Learning the Right Lessons in Egypt

The obvious conclusion from Egypt is that political Islam’s ‘concordat’ with democracy has proven a failed experiment. As predicted by Essam Haddad, ‘the message will resonate throughout the Muslim world that democracy is not for Muslims.’ The message has in fact been enthusiastically taken up, with Islamists saying ‘we told you so.’ An article on one such website states, ‘recent experience in Egypt has once again exposed the reality of ‘democracy’ and the true face of democracy- worshippers… democracy isn’t meant for us Muslims.’ The few willing to undertake a deeper and more insightful analysis of the dynamics of political Islam as unfolded in Egypt and the greater Middle East are led to conclude that the problem is not democracy but the lack thereof.

The problem is with the deeply entrenched secular elite and the powerful civil-military bureaucracy in the Muslim world that has persistently obstructed the transition to democracy in order to perpetuate the status quo that sustains them. The problem is with the regressive mindset of these so-called liberals whose lust for power and influence holds democracy hostage as they pay conventional lip service to it, to dupe gullible masses; who laugh the symbolism of the ballot to scorn, not willing to see through a fledgling democratic regime for its mandated time. The problem is with these blue eyed boys of Western powers- that hold a nascent democracy under the thumb; the problem is with the double standards of Western torchbearers of democracy complicit in the brutal travesty of democracy in Egypt; who shamelessly use democracy as a buzzword to legitimize governments servile to the diktat coming from on high; and to delegitimize those that are not amenable to functioning as instruments to safeguard their interests. The problem is with using the pretense of commitment to democracy to disguise a unilateralist pursuit of political and geostrategic interests in the region. The problem is with refusing to call a coup by its name so that the new post-Morsi administration installed by the military could continue to receive assistance from Western nations so as to guarantee and promote the interests of the players of the global Great Game for power.

The heart of the matter and the bitterest lesson is what Patrick Galey said in ‘The Day the Revolution Died’: “all themselves revolutionaries and advocates of democracy simply hate Islamism more than they love freedom. That people are fully prepared to welcome the army back to political life, with a cheer, two fingers up to those killed since 2011, and a good riddance to Egypt’s first experiment with democracy.”

The right lesson to learn is that the still embryonic democratic culture in the Middle East is to be defended against the illiberal, valueless secular elites and powerful civil-military bureaucracies that pay lip service to democracy while vying for the maintenance of their own power and influence with blessings of their foreign mentors. That is why the coup in Egypt is to be rejected and opposed.

The right lesson for societies in transition is to create infrastructure salubrious for democratic values and practices to take root. Democratization of polities is long, arduous and painstaking. Egypt may be going through the birthpangs of it, but for democracy not to perish in the throes of its birth, it must not be understood as and confined to a balloting exercise. State institutions must respectfully stand by to see it through. Democratic institutions need to tame down and cut to size emboldened militaries with a history of political intervention and influence. Morsi’s greatest failure was in not being able to create constitutional checks and balances against the unwarranted interference of Egypt’s powerful secular military, and in his ineffective dealing with a variegated and vociferous opposition. Without such measures to let democracy take root, it will remain on life support with the ever-present threat of the military boot’s heavy tread stomping the life out of it. The right lesson is not less but more democratization — social, economic, and political — from the grassroots so that the balloting exercise has more meaning and the legitimacy of the results it yields, commands respect.

The consequences for political Islam have been graver still. The Egyptian experiment is a significant let-down for the moderate voice that had reconciled Islam with democratic practice and had quite monumentally eked out a way for Islamic regimes to function in a secular-democratic milieu. It lends strength to the more simplistic thesis easier to draw and hence enthusiastically embraced by the Islamist: Democracy is the system of the unbeliever. Through its double standards and complicity with the brutal military that ousted Egypt’s democratic government, the West has ignored this far-reaching consequence to its own peril.

But as we resent the hijacking of the popularly voted Morsi regime in Egypt, we cannot bury our head in the sand when it comes to Morsi’s fatal mistakes- his all-too-frequent fumbling and blundering that showed a complete lack of vision and foresight, or even an understanding of the complex issues he confronted. It was not just ineptitude but spineless, dim-witted lack of political acumen displayed by the Muslim Brotherhood in both its advisory and decision making roles. Given the fact that the Brotherhood is the most well-organized Islamic political group with decades of struggle behind it, raises an important concern about the development of seasoned, visionary and pragmatic leadership in the Muslim world. The vital lesson most pressing in its gravity and urgency is to develop a comprehensive strategy and make a Herculean effort to chisel such leadership that possesses fidelity to faith and yet is conversant with modernity, and is poised for mediating between the polarized extremes in Muslim societies. Iqbal wrote: ‘sabaq phir parh sadaqat ka, adalat ka, shujaat ka / liya jaye ga tujh se kaam dunya ki imamat ka’ (learn your lessons in integrity, justice and courage; and you shall be chosen to lead the world) Islamic organizations throughout the length and breadth of the Muslim world must unifocally devote themselves towards this end.

