In the Field

Egypt’s Rebellion Against “Islamic Democracy”

Back in June, I wrote an article on “The Old Regime and the Egyptian Revolution,” a takeoff of Alexis de Tocqueville’s book The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in which he described how the French Revolution failed to change the basic structure of French government, lapsing back into the same system of centralized control, only with new masters. The same has been happening in Egypt.

Back in June, it looked like the old Mubarak regime was reconstituting itself under the leadership of Field Marshall Tantawi and his military junta. I wrote that “what we have, in effect, is an attempt to restore the old system in a renegotiated form, adjusting the balance of power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Since then, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has renegotiated the renegotiation. In August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who won the recent election, fired Field Marshall Tantawi and several other top military leaders, replacing them with Muslim Brotherhood supporters. So that was the end of the military junta.

Since the Egyptian parliament, which had been disbanded by the judiciary, remained disbanded, this left only Morsi, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, and the judiciary, representing the remnants of the old regime. Then over the Thanksgiving weekend, Morsi made his next move, issuing a set of decrees exempting his own decisions and those of a Brotherhood-controlled constitutional assembly, from judicial review. In effect, Morsi was clearing away the last checks on his own power.

A system in which the chief executive is the only source of power, with no independent checks on his action, is a dictatorship. For the past three weeks, Egypt has been, in effect, a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship.

One Egyptian describes Morsi’s betrayal of the revolution.

The demands of the revolution were clear: bread, freedom, social justice. Concerning “freedom,” Morsi has refused to restructure the state’s security apparatus; he appointed as interior minister the man who’d been Cairo’s police chief in 2011 when protesters were massacred in the city’s streets. People continue to be killed in jail and in police stations across the country.

So this is just about the worst result we could have expected from the Egyptian uprising. It shows that the dead end of “Islamic Democracy”—the model touted for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries—is actually Islamic dictatorship.

None of this has been lost on Egypt’s liberals, and the one piece of good news is that they have reacted to Morsi’s power grab by pouring back into Tahrir Square and marching on the presidential palace, forcing Morsi to flee. They have rapidly geared up for Part 2 of the revolution, and have already forced Morsi to give some ground.

A reporter describes the running street battles between opposition protesters and gangs of Muslim Brotherhood thugs.

To the many watching, the fighting was a depressing turn. Two factions who had united last year to protect Tahrir Square against mobs of Mubarak supporters were now killing each other in the streets. A Brotherhood-led government that had promised dialogue and moderation had barely hesitated to dispatch supporters, fired with religious fervor, to overwhelm the opposition. Morsi, the leader who promised a packed Tahrir after winning election that his legitimacy derived from the people, did not even publicly address the violence until late Thursday night, placing blame on paid infiltrators and thugs.

Throughout the square and atop Al Khalifa Al Maamoun’s raised, tree-lined median, crowds of protesters watched the frontline fighters dodge incoming rocks and hurl Molotovs, earning a cheer each time one made it over the barricade.

Among the onlookers was Shady El Ghazaly Harb, a prominent liberal who was a member of the influential revolutionary youth coalition during the 18 days of revolt before Mubarak’s fall. Wearing an earpiece connected to his mobile phone, he paced as friends called with news of confirmed deaths and television coverage. Hands in his pockets, he watched the fighting. “Is there any way Morsi stays after this?” he asked.

Well, there are a number of ways he can do it, but while it seems optimistic to think that Morsi will step down—the Muslim Brotherhood is not so tired and dispirited as the old Mubarak regime—there is a point to the sense of optimism among Egypt’s liberals. As one observer concludes, these demonstrations show that “an Islamic Egypt, while still likely, is far from inevitable.”

Successful revolutions are usually led by charismatic leaders with strong political intuition–think Mao, Lenin, Tito, Castro and Ayatollah Khomeini. All personified their revolutions and drove the masses on to victory. But Morsi is no Ayatollah Khomeini, who embodied revolutionary mysticism and spent a lifetime steeped in political thought. The reality is that Morsi lacks charisma, and spent his life gaining a PhD and chairing an Egyptian engineering school until 2010. His abrupt and radical moves belie a lack of political savoir faire….

And finally, having seen what happened in Islamic revolutions in Iran (1979), Afghanistan (1996) and Gaza (2006), its secular opponents are far more likely to come out and fight for their interests.

This last is the most important. From the beginning, I’ve argued that the most promising thing about the Arab Spring was that our natural allies, the young secular liberals, were “in the field,” that they were leading the opposition to dictatorship rather than being sidelined in a false alternative between secular dictatorship and religious dictatorship. It was a first step toward a political re-alignment in Egypt in which all of the forces would align themselves around a genuine alternative: religious dictatorship versus a secular free society. Those are the two opposing sides that we now see battling in the streets.

The best hope right now is that there will be a new alliance between the liberals and the “felool,” the Egyptian term for supporters of the old regime. These two factions were previously divided. In the presidential election, for example, Morsi narrowly defeated an official associated with the old regime because the “felool” couldn’t attract enough support from the liberals, who feared that the old regime was trying to cling to power. This division undercut opposition to the Islamists.

Now that the Islamists have taken over and openly installed themselves as the new dictatorship, there is hope for a new secular alliance between the felool and the liberals. Or rather, there is hope that now that there is no old regime to preserve or restore, the felool will adopt the cause of the liberals.

The liberals and their supporters have already forced Morsi to cancel his decrees exempting himself from judicial review. But Morsi used his temporary dictatorship to rush through a new constitution largely drafted by Islamists and put it up for a national referendum on December 15—a tight deadline that favors the well-organized Islamists. And to impose this referendum, it looks like Morsi is trying to draft the military to back him by imposing martial law: “Morsi appeared to be preparing to grant the military broad powers to arrest civilians and keep public order until a new constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, according to a report Saturday in the state-run newspaper al-Ahram.”

Here is the key issue in the draft constitution: “Of its 236 articles or paragraphs, Article 2 cites Islamic law as ‘the principle source of legislation,’ while Article 4 gives the role of interpreting that law not to the courts, but to Islamic scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar University.” A system in which the law is placed into the hands of religious clerics is pretty much the definition of a “theocracy.”

The question is whether it is too late for the liberals. I am afraid that the odds have to be on Morsi, who enjoys strong popular backing from Egypt’s Islamists, including the Salafis, who are rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood but, as more radical Islamists, hope to be the ultimate beneficiaries of Morsi’s dictatorship. So far it looks like the army will also back Morsi, or at least will not oppose him.

The same is true, shamefully, of the United States. The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius describes President Obama’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and concludes that “The Obama administration has been Morsi’s main enabler.” But note the administration’s reasoning: “The administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences.” This is precisely what President Obama promised in his big “speech to the Muslim world” in Cairo nearly four years ago: to make the United States into an irrelevant spectator in world affairs. And Ignatius sums up the results: “it’s crazy for America to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor Shariah law.”

From the beginning, the Arab Spring has presented many dangers and also some big opportunities. Our natural allies, the Arab world’s young, secular liberals, are in the field and may or may not win. Unfortunately, our government will be doing nothing to affect that outcome.


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One Response to In the Field

  1. Marvin J. Greenberg December 13, 2012 at 2:46 PM #

    >Unfortunately, our government will be doing nothing to affect that outcome.

    No, our government is doing something: providing billions in aid to Morsi.