In his Op-Ed, Dinmukhamed Rakysh argues that the narrative of Islamic politics is deeply ingrained in Egyptian history and will be a source of tension until its narrative can be rewritten to accommodate liberal values. But it already missed its historical opportunity in Egypt.
A few months ago, the decision was made to award the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights to Mohamed Zaree. Zaree is an Egyptian citizen who works at the renowned Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. However, there was one problem with the award ceremony earlier this week. He has been barred from leaving the country on account of investigations for ‘using funds to destabilize Egyptian interests.’
More broadly, a leaked report by the Trump Administration supplied to Congress on September 20th highlighted the extent of the poor governance exercised in the country. Most damningly, the report concludes, “there is a continuing problem with arbitrary arrests, detentions, and disappearances. There are reports of extrajudicial killings, and there are numerous allegations of torture and deaths in detention.” Just half a decade ago, there was significant hope all over the world that the winds of change were finally blowing through the MENA region. The violence seen in Tahir Square was hoped to be the first step in the transition towards democracy. Yet the democratic revolution was short lived. With these recent reports, one is forced to rehash a question asked by Western political and social commentators time and time again in past years:
‘Can Political Islam reconcile its values with the values of liberal democracy?’
It is important to make one clear analytical distinction that is often ignored. Political Islam does not refer to the religion of Islam itself. This is not necessarily a question of whether Muslim values are compatible with Western conceptions of democracy. Instead, it is an analysis of the way in which political movements have co-opted Islam in such a way as having some claim to be the representative of Muslim teachings. For me, it is difficult to see the way in which Political Islam can be squared with many conceptions of democracy.
One must first think about the history of the two. Though it would be arrogant to claim that democracy is exclusively a Western concept, one cannot be blind to the history of the idea. The seeds of popular representation were sown in the Forums of the Athenian City State. The Icelandic Althing was the first Parliament in the world, and the United Kingdom and New Zealand (depending on how you define democracy) are the two countries with the best claims of being the first. Democracy has undeniably been couched in the Western context.
The Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed Morsi exhibited clear influences of this rejection of the ‘Western Hegemon.’
One has to understand the critical intellectual influences which shaped the character of Political Islam. One such individual was Sayyid Qutb. An individual who enjoyed the opportunities associated with a Western education, Qutb would later go on become a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and executed for plotting the assassination of President Nasser (videos of him criticising the legal imposition of the Hijab went viral earlier this year). In Milestones, his seminal work on the nature of Political Islam, he calls for a complete overhaul of the way in which political systems operate in the Arab World. He was a reactionary, in the sense that he regarded any development of Western-style institutions to be a corruption of the Qu’ranic will. The Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed Morsi exhibited clear influences of this rejection of the ‘Western Hegemon.’
This is not to say that all Islamist theorists were so anti-Western in sentiment. At the turn of the 20th Century, one of the leading Islamic thinkers was another Egyptian, going by the name of Muhammad Abduh. He was a liberal reformer, who was often credited with reviving Islamic Modernism. There are some things which are forgotten about a number of the great Egyptian intellectuals. One interesting fact was that a number of them, including Adbuh, engaged in Freemasonry. If one examines the values of the Freemasons, you find that there is a commitment to the values of religious tolerance and pluralism. He was dedicated to delivering a strong education in the sciences and advocated a strongly rational approach to faith grounded in contextualizing practices.
I believe that there would have been a very strong opportunity for Political Islam to have taken a path such as this one. However, one development took place in 1869 which would change the course of Egyptian politics forever. This was the completion of the Suez Canal, which had been under construction for the ten years prior to that. This event meant that Egypt would come to be one of the most strategic centers of thoroughfare and trade in the world. However, This did not feel like a victory for a number of Egyptians. The Suez Canal Company was a British-French joint venture, and so the Egyptian government did not get to enjoy a fraction of the wealth which was to come from Canal trade. The Convention of Constantinople also stripped Egypt of the ability to control who could pass through the Canal, with the exception of ‘the defense of Egypt and the maintenance of public order.’ Even here, this was a clause that was in the British remit before 1939.
The Suez Crisis is arguably the event where the nature of Political Islam crystallized and has informed all future thinking by its practitioners. In 1956, in response to British and American withdrawal from the Aswan Dam project, President Nasser decided to nationalize the Canal to use the revenue to pay for the Dam. Britain, France, and Israel agreed to partake in military action to stem the significant loss of influence that such a move would constitute. However, the parties were forced to back down as a result of pressure from the UN and an unwillingness for the US to back Britain’s involvement in what was seen as an imperialistic matter. A UN Emergency Force was used to maintain the Convention of Constantinople, but Egypt had all but managed to secure its goals.
The Suez Crisis entrenched a culture of anti-Western and anti-Israeli thought which has broadly remained intact until the present day. It also means that the values of President Nasser were seen as the archetype for Muslim leaders to come. This meant a combination of pan-Arabism, socialist economic policy and the rejection of the West on the basis that it is an enemy of the Arab people. Saddam Hussein, the Al-Assad’s and Hosni Mubarak (admittedly to different extents) all adopted this post-colonial narrative as a means of justifying their authoritarian rule. Democracy’s perception as a Western idea addressed earlier in this article, explains why it is resisted in the Arab World.
Democracy centers around debate, and the Arab culture is far more deferent to authority figures than is the case in other parts of the world.
Egypt has struggled, also, to foster a culture and a set of conditions whereby democratic ideas can develop. One of the factors which contribute towards the Democracy Index is known as Political Culture. With the restriction of debates to social media, 25% of the population being classified as illiterate (and more concerning, about a third of women) and a general propensity towards compliance with the status quo, it is difficult for people to have the level of debates that come with a healthy and functioning deliberative democracy. These restrictions also reduce the potential for awareness of the viability of alternatives. Democracy centers around debate, and the Arab culture is far more deferent to authority figures than is the case in other parts of the world.
Had Political Islam not been married with the post-colonist rejection of imperial powers, I believe that there would have been good potential for the compatibility of Political Islam and Liberal Democracy. Moderate theorists, in the past, focused on the importance of pluralism and deliberation. Indeed, even the Prophet Muhamed was implored to consult those he was making decisions on behalf of. However, the strength of anti-Western feeling, combined with historical factors and a lack of rationalist thinking makes it very difficult to see Political Islam and Liberal Democracy co-existing in the Egyptian context.