Pakistan: Lessons from Egypt

One can detect symmetry and overlapping between societies in Egypt and Pakistan. Both post-colonial lands with a history of authoritarian rule and dynamic publics labouring under unpopular regimes, have evolved in similar directions.

Given a similar baggage from the past, the social spectrum in both nations represents a motley of diversity that isn’t very pretty for the ideological polarization it is built on.The polarization in both societies has come about as a result of internal and external political decisions by leaderships unrepresentative of the public sentiment. These arbitrary decisions were unguided by understanding of social reality and unmindful of social repercussions, often abusing religion in a variety of ways for expedient ends. This has created a gaping split between religious and secular-liberal extremes running across the social spectrum over ideology, opinion, identity, worldview, lifestyle and affiliation: both strongly entrenched in passionate ideological commitments, feeding off one another and unwilling to budge.

Both nations suffered years of unscrupulous authoritarian rule directly or indirectly supported by and leaning towards the United States and allied Western nations, often running counter to public opinion and sentiment. In Egypt, the resentment this created boiled over as part of the Arab Spring last year. Heartening and exciting as it was, and truly an epic event, it also was in many ways a sudden detonation of pent-up feeling with little organized political planning behind it. That should not however, take away the deep respect and admiration the resilient protesters at Tahrir Square inspire. However, a huge question stared in the face: where to, and what now?

It still haunts the mind. While the Muslim Brotherhood has won what may justly be called a historic electoral win, for many the options were limited between a pro-Mubarak military man and the Brotherhood’s candidate. The vote was more against the continuation of a dictatorship many had given blood sweat and tears to defeat, than in favour of what the Brotherhood symbolized. Ruling over a populace so diversified in level of religious affiliation, Morsi faces a tough battle ahead in bringing to fruition the Brotherhood’s Islamist dream. In many ways the Brotherhood’s hands are tied. Perhaps the attempt by the President to win greater powers to legislate independently was motivated by this realization. Its abject failure and the tide of opposition and protest in reaction to it, resonates with vital lessons Islamists in Pakistan have much to learn from.

For starters, governing a society divided between the fiercely secular and the warmly religious is to have a hand in the hornet’s nest, unless one realizes that as human beings we all share in common the need for justice and basic freedom, for dignity and a decent life and two square meals a day. And if rulers set about delivering these, schisms and ideological orientations do not stand in the way of achieving the common human good. The secular-liberals and the conservative Islamists are united by their basic human need for a dignified existence. A government hoping to rule over a polarized, fractured nation must recognize and make the best of this inescapable commonality making us one human race: ‘It was my brother- hunger made us one, I know…’ (Brecht) In fact, for a government aspiring to rule by Islam, providing bread and rights is not about expediency to win popularity, but a primary moral responsibility.

But it almost seems sacrilegious to pronounce the mundane provision of bread to be the grand project of an Islamic government. Religious political groups in Pakistan and abroad have made the mistake of putting the achievement of political ascendancy as their prime goal while ignoring the social project that must accompany it. Groups calling for a return to the Khilafah believe the establishment of Islamic government is the panacea, while religious parties often hold that the promulgation of the Shariah law shall crystallize a veritable Utopia. Not only is this thinking out of tune with the social reality around us, it also runs contrary to the essential Islamic understanding and the precedent we have from the life and practice of the Prophet (PBUH). Both law and political policy are means to greater ends. Religious groups make the mistake of seeing them as ends in themselves. The Shariah of Islam is the guarantor of the maqasid e Shariah (objectives of Islamic law), the guardian of Islamic values by which life is to be lived. Similarly political power is a means to establish an order that guarantees rights indiscriminately. In democratic systems, this power has to be won by proving the real commitment to and capability for establishing a system which sees all as free and equal citizens and facilitates access to justice while maintaining peace and order; a system which gives jobs and food and retirement benefits. Islamist groups in Pakistan have not so far proven themselves in this capacity. The talk of Shariah and the dream of Khilafah cannot be sold to a public writhing in the throes of poverty, ignorance, oppression, disease.

Before launching a political struggle, Islamist parties need to embark upon the social project to mend a broken society, moderate between the dangerous ideological polarization and address the hydra of poverty, illiteracy, social injustice. Such an effort can act as a secure launching pad for a political movement as well as a support base for a government that has grown roots into the society. Without demonstrating this ability, political struggles of Islamic groups will be stillborn.

At present, an intellectually robust discourse addressing the ideological polarization with the intent to mediate has not emerged from the scholars. This will leave anti-religious and extremist sentiment to grow and gain more converts by the hour, weakening the roots by which a stable government can seek its strength. A comprehensive strategy and vision to address the real problems has not been presented. The political programme of religious parties has little chances of even getting serious attention from the public. As long as this polarization exists and grows, any religious group winning power will be unable to keep it and will have to deal with stiff opposition leaving its hands tied. That is the lesson from Morsi’s present dilemma.

As long as religious parties fail to address and take on social ills, they will remain unattractive to the man in the street. People protesting in Egypt’s streets in 2011 and now have always been more interested in liberty, equality and rights than Shariah or the lack of it- that is, those from among them who are not actively engaged in a struggle to prevent Shariah law from being introduced. There are of course those who wish for a return to the Shariah, but they always will be a fraction of the educated elite. The mass man wants things more tangible than legislation.

Putting the cart before the horse by making Shariah law precede the provision of and access to basic justice has proven disastrous and damaging. When the letter of the law is imposed without first actively promoting the value it exists to protect, this becomes brutal and blind and spiritless. The experiment with the Hudood laws in Pakistan in the 80s was such a disaster that allowed Islamic law to fail by not creating the necessary conditions for it to work. Such disasters are likely to be committed by those who use religion to sanctify their power lust and to win legitimacy by appealing to religious sentiment. The facade of religion over a corrupt and messed up system is a sin against the spirit of religion making a mockery of its law.

Islamic groups must also be conversant with modernity. Both freedom and democracy are part and parcel of the inevitable modernizing process in societies today. Egypt is livid over what is perceived as Morsi’s attempt to curtail both these hard-earned gifts. While the democracy package bred in Western society may certainly not be suitable for Muslim societies, the values of governance by popular will, decision-making involving public participation and accountability before the public and the law are values Islam vigorously assents to and promotes. Justice, equality, prosperity thrive in a political system that respects these values. Certainly, the intricacies of how these democratic values can best be ensured is something leaders have to work out given their social contexts. Other than that, the implementation of laws must be done in a manner that does not encroach upon personal liberty and respects it as inviolable as long as that liberty does not take away that of others or spillover into the public sphere. While an Islamic society will facilitate and promote the values of Islam, it must not call for moral policing that trespasses the line between the public and the private. Individual morality in an Islamic system is promoted through education and gentle ‘dawah’ and no imposition is acceptable in the private lives of individuals as that is between a man and his God. Islamic groups in Pakistan are still unclear and uncomfortable with both these aspects of modernity and what these mean to them: freedom and democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be learning the right lessons and growing in the right direction. Josh Rogin writing for Foreign Policy terms the Egyptian government an ‘honest broker in the Middle East.’ He quotes Morsi’s aide Essam Haddad making it clear that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to create a theologically based state in Egypt, but that it does want sharia to inform Egyptian government and law going forward. “We are going to be a democratic, modern, civil state. From our point of view, this is pure Islam… The shariah is a reference for most of the laws,” Haddad said. “We have no room, no acceptance of a theocratic state.”

Their Pakistani counterparts, while in awe of their victory, still have a long way to go — with a good deal to be unlearnt and a good deal to be learnt.

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: Read other articles by Maryam.