The Brotherhood as Seen from Cairo and Jeddah
By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Saturday, August 24th, 2013 @ 3:53AM
By Azmi Ashour*, Al Aharam
The rapid fall in Egypt of Islamists from grace and power has ended the threat of religious authoritarianism in the country, but not respect for faiths.
In mediaeval Europe, the clash between the Church and the Enlightenment was one between the religious establishment and the new ideas and perceptions espoused by philosophers and theologians. The conflict only assumed a broader societal form with the elimination of the Church from the political realm and the gradual assimilation by society of Enlightenment thought. This evolution prepared the ground for the major revolutions of the 18th century that ushered in new systems of government. I speak here of the French and American revolutions, among the chief achievements of which was that they instituted political reforms that gave prevalence to such values as freedom and liberty and enshrined these principles – and guarantees for these principles – in their constitutions.
Comparing this to Arab societies, and the Egyptian case in particular, over the past two centuries, we find that reform came from the top. This applied from the era of Mohamed Ali in the first half of the 19th century through the Nasserist era in the 20th century, with some exceptions in the liberal era in which the soil was prepared for reform by an elite that had the positive effect on society of fostering the growth of an educated class that espoused modernist and democratic ideas.
In tandem with the political and social reform movement, the phenomenon of political Islam arose with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. Although his ideas conflicted with contemporary thought, he succeeded in building a social base using the religious factor, which easily served to recruit new classes into his ranks and to keep them in line. The Muslim Brotherhood, thus, applied a top-down attitude towards society that was essentially an extension of its internal line-of-command structure in which inviolable and unquestionable instructions radiate downward through the echelons of a rigid hierarchy, as in any authoritarian order. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why this organisation would never be able to generate an ideological system along the lines of that bequeathed by the Enlightenment, even though the ideas and values of the Enlightenment – such as freedom, justice, equality and tolerance – emanate from the very essence of Islam. It is also one of the factors that would lead this organisation to up the stakes in its contest with political authorities over a single aim, which was to come to power and gain hegemony over society at large. It is therefore not surprising that during its more than 80-year history the Muslim Brotherhood would lock horns in a fierce battle with a succession of heads-of-state, even as it continued to extend its presence among society drawing on a shared hatred for the regime and the Egyptians’ general vulnerability to religious exploitation.
However, after the 25 January Revolution toppled the conventional ruling authority by means of a peaceful uprising, the Islamists succeeded in attaining the power that had remained inaccessible to them due to the former regime’s monopoly over it. Yet, in view of their ideological and organisational makeup, it was not odd that, even though they came to power through a fair democratic poll, they would turn out to be more authoritarian than the rulers that preceded them. This reality precipitated major transformation in the Egyptian revolution, effectively abbreviating the centuries it took in the Western experience to shift the conflict with religious authority – as represented by Muslim Brotherhood rule – from the intelligentsia to society at large. The Egyptian public did not elect the Muslim Brotherhood to reproduce an authoritarian regime, but rather to realise the aims and aspirations of a revolution that had broken many taboos.
This dramatic transformation began to play out on the ground following the constitutional declaration of November 2012. That dictatorial declaration alerted the people to the immanent danger of the rebirth of a tyrannical order in a religious cloak and they arose in massive numbers to protest Muslim Brotherhood autocracy. Over the following six months, tensions gradually heightened in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relentless intransigence until, finally, on 30 June, one year into the Mohamed Morsi presidency, unprecedented millions took to the streets and squares of Egypt to demand the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Indeed, a tangible sign of the extent to which modern democratic thought had spread among society was to be found in the petition drive that paved the way to that historic day and that had gathered more than 22 million signatures on a document declaring dissatisfaction with the current government and its Muslim Brotherhood masters. The 30 June movement culminated with the army intervention that brought president Morsi’s dismissal.
This transformation in the conflict on the ground is remarkable, if relatively late, for a traditional Arab society in which political and religious authoritarianism prevailed for more than 1,500 years. That society at large has taken up the struggle against the advocates of the ideas of radical Islamism without abandoning the strength of its religious faith as practiced in a modern way, reflecting contemporary ideas and values, will remain the most significant development in the Egyptian revolution.
In the past, Egypt saw the fall of a political order when Mameluk rule passed to Mohamed Ali. It experienced another transformation, from within the Mohamed Ali dynasty itself, following the 1919 Revolution that created a constitutional monarchy that presided over a rich period of liberal rule.
