Magazine | October 15, 2012, Issue

Sharia on the Nile

The Muslim Brotherhood rejects liberal democracy

Just before the “Arab Spring” dominos started falling in Tunis, Mohammed Badi, “supreme guide” of the global Muslim Brotherhood, called for violent jihad against the United States.

Yes, yes, we know — on Planet Obama, the Brothers are oxymoronic “moderate Islamists”: members of a “largely secular” organization that seeks “change” through “dialogue” and the “political process,” not violence . . . and never you mind its Palestinian branch, Hamas, or its chief jurist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose notable fatwas have green-lighted suicide bombing in Israel and terror strikes against American troops in Iraq.

Back on Earth, in October 2010, Badi admonished Muslims to remember “Allah’s commandment to wage jihad for His sake with [their] money and lives, so that Allah’s word will reign supreme and the infidels’ word will be inferior.” Applying this injunction, Badi exclaimed that jihad, or “resistance,” “is the only solution against the Zio-American arrogance and tyranny.” On went the invective: Wounded by jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States, Badi gleefully surmised, “is now experiencing the beginning of its end, and is heading towards its demise.”

These are the fulminations of a committed enemy. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not have said it better. It is not Ahmadinejad and the Shiite mullahs but Badi who represents the avant-garde of Islamic supremacism, the dominant form of Islam in the overwhelmingly Sunni Middle East. This Islam, as I related in these pages earlier this year (“‘Islam Is Islam, and That’s It,’” January 23), is what Samuel Huntington aptly described as “a different civilization [from the West] whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture.” The “Arab Spring” is, in reality, the Islamist ascendancy; the Middle East is not seized by a fervor for freedom, but is ripe for descent into sharia totalitarianism.

As the Tahrir Square uprisings led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the Obama administration was determined to cultivate the Brotherhood in Egypt. That, after all, is exactly what the president has done in the United States, where his administration’s high-priority “Islamic outreach” empowers Brotherhood affiliates. It makes no difference that the Justice Department, in a 2008 terrorism-financing prosecution, proved that the Brothers are on a self-proclaimed “grand jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within.”

In Cairo, the president’s point man, William Taylor, bragged about “training” the “Islamist parties” in the how-to of popular elections. As the months wore on, with Islamists stepping up their brutalization of Egypt’s 8 million Coptic Christians, Taylor would take pains to stress that the Obama administration would be “satisfied” with a Muslim Brotherhood victory as long as elections were free and fair.

By the early spring of 2011, with Mubarak out of the way and the remnants of his regime on the ropes, the Brotherhood’s most charismatic leader took center stage. Khairat el-Shater, the “deputy general guide,” is revered nationally as the “Iron Man.” He refused to buckle during two decades of serial detentions by Mubarak’s regime. In the tradition of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, and his heirs, Sayyid Qutb and Qaradawi, Shater brings the movement intellectual heft. After Mubarak fell, it was to him that the Brothers turned to craft their strategy for shaping Egypt’s future. This enterprise is called the “Nahda Project”; “nahda” is Arabic for “awakening” or “renaissance.”

In April 2011, Shater delivered a lengthy lecture, “Features of Nahda: Gains of the Revolution and the Horizons for Developing.” Like Badi, he delivered his words in Arabic to like-minded Islamists — he was not speaking in English for Western consumption, as the Brothers do when they wish to appear as irenic pragmatists. Shater emphasized that the organization’s fundamental principles and goals never change, only the tactics by which they are pursued. “You all know that our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s religion on earth, to organize our life and the lives of the people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the ummah [the notional worldwide community of 1.5 billion Muslims] and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to subjugate people to God on earth.” He went on to reaffirm Banna’s time-honored plan for ground-up Islamist revolution, stressing the need for both personal piety and organizational discipline in pursuing the goal of Islamic hegemony: a worldwide caliphate ruled according to sharia.

#page#Shater’s lecture dovetailed with a 93-page platform released by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party under the guidance of its leader, and now Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, a longtime Shater confidant. The platform proposed to put every aspect of human life under sharia-compliant state regulation. The document was brazenly anti-Western and anti-Israeli, describing “the Zionist entity” as “an aggressive, expansionist, racist, and settler entity.” It called for structuring civil society on the foundation of “Arab and Islamic unity”; made the “strengthen[ing] of Arab and Islamic identity” the “goal of education”; and urged that treaties (think: Camp David Accord) be subject to approval by the population.