Events in Egypt also expose the juvenile euphoria over the Arab Spring and the ‘revolution’ in Egypt. The thrilling, glamorous buzzword has been opportunistically taken up by the interim regime to describe the popular movement that called for the ouster of the Morsi regime by the army under the approving eyes of foreign actors pulling the strings. Students of history are aware that revolutions, while exciting, electrifying and spectacular are also bloodstained and often in vain, seldom yielding enduring change. The French revolution was trailed by the Reign of Terror, and the Russian revolution dwindled into the dictatorship of Stalin. Lasting change follows a bottom-up trend, rising from the grassroots. It is engendered through gradual and consistent evolutionary process. Gradualism is an important insight employed by the Quranic method of social reform. Groups believing in and calling for revolutionary change to install Islamist regimes which will- needless to say- involve clash, blood and gore, are terribly misguided. Such a revolutionary change will rest upon feet of clay. Those looking all starry- eyed for revolutionary Islamist upheaval must drop off the ‘r’ to rediscover the more enduring and profound scope of gradual, evolutionary, phased reform.

A fundamental, vital lesson less noticed and talked about is that the polarization of Muslim societies into the religious and the secular is an open-mouthed Hydra waiting in the wings ominously. This is likely to create wide and irreparable rifts that will threaten social stability and solidarity and flare up in times of crisis into clash and confrontation. Few in the Muslim world, however, have deciphered this writing on the wall. Egypt’s political showdown stems from its deeper ideological crisis gnawing into the roots of its body-politic. Conflicting aspirations of the secular and the religious, exacerbated by the Salafi extreme with its rigidly conservative agenda and its rejection of Brotherhood rule lending strength to the secularist-dominated opposition made the country virtually ungovernable and the weak leadership caved in. This ideological rift running threateningly like a tectonic faultline through society posed a formidable challenge to democracy, making the achievement of a consensus over just about everything, impossible to reach.

Muslim scholars and leaders are not cognizant of the danger this poses, and in a desperate, sincere but ill advised attempt to ‘defend’ Islam from the assault of the powerful secular-liberal lobby, become more insular and exclusivist. This leads to ghettoization and reinforces, aggravates and intensifies the polarization. It results in two embattled ideologically opposed camps with strong in-group solidarity and out-group hostility. This is the much-speculated ‘war within Islam’ we have often heard mentioned by neoconservatists. Islamists must realize that given the resourcefulness of their opposition and the backing and support from powerful Western allies, such a clash will be hard, long-drawn and ugly. They must learn that by being on the defensive and ghettoizing, they bring the clash closer, lend strength to the polarization and at the end of the day the Leviathan monster unleashed is going to swallow us all up, indiscriminately.

The right lesson for Islamic leaders is to recognize this danger and actively work to prevent such an eventuality through education and dissemination of ideas that do not deepen the rifts but reach out by speaking in a universal, inclusivist voice that is essentially the ethos of Islam. They must work to engender a consciousness that is rooted in faith and guided by common values, ready to take the plunge into the abyss that stares us in the face; ready to take up the grand project for social reform by infiltrating into the rank and file of a stratified, broken society- and not under narrow parochial labels and confining banners of ‘Islamic’ or otherwise. And this is not to be misunderstood as lack of fidelity to the faith. This will bring the additional advantage of the struggle for Islam becoming more discreet and elusive in the wake of rising hostility and even active opposition to and persecution of identifiable Islamists- in the process taking the struggle out of ghettos into the wider society, waging it at all levels.

Organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood would be well advised to hold off the political struggle and prioritize the bigger social project which requires an all-embracing, universalistic approach that is less exclusivist and less essentialist. This will bear upon education and the media, creating leadership for the wider community, the academy, the media, courts of law and the civil-military bureaucracy. The political struggle- not needing to be called by a label, can then be erected on surer footing, a more secure and deep-rooted social foundation grounded in an ideological framework that is inclusive and all-embracing, visionary and pragmatic, faithful to its religio-cultural roots and yet confidently forward-looking and willing to engage.

And at the end of the day it all boils down to what lessons we choose to learn from Egypt.

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: meem.seen@gmail.com. Read other articles by Maryam.