Will the Egyptian Military Scrap the Sharia Constitution?

by Andrew C. McCarthy

If you read Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, you’re not surprised by anything that’s happening in Egypt. At the moment, the situation is fluid, so take reports with due caution. That said, “sources” inside the Egyptian military tell Reuters that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has drafted a “political roadmap” which it would impose on the country if the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi does not come to some power sharing arrangement with opposition leaders by Wednesday.

According to the report, published in the Egypt Independent

The sources told Reuters the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was still discussing details and the plan, intended to resolve a political crisis that has brought millions of protesters into the streets, could be changed based on political developments and consultations.

You can bet on that. The generals are saber-rattling in the hope of pressuring Morsi to make concessions that will resolve the crisis. They do not want to intervene, which they well know would just exchange today’s tensions for worse ones tomorrow. I happen to think a military coup that ousts the Brothers and installs a slow, gradual democratization process in which minority rights are protected would be the best thing for Egypt. But I am not holding my breath, and I have no illusions that the Obama administration, which has done so much to encourage the Brotherhood’s authoritarianism, has the inclination or competence to pull it off.

Much of the commentary we’re seeing conflates two importantly different things: opposition to the Brotherhood and opposition to Islamic rule. The prospect of being governed by sharia has always been more attractive to Egyptians than the prospect of a sharia state administered by the Brotherhood, whose well-deserved reputation for dishonesty makes it unpopular with both secularists and the groups referred to as “Salafists” — Islamic supremacist organizations, other than the Brotherhood, that are even more zealous for rapid Islamization than the Brothers. 

The commentary seems to assume that everyone on the streets is a pro-democratic secularist. Not true. What unifies the protesters — who include former regime elements, hard Leftists, and persecuted religious minorities, in addition to pro-Western democrats and transnational progressives — is that they detest Morsi and the Brothers. It is not “democracy.” Many of the protesters would prefer to have a military government (when Morsi was elected president, the candidate he edged out in the run-off was a Mubarak relic, not a democrat). Many say they want “democracy” but are not in harmony about what that actually means.

Most significantly, what the commentary conveniently omits mentioning: This is a population which, in just the last 18 months, has voted by overwhelming margins in three different elections (a) to approve constitutional amendments that greenlighted an election that was certain to usher Islamic supremacists into power, (b) to give Islamic supremacists (not just the Brotherhood but many Salafists) a lopsided parliamentary majority, and (c) to approve a sharia constitution. 

The last of these, which occurred just six months ago, most reminds me of the situation we are currently in: The Western media lavished attention on the anti-sharia secularists who most loudly protested and demonstrated against the new constitution, making it appear that they were the dynamic juggernaut of Egyptian politics; then the election took place and the secularists got thrashed. As is always the case in the “Arab Spring,” the Western media never said, “Gee, we were wrong (again) about the nature of the Muslim Middle East” — they instead pretended a landslide win for sharia was a squeaker and commenced the vigil for the next spontaneous outbreak of democracy.

Do we really think a population that just overwhelmingly approved a sharia constitution is just going to roll over if the armed forces void that constitution by fiat? I don’t. This is an extremely divided country, and appeasing one set of protesters would surely ignite Islamic supremacist protests that could be bigger and more deadly. Remember, the sharia constitution was strongly supported in the mosques and by the hugely influential scholars of al-Azhar — not to mention by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the renowned sharia jurist who was welcomed home as a conquering hero after Mubarak fell. These are the very forces which, repeatedly, have ordered up global rioting over the most trivial of slights (e.g., Danish cartoons). What do you suppose they are going to do if, under what the Brotherhood and other sharia supremacists portray will portray as American pressure, the Egyptian generals torpedo a sharia constitution adopted by Egyptians in a popular election? 

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the military in Egypt is a wild card. It has a good working relationship with its U.S. counterparts in the upper ranks — which is what billions of dollars in American aid will buy you. But as an institution in which almost all able-bodied men serve, it is a reflection of Egyptian society, which is largely Islamist. There is no guarantee that it will have a steady, unified response to the chaos that is unfolding. The other wild card is the Salafists. They have worked with the Brotherhood when it has suited them (e.g., in the constituitonal referendum) but, as noted above, they are not fans of Morsi and the Brothers. That is one of the reasons Morsi’s margin of victory in the presidential election was not nearly as wide as other Islamist electoral triumphs — the presidential election was seen more as a referendum on Morsi and the Brothers than on Islamic supremacism.

Spring fever will burn very hot in July.

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