In March 2011, that same population had given Islamists a landslide victory in a referendum on constitutional amendments, ensuring an election schedule that would put the Brotherhood in firm command of parliament. Secular democrats, lacking the Brotherhood’s organization and clout, had argued that a new constitution should be written from scratch, a process that would postpone elections for the legislature and presidency indefinitely. They hoped this would give them time to amass support. In the referendum, during which the Brotherhood asserted that a vote in favor of delay was a vote “against Islam,” the secular democrats were wiped out by a margin of 78 to 22 percent.

In late December 2011, with parliamentary-election returns already showing that Islamic supremacists would win a smashing victory, a jubilant Badi told the Egyptian press that the Brotherhood was close to achieving the “ultimate goal” set by Banna in 1928: the establishment of a “just and reasonable regime,” which would be the stepping stone to “the establishment of a just Islamic caliphate.” The new “ruling regime,” he asserted, would strive to achieve one of Banna’s key aims, “the establishment of a long-term plan for the reform of all aspects of people’s lives.” It would also exercise control over all the society’s “institutions and elements.”

‘Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination.” So said longtime Brotherhood collaborator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. By comparison with that country, Egypt’s “Islamic democracy” is on the fast track to Sharia Station. Erdogan needed nearly a decade to gain control of Turkish society’s institutions and elements. Incrementally, ingeniously, he leveraged the holy grail of EU integration and America’s post-9/11 desperation for a “moderate Islamist” ally to hollow out Ataturk’s Westernized state — to defang the military guardians of the Kemalist order. Egypt, on the other hand, never had one foot in Europe, and never had a rigorous 80-year secularization experiment. In this environment, the Brotherhood has accomplished in weeks what took Erdogan years.

When the outcome of Egypt’s parliamentary election was officially announced in January, Islamic supremacists had their landslide victory — tracking almost exactly their lopsided win in the referendum on constitutional amendments. Soon to be in firm control of the new government, the Brotherhood exploited its growing strength to take aggressive new positions, making clear that its prior, ostensibly “moderate” stances had been insincere.

The Brothers seized control of the “constituent assembly,” the body charged with writing a new constitution. Earlier, they had promised non-Islamists that this would be an inclusive “national consensus” process; now, it would become a sprint to sharia. They also went back on their commitment to refrain from proposing a presidential candidate. Shater, the “Iron Man,” was advanced as the Brotherhood’s nominee. His popularity would surely mute grumbling about the Brothers’ duplicity, and his likely victory would give them total control of the civilian government — a position of great strength from which to begin dismantling Mubarak’s armed forces, which, unlike Turkey’s, are as rife with Islamists as the society at large.

#page#Observing these developments, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) became increasingly alarmed. It had been working with the Brothers, seeing them as inevitable but maybe controllable: “pragmatic” extremists with whom it might be possible to cut a deal that preserved the military’s most important privileges, funding, and business interests. The generals knew from both long experience and recent history, however, that the Brothers were not trustworthy and that their long-term goal — and perhaps even their short-term goal — was complete control of the government, very much including the military. Now the Islamists’ success was making them more power-hungry. Egypt’s generals well knew the Turkish template. It was time to put up some roadblocks.

The SCAF-appointed cat’s paw, the Supreme Presidential Election Commission, disqualified Shater from seeking office on the laughable grounds that he had laundered money for a “banned group” to which he illegally belonged. The claim was not false. But Shater had been given a pardon for the money laundering after Mubarak was ousted, and the “banned group” in question, the Muslim Brotherhood, was now not only unbanned, it had been elected to run the parliament.

Despite Brotherhood huffing and puffing, the decision was final: Shater was out. Well aware of the old regime’s disdain for Shater, though, the Brothers had a Plan B. They had proposed an alternative “just in case” candidate: Mohamed Morsi. A 60-year-old engineer and academic, Morsi lacks the magnetism of his patron, Shater, but he is a force to be reckoned with. He is also a testament to the American infrastructure that the Brotherhood has steadily built for the last half century.

Morsi pursued his doctorate at the University of Southern California in the early Eighties. His wife, Nagla Ali Mahmoud, joined him in the United States. In fact, two of the five Morsi children were born here and are American citizens. It was in the Golden State that Morsi joined the Brotherhood, through the Muslim Students Association. The MSA is the gateway through which many young Muslims — including such jihadist notables as Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda leader killed in Yemen last year — begin the lengthy process of study and service that leads to membership in the Brotherhood. As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros has observed, this indoctrination is “designed to ensure with absolute certainty that there is conformity to the movement’s ideology and a clear adherence to its leadership’s authority.”

