Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Posts Tagged ‘Islamism’
A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.
Carl Becker was right in his assessment of great events: they have an ability to create a new normal language of profound significance. Each era has few words that epitomize its worldview. The Arab Spring has been a momentous event of profound significance, but the systematic hampering of ideas into pre-packaged catalogs of binary grouping, as reflected in Mohamad Elmasry’s comment on my reflection on Egypt, has been a major obstacle in revealing the creative ideas of this unique event. This response is to transcend the binary framework in both Dr. Elmasry’s readings of Egypt and the wider discourse regarding the Arab Spring.
My reflection concerns ideas, not groups. Elmasry’s version of the story is the opposite. This is the dividing line between our two viewpoints. Both could be right in their incommensurable paths. As such, there is a conceptual trap in responding to his binary framing of the story. Since his version is a litany of claims for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, a response to them will by default put me in the opposite camp, which I abstain to join.
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.
In the following essay I would like to offer three observations about the use of religion in politics in Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi, and about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—the oldest and most important Islamic organization in Egypt—particularly on how the group became targeted by the current military government in Egypt.
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the new Nasser, according to many Egyptians. The image of the military strong man currently leading Egypt is frequently put beside the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a group of younger military officers in taking control of Egypt in 1952. The new government presents itself as saving Egypt from the religious fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Nasser liberated Egypt from imperialists and conservative forces. Since many secularists and self-identified liberals supported Sisi’s takeover of the government in July 2013, the subsequent political conflicts can appear to be a continuation of the battles between advocates of a secular modern polity and religious fundamentalists. However, viewing the current turmoil as being basically a conflict between religious and secular forces in the public arena can lead to conclusions that make real conflict resolutions more difficult. “Secular” versus “religious” is not the major battle. The goals of the protesters have been more basic: to gain control over their lives through improved economic opportunity and freedom from the surveillance and control of a dominating police state, whether that state is secular or religious.
Shortly after the late Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak era head of Egypt’s military intelligence, had been appointed vice president in a belated attempt to appease Egyptian protesters, he gave an infamous interview to Christiane Amanpour, in which he declared that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. While his remarks were rightly dismissed at the time as a self-serving declaration intended to justify why the regime was not moving faster to respond to the demands of the protesters, it certainly invites one to ask why Egyptians have had such a difficult time building a viable democracy. A popular theory, invoked by many Egyptian liberal democrats and supported by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between Islamist politics and democracy, or at least between the Islamist politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and democratic politics. (Ironically, that was precisely one of Suleiman’s claims in that interview—that elections would only empower what he derisively called the “Islamic current.”)
In The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh argues that the assumption that religion is inherently authoritarian, divisive, and predisposed to irrational violence is a myth. This myth has its origins in the so-called “Wars of Religion,” which, he states, did not precipitate the rise of the modern state as is commonly assumed. Rather, he argues that these wars served as a justification for the nascent nation-state, which then used them to assert its power over the church. The church, correspondingly, was either absorbed into the state or relegated to an essentially private realm. It was only through the creation of a distinct private sphere for religion that the divisive properties of religion could be kept at bay—or so it was claimed. The myth of religious violence, propagated by political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been used to legitimize the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance in the name of Western secular ideals.
For the past few years, much of the scholarly literature on Islamist movements has danced around the “participation/ moderation” idea: that participation in democratic politics tends to moderate the ideology and positions of Islamists. I choose my term deliberately. When I say “danced around” I do not mean that scholars have endorsed its automatic applicability; far from it. Most have eschewed the vague term “moderation,” but even those who have used it have tried to give it specificity. And they have noted that the “participation” in question has generally been in non-democratic systems, so that a generalization culled from scholarship on political party behavior in democratic electoral systems (one that has plenty of qualifications and exceptions attached) is unlikely to be transferable to elections in which the existing regime will not allow itself to lose.