Then came the order established by the Free Officers movement following the June 1952 Revolution. What is new today is that society itself is waging a revolution against traditional ideas and values which may be a basic reason for the gulf between us and other societies that created a renaissance for their peoples, a renaissance that did not eliminate the faiths of their peoples and, in fact, increased respect for these faiths.
*The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.
By Ali Bluwi, Arab News
The Hamas, the Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad and the Syrian intelligence have tried to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs and trigger internal chaos ever since the January 25, 2011 revolution. Each group, however, had its own agenda. The Syrian regime wanted to keep Egypt on its toes because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on the crisis in Damascus. Iran supported the Brotherhood to weaken the Arab Gulf countries and deepen the internal division with a view to prolonging the crisis. Tehran had always been wary of Turkey striking a deal with Egypt.
While Iran is aware that reinstating the Brotherhood may lay the groundwork for a political understanding among Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey – which may be against Tehran’s long-term interests – it still supports the Brotherhood because of the latter’s ability to inconvenience various governments in the region. In fact, Iran considers the Brotherhood as a price it has to pay to secure a bargaining chip that could be used successfully during negotiations with the United States. Nobody is in doubt that Iran is exploiting the turmoil in Egypt to replenish Shiite recruitments.
On the other hand, Russia is worried about the threat to its national security in the event of political Islam gaining an upper hand. Moscow realizes the difference between the political Islam of the Iranian variety and the Sunni brand. Russia considers the former to be a force that is anti-US while it is yet to come to terms with the Sunni political Islam, which is credited with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Russia supported Egyptian Army to weaken political Islam and to show Washington that Moscow had a presence in a strategically important location.
Moscow opened a channel of communication with the Egyptian Army by promising help. A petrified John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and convey Washington’s concern about any possible rapprochement between Egypt and Russia. Consequently, Moscow dropped its plan to provide Egypt $7-billion aid and sell around 50 planes. President Vladimir Putin had to put his Egypt visit on hold.
The US today is in a difficult position. Following Washington’s threat to cut military aid to Egypt following Muhammad Mursi’s ouster, Russia and China volunteered to help Cairo. Once, the army was certain that funds would flow it defied the US, which was forced to change its strategy.
The Brotherhood mistook the initial hesitance by the US – calling back its ambassadors – and the feverish Turkish efforts at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as attempts to lend the former some recognition. The Brotherhood believed that the army and the civil forces would back down because of the position taken by different countries. But the army remained unfazed and swung into action to quell the sit-ins. The sudden turn of events also convinced the US that the Brotherhood had some extremist streaks as testified later by the subsequent violence.
The arbitrary judgments passed against people who disagreed with the Brotherhood’s worldview, including Christians, also showed the ruling party in poor light.
The present military dispensation in Egypt deserves support not for its policies but to restore security and stability in the county. Any external interference in Egypt’s affairs and attempts to divide the world on the issue, are highly condemnable. The Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, believe that they had to back Egypt to prevent the country from descending into anarchy – which is an ominous possibility considering the undeclared European-American competition over Egypt.
Given America’s ambiguous stand on Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s political and financial support to the military leaders of Egypt has come at a critical time. In fact, the message Riyadh is sending goes beyond Egypt – support to chaos and terrorism would result in grave consequences. Just because the Brotherhood failed or its exclusivist policies stuttered, one cannot back off from supporting Egypt, which is bigger than a party. Following a path which allows one to practice democracy without marginalizing or excluding any societal and political force should be the road map before the country.
The Brotherhood, in fact, dreads the future. It has now realized that winning elections cannot be construed as a license to establish an extremist Islamic state. It also realizes that the civil trend on the Arab street is a force to reckon with and would resist attempts to take the society backward. The Brotherhood, by now, should have known that their failure has more to do with people’s rejection of its worldview rather than its political shortcomings. It should desist from projecting itself as a victim of the situation. It will do well if it does some introspection. It should also accept Egyptian opinion that it is seen as a backward organization having links with outside elements since 1928. The future road map should reflect the values of the constitution. The constitution alone can deter people from deviating from the established law and this is what scares “Islamists.” They wanted a loose constitution that would allow them to cling on to power and establish a Taleban-like regime.