The rise of Morsi as Shater’s protégé was due in no small part to Morsi’s firm belief in the Brotherhood’s traditions of discipline and obedience to hierarchical superiors. He was twice jailed, for brief intervals, during Mubarak’s reign. During the Tahrir Square uprisings, he squared off with a rebellious group of young Brothers in a confrontation that shines light on the straws grasped by Western progressives, who insist the Brotherhood is evolving. Morsi adheres fiercely to classical sharia. His dispute with the renegades involved his support for hardline Brotherhood positions favoring the disqualification of women and non-Muslims from seeking the presidency and the vetting of proposed laws by religious scholars. For crossing Morsi, the dissenting Brothers were expelled.

Notably, Morsi’s wife is a longtime and influential member of the Muslim Sisterhood, the movement’s distaff division. Interestingly, serving with her in the Sisterhood’s “Guidance Bureau” is Saleha Abedin — the mother of Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and close adviser. Small world, no? It would be Secretary Clinton who pronounced it “imperative” that the Egyptian military turn over power to the country’s newly elected Islamist leaders.

#page#During the Egyptian presidential campaign, before the SCAF excluded Shater from contention, Morsi was a constant presence at his side, introduced to crowds as an “architect” of Shater’s Nahda program — Egypt’s future Islamic Renaissance. Now, with Shater forced to the background, Morsi moved to center stage.

The pundits gave Morsi little chance. The election, after all, was scheduled for late May, just a few weeks after Shater’s controversial disqualification. It was awfully late in the game for a heretofore little-noticed candidate to gain traction. In fact, when a much-anticipated debate was televised in mid-May, Morsi was not even among the participants.

Yet public anger over the military’s interference in the election worked greatly to Morsi’s benefit. So did the Brotherhood’s incomparable network throughout Egypt. If the SCAF thought it had successfully dodged a bullet by sidelining Shater, it badly underestimated both Morsi and his organization. Speaking a few days before the presidential election, Morsi thrilled a throng of supporters and a television audience by hammering home the Brotherhood’s longtime ambitions:

Morsi: [In the 1920s, when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptians] said: “The constitution is our Koran.” They wanted to show that the constitution is a great thing. But Imam al-Banna, Allah’s mercy upon him, said to them: “No, the Koran is our constitution.”

The Koran was and will continue to be our constitution. The Koran will continue to be our constitution. The Koran is our constitution.

Crowd: The Koran is our constitution.

Morsi: The Prophet Mohammed is our leader.

Crowd: The Prophet Mohammed is our leader.

Morsi: Jihad is our path.

Crowd: Jihad is our path.

Morsi: And death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.

Crowd: And death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.

Morsi: Above all — Allah is our goal.

Morsi continued with a vow that, under his guidance, the new Egyptian constitution would reflect true sharia:

The sharia, then the sharia, and finally the sharia. This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia. I take an oath before Allah and before you all that regardless of the actual text [of the constitution] . . . Allah willing, the text will truly reflect [the sharia], as will be agreed upon by the Egyptian people, by the Islamic scholars, and by legal and constitutional experts. . . . Rejoice and rest assured that this people will not accept a text that does not reflect the true meaning of the Islamic sharia as a text to be implemented and as a platform. The people will not agree to anything else.

When the votes were tallied in the presidential election’s first phase, he received a plurality, 25 percent. This meant he would face the second-place finisher in a final showdown in June. And that runner-up? He was Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former prime minister. Shafiq was no secular democrat; in this region, secular democrats barely register. But the millions of Egyptians dreading a totalitarian sharia state realized that their only real alternative was a vestige of the dictatorial regime that had, through tumultuous decades, kept the Islamic supremacists at bay.

With the contagion of “spring fever,” Egypt is now an “Islamic democracy.” In such a scheme, you don’t get real democracy — a rich culture of liberty — but you do get Islamists. In June, Morsi defeated Shafiq and became president of Egypt. By August, Morsi had shrewdly purged the SCAF’s Mubarak remnants, with the support of the Obama administration, and the military was humiliated by a jihadist attack that left 16 of its soldiers dead on the Sinai border with Israel — a border most Egyptians would rather see their troops attacking than securing.

As the Brotherhood’s train pulls into its destination, the Arab Spring augurs freedom’s cold, dark winter.

– Mr. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. This essay is adapted from his book Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which was recently published by Encounter.

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