Magazine August 5, 2013, Issue

Sharia after Morsi

Opponents of Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square, July 3, 2013 (AP/Amr Nabil)
Egypt revolted against inept governance, not Islamic supremacism

Only seven months ago, by a landslide two-to-one margin in a free and fair election, Egyptians approved a new sharia constitution proposed by their president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. In assessing Egypt’s prospects now that Morsi has been driven from office, that is the fact to remember. Much as we’d like to believe otherwise, the army’s startling July 3 coup, appeasing the millions who poured into the streets for days of protests, was an indictment of Morsi’s sheer incompetence and of Egypt’s impending economic collapse. It is neither a countrywide rejection of Islamic supremacism nor the dawn of a true “Arab Spring.”

In announcing that the armed forces had deposed Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gathered by his side a congeries of national leaders. Included were not only such natural Brotherhood opponents as Mohamed ElBaradei of the secular National Salvation Front, who had made himself the face of Morsi’s opposition, and Pope Tawadros II of the beleaguered Coptic Christian church; also signing on to General Sisi’s post-Morsi “roadmap” were significant Islamist figures: Grand Mufti Ahmed el-Tayeb of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s academic center since the tenth century, and representatives of the al-Nour party, Salafists even more zealous for sharia transformation than the Brotherhood. The need to present visible support from Islamic supremacists, even if it proves to be exaggerated and fleeting, is the tribute the illusion of “democratic Egypt” must pay to the Egypt that actually exists.

The goals of the armed forces in deposing Morsi did not include ruling the country day to day. The coup was more a matter of saving the country from financial ruin and rampant social strife. In the aftermath, Sisi set about the business of assembling a technocratic government to manage affairs in what is meant to be a transition, of uncertain duration, to a new elected government based on a new constitution — one reflective not only of Egypt’s dominant Sunni population but also of its various minority sectors. The hope of secular Muslims and other minorities is for a constitution that enshrines the protection of minority rights and equal protection under the law, with participants in future elections forced to accept this framework.

It probably will not work. It may never have been able to work in Egypt. But establishing any semblance of real democracy will be much harder now. Euphoria over Morsi’s ejection has already given way to raging dissent and violence from the Islamist millions, who have had power ripped away from them after playing by what Western governments and transnational progressives certified as the rules of democracy.

Something like Sisi’s roadmap should have been followed in early 2011, when it was the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak that had been toppled after Egyptians swarmed the revolution’s epicenter, Cairo’s Tahrir Square. That did not happen because the West, very much including the Obama administration and the bipartisan Beltway clerisy, is seized by the fantasy that elections equal democracy — that there need be no preexisting liberty culture. Hillary Clinton’s State Department pressured the Egyptian military to hold elections rapidly in order to claim a hollow victory: the purported rise of a real “Islamic democracy.”

In reality, moving instantly to popular elections in Egypt inevitably meant the instant empowerment of anti-democratic Islamic supremacists. They, not the chic young secularists of media lore, are the pulse of the people. As night follows day, the Islamists crushed the secularists in the elections. So today’s attempt at a do-over does not start with a clean slate. Tens of millions of Islamists are embittered and perhaps irreconcilable.

During Mubarak’s reign, pollsters found that upwards of two-thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people wanted to be governed by sharia, Islam’s repressive, discriminatory societal framework and legal code. If Mubarak’s Egypt was pro-American and pro-Western, if it was committed to peace with Israel, these were reflections of the regime’s preferences, not the people’s. Between the predominant Islamist culture and the Muslim Brotherhood’s entrenched network, Egyptians, given the chance, were sure to vote for sharia and for the Islamists certain to implement it.

The handwriting was on the wall after the first popular referendum on amendments to the Mubarak-era constitution. Secularists and progressives wanted what the military is trying to achieve now: no elections in the near term, and a stabilizing transitional period in which all elements of society would collaborate on an inclusive constitution — and in which proponents of real democracy would have the time to develop political organizations that could credibly compete with the Brotherhood and other Islamists. The Brothers and their Western enablers countered by demanding quick elections. The Islamists won the referendum in a rout.

