of power throughout Egypt, often without appropriate qualification. A large share of their energetic resources was put to this task.
  2. The Muslim Brotherhood is a closed organization with a strict hierarchical decision making structure that does not rely on larger public opinion. This structure existed alongside Egypt’s traditional governmental structure, causing tensions and fomenting distrust in the wider populace.
  3. The beginnings of a debate over what “freedom” meant began to emerge—perhaps “Muslim” freedom in public space should trump that of non-Muslims or Muslims of different ideological persuasions, or indeed atheists and everyone else.
  4. Morsi’s regime, by June 30, 2014, had lost a large amount of the public’s trust, especially after the November 2012 constitutional decree in which Morsi placed himself above judicial review to hasten the passage of a new constitution (the passage of which was stymied in the first place by the Supreme Constitutional Court, a deep state hold-over).
  5. All of this was happening in a revolutionary context in which people lost their lives for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” not this quotidian reshuffling of power among ancient players.

It has been suggested, here on The Immanent Frame and elsewhere, that it is a futile thought experiment to make assumptions about the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions or governing philosophy. As such, we should concentrate on more theoretical matters of what democracy means and does not mean. This theory is represented by Western thinkers such as the twentieth century American, John Rawls, or the eighteenth century Federalist Papers. As an Islamicist, I am dissatisfied with these assumptions. The question of how an important Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood’s own conception and enactment of democracy corresponds to supposedly “objective” democratic norms—which are actually Western philosophical products that lay claim to universal applicability—seems of great analytical importance. That there may be essential incongruences between these two traditions should be taken for granted by religionists, rather than assumed not to be the case.

Concentrating, then, on the question of whether “democracy” was or was not realized allows analysts to take for granted that the Muslim Brotherhood is simply one more political group that draws some loose organizational inspiration from Islam, rather like communism has an ideology or even, if you wish, a “theology,” and therefore the Muslim Brotherhood can be usefully compared to, for example, the Christian Democrats in Germany. This assumption betrays a default materialist methodology and an understanding that tends not to grant “religious thinking” a particular or differentiated status.

My own ongoing research into the political theology of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests to me that this framing is insufficient. I became concerned about the analytical irrelevance of this approach while observing the mass protests against Morsi’s regime in Cairo in June of last year (2013). At that time, I became convinced through fieldwork research that many Egyptians opposed the Brotherhood on cultural grounds that include a competing sense of Islamic identity and a differing sense of the proper place of Islam within the state and the nation as an imaginary. I found this attitude to be so widespread among traditional or conservative Muslims that I feel compelled to take much more seriously the theological aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s organization, platform, and political behavior. It turns out that the “theology” in the groups’ “political theology” is intimately tied to their public proselytization activities—a kind of popular theology that, not by accident, echoes some contemporary Christian proselytization groups. There is ample evidence that Banna formed the Brotherhood as a reaction to Christian missionary activity in Egypt, and inspired by Christian educational and youth organizations. In fact, “in-group”/“out-group” dynamics were built into the Brotherhood’s founding ideology, with al-Banna classifying Egyptians as either the believer (mu’min), the undecided (mutaraddid); the opportunist (nafa’i); or the opponents (mutahamil).

If one accepts the notion that the theological is as important as the political, you may then ask, how is this different than a modern American politician referring to the Federalist Papers? The answer is that they are at the very least different traditions, though I think they are also different approaches. The Brotherhood function according in part to what I am thinking of as a “sunnaic paradigm”: a conception of history that is a “history within a history,” where there is a “more,” that we might with great trepidation call “the religious,” than what would be on offer in reference to a secular text, even if that text was influenced by Christianity. This is because of the otherworldly seriousness of religious thinking, with the much higher stakes (one’s fate in the afterlife); the scale of the reward for enacting God’s will (eternal heaven); and the fact that built into the cosmology of the Islamic tradition there is a return to specific, historically grounded foundational texts and practices to achieve these extrahistorical outcomes.

Assumption Three: “Democracy” Enjoys a Shared Understanding, and the Purpose of the January 25 Revolution was Democracy

Those who carried out the military intervention last June 30, which can be thought of as a popularly backed coup, did not make any but the most cursory pretenses to democracy. Instead the rhetoric they employed, and the social logic they appealed to, was a different one altogether—one of “saving” the country from the brink, and choosing stability over a chaos that was moving in a destructive direction.

The subtext that seems to operate in much Western academic analysis on Egypt is the notion that if Egyptians had just played by the democratic rules, they would have gotten better results, as if by natural law. This may well be true, but it may also, for a variety of reasons, not be true. It seems that this idea—that a formulaic notion of democracy developed in the West produces predictable and reproducible results in radically different contexts—is the truly unprovable assertion in this story, and one that is indeed challenged by empirical data from Libya to Palestine to Iraq and beyond. Perhaps it is more fruitful therefore to analyze what has actually occurred in Egypt, and why, rather than impose a structure for analysis.

By the time July 3, 2013, came around and the military reasserted formal control in Egypt, they had done so with the backing of large swaths of the Egyptian population. The voices that supported this popularly backed coup effectively said, “If this is what democracy is, we do not want it.” This refrain would continue for many throughout the transitional military regime run by Sisi, even as the most brutal of counterrevolutionary measures began to be taken: jailing journalists without charge, jailing revolutionary activists under draconian “anti-protest laws,” declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” and the outrageous spectacle of sentencing almost eight hundred people to death in absentia in Minya. Still, went this particular refrain of Sisi partisans, we would rather have this than this so-called “democracy” we lived under Morsi. Of course one must note the truism that those making these statements are by definition not the ones targeted by the counterrevolution. However, it is a loud and stubborn voice—one that remains the mainstream in Egypt.

We are now in a moment in which democracy itself, which in this context means something like democratic culture, has been roundly critiqued. In Cairo last week I was interviewing a woman, a medical doctor, about the widely-condemned sentencing of Egyptian and foreign journalists to hard labor and shockingly long jail sentences. She waved me off, unmoved, citing that they were working for Al Jazeera against Egypt. I said, “If you are not concerned with the human rights aspects, are you concerned that Egypt is being embarrassed by these courts on the international stage?” She replied that she understood what was happening—the judges were being petty; they were exacting revenge on the Muslim Brotherhood, who angered them greatly during their rule. In the end, she was sure no one would serve hard time (putting aside the fact that these journalists have already been jailed for months). I asked her if she was not concerned that these petty squabbles were causing Egyptian ambassadors to be recalled at embassies worldwide. She said that after the West’s support for the Morsi regime, democracy has no meaning, and she does not care. “It would be great if we could be the United States,” she continued, “but that is not where we are. I would be happy with Brazil, or Russia. It is logical.” And maybe it is. If it is, using a “failure to measure up to democracy” as the primary analytical measuring stick to analyze Egypt will not get us very far, and in the end might be an imposition of an ideological framework that does not capture the instincts and social logics of Egypt today.

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