from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Democrats? A Response

January 23, 2013

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My friend who goes by the twitter handle @CynicalIslamist responded to my post about the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic credentials.  It’s a thoughtful and articulate response.  Enjoy!

You say the hope for a democratic transition has dissipated. Time for a reality check: We’ve come pretty damn far in the past two years, with an admittedly low bar.

After sixty years of authoritarian rule, in two years we freely elected a bicameral legislature, a president, and held a referendum on the first constitution actually drafted by a panel chosen by the elected representatives of the people, a first in our history. With the president’s August 2012 decrees, the military appears to have taken a back seat to an elected, civilian president, a process we all assumed would take years (yes, it will take many more years to completely break up their complex web of interests, but elected legislatures are the first step in limiting their influence). We have already had elections in which the outcome was not pre-determined, nor could it be altered ex post, and God willing, we will have them regularly.

Empirically, that’s progress.

But somehow all this has “dissipated,” footnotes lost in the broader narrative of repression, corruption, and persecution of political dissidents, apparently.

To address some of your specific allegations: Regarding the judiciary, irrespective of whether or not the courts are packed with Mubarak loyalists, let us not forget that activist judges had made questionable rulings (i.e., dissolving the first Constituent Assembly on the bizarre grounds that you cannot simultaneously be an elector and stand for the office being elected), were making no secret of their enmity for the elected representatives of the people (viz. Tahani El-Gebali’s repeated comments on the Islamists),  and had taken serious steps in the direction of derailing an already fraught transition (dissolving the first freely elected parliament in Egypt).

You want threats to democracy? How about a court dissolving the elected legislature, placing all power in the hands of a secretive council of unelected, brutal, and corrupt generals appointed by the previous regime?

You cite media restrictions. To the best of my knowledge, in the bulk of the cases, it is not Morsi’s team who’ve gone after these people, but individuals (as pointed out in a recent letter to the Washington Post by Morsi’s spokesman). Listening to much of the criticism in the Western media, you wouldn’t think that we’re currently witnessing what is likely the freest era in the history of Egyptian media. While secularists scream about restrictions on the media, Islamists are also running afoul of our laws, Islamic channels have been suspended, and Islamic talk show hosts penalized. Judging by our cable channels, Egypt has about a dozen Fox News networks, but pretty much no CNNs. Tune into one of the various talk shows whose anchors are reportedly paid millions of pounds because of all the ad revenue they pull in, and you’ll likely find either the anchor or a panel of guests mocking or attacking the president, his party, or just indulging in some good old-fashioned hate speech about Islamists. Accuracy is never a concern. Every conceivable kind of lie and vile misinformation has been bandied about on the airwaves, often with no consequences to the purveyors of this propaganda. The same applies to the “independent” press, independent usually meaning “opposed to the Islamists.” Pick up al-Masry al-Youm or Shorouk on any given day and check out how much of it just hatchet jobs against the president, the government, the FJP, the Brotherhood, or anyone with a beard.

Two years into our democracy, we’re still trying to find out where to draw the line on a number of contentious issues, in a manner that takes into account our history and culture. It goes without saying that with Islamists in office, there is little appetite for the line of reasoning that would suggest that the only way to go about that is to adopt Western standards (which themselves vary from country to country). Some countries prohibit Holocaust denial, others hate speech. Some EU countries prohibit disparagement of the president; others have statutes prohibiting insults against the Catholic Church. We have a constitutional text prohibiting insulting prophets. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have the right to criticize the president, I’m just asserting our right to decide where to put our own lines, rather than have other nations’ values foisted on us, with all their cultural and historical baggage. We’ll decide. It won’t be easy, and we will constantly run the risk of positioning ourselves too close to the edge of that slippery slope. But did anyone imagine this would be easy? In the meantime, it would help if people did not buy into the spurious allegations of a media apparatus and civil society inextricably linked with the political opposition, and who are incapable of speaking objectively about Islamists, so deep is their enmity towards them.

One way or another, the revolution has left us with more open politics. The amendments made to the electoral laws and the laws on the exercise of political rights in 2011 did not go as far as some people wanted, but there is no denying that they were a major step in the right direction, and helped open up politics significantly. This is evidenced by the continuing proliferation of political parties, the almost daily protests and strikes, the fact that we held—I cannot stress this enough—FREE elections for the first time in 60 years. (This is not a big deal for you?) The Brotherhood is merely better placed than most to benefit from open politics, because, by God, they paid their dues and worked for it.

While I expected it to happen, your blog post distressed me as it seemed to indicate the start of revisionist readings of events a mere few weeks after they occurred. You say: “The decree has since been modified (under significant public pressure) or overtaken, but the whole episode suggests that the Brothers have not internalized their discourse about reform and democracy.” What short memories we have! Let us not forget that Morsi’s original decree contained a deadline for those powers. In a bid to mollify the protesters, he shortened that timeline considerably (to their chagrin, as it meant the process for adopting a constitution would be accelerated). But now we speak as though he planned to declare himself dictator for life, were it not for the brave efforts of secular protesters taking to the streets.

The Brothers cannot win with that kind of logic, those self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposition will assert “The Brothers planned to do this and that!” Then when the Brothers are voted out of office without ever having done all those nasty things, the opposition will claim “It’s only because we had them scared!” Convenient. I understand, but have no sympathy for, the overwhelming need of so many to buy into the cliché that no one ever willingly relinquishes extraordinary power. Morsi did just that. Sorry to burst the hate-bubble. To turn around and pretend like he only relinquished it because he was forced to is just twisting the facts.

He took undemocratic steps to secure a constituent assembly that produced a constitution that limited his powers. Read that again, please, and ponder the implications.

You point out that democracies vary in important ways. I say that if we are very fortunate, perhaps you’ll need to add a new variant to the list, based on the Egyptian experience. It won’t, by any means, be ’Democracy’ with a capital ’D’, as in liberal democracy.  It will likely lean heavily in the direction of majoritarianism. It may well reflect the fact that the majority of electors are Muslim, and that a significant proportion thereof feel that Islam has a part to play in how our state and society are shaped and administered (though much will depend on the makeup of parliament and court rulings). And that’s ok, because it’s up to us as a nation to decide where to place the limits, and how to set up the framework. Call it what you will, but that’s empirically still a more representative and democratic order than at any time in our history.


Cynical Islamist


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