#page#The parliamentary elections that soon followed mirrored that result. The Brotherhood won nearly 50 percent of the seats, while al-Nour and the other Salafist parties added another 25 percent — demonstrating that, for all the street noise and media hype, the constituency for Western democracy in Egypt is paltry. This gave the Islamists a hammerlock on the constituent assembly tasked with writing the new constitution. It also prompted the Brothers to renege on their promise not to field a presidential candidate.

Morsi’s victory in the June 2012 election was not a landslide, although given that he got a slightly higher percentage of the vote than Barack Obama did in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, it is amusing to hear hopeful commentators portray his “thin” three-point win — over a Mubarak-regime relic, not a democrat — as a sign of Islamist decline. (Yes, it’s dizzying to hear both that Islamists are moderate democrats and that their occasional setbacks are boons for democracy.) Still, it is worth emphasizing that Islamic supremacism is far more popular in Egypt than is the Brotherhood. The Western media conflate the two, but they are saliently different. The Brothers have successfully marketed themselves globally as the Islamist vanguard. Yet in Egypt, while they have their legions of loyalists, they are widely regarded with contempt, not just by secularists but even by other Islamists.

Coverage of the latest upheaval missed this phenomenon. In the main, the revolt was against Morsi’s governance and the Brotherhood’s aggressive duplicity. Secularists and progressives — probably less than 20 percent of the electorate — agitate against sharia implementation, but their passions are not the country’s passions. Most Egyptians fear a failed state, which is what Egypt is well on the way to becoming: a net importer of food and fuel, with much of its starving population subsisting on two dollars a day, and the tourism industry — Egypt’s major draw — made a shambles by jihadists.

Morsi was incompetent. Worse, the ambitious Brothers are viewed as a threat by the Gulf monarchies, whose largesse is badly needed by a government with a structural deficit that now exceeds $20 billion annually. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates — major supporters of the Egyptian army and, not coincidentally, the al-Nour party — were sitting on their wallets when the Brothers ran the show. As soon as Morsi was shown the door, they injected $8 billion in aid, with promises of more to follow.

The media vastly exaggerate the importance of Morsi’s usurpation of near-dictatorial powers as a cause of his fall. He claimed legislative authority and the insulation of his “sovereign acts” from judicial review because the military and the courts — staffed with Mubarak holdovers — voided parliament after Islamists won control of it, then threatened to vacate the constituent assembly before it could finish the sharia constitution. But the Brotherhood’s overarching goal was not dictatorship by Morsi but by sharia.

Given the West’s obsession with elections, it made perfect sense for Morsi, as the only elected official left standing, to assert that only he had democratic legitimacy, and that the public, not the court, should decide whether to adopt the sharia constitution. This angered the secularists, who blasted Morsi as a dictator in an effort to prod the judges and the military to block the sharia constitution. But it did not upset the vast majority of the population. When Egyptians overwhelmingly approved the constitution last December, Morsi’s approval rating was 60 percent.

It nosedived in the following months because Egypt slipped deeper into chaos: food shortages, starvation, rising crime, and — emblematic of sharia cultures — increasing repression of religious minorities and women. Nevertheless, Egypt as a whole has not shed its Islamic-supremacist character.

Thus, the Islamist flank of General Sisi’s ad hoc support network vanished within days. The army killed scores of rioters — Islamists and their jihadist shock troops demanding Morsi’s restoration. The al-Nour party quickly bolted, though not before blocking the secularist effort to appoint Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister (he was later appointed vice president for foreign affairs). Meanwhile, for green-lighting Morsi’s ouster, Grand Mufti Tayeb was scalded by Islamist scholars. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the globally renowned sharia jurist and Brotherhood totem, announced that most of the al-Azhar faculty found the coup to be a profound affront to Islam.

Struggling to defuse the tension, the new interim president, Adly Mansour (plucked by Sisi from the High Constitutional Court), issued a “constitutional declaration” under which Egypt will be governed in the post-Morsi transition. Its opening articles reaffirm that Islam is the religion of the state and that sharia, derived from ancient Sunni canons, is the main source of legislation.

Naturally, the secularists, progressives, and religious minorities professed shock. “We did not take to the streets to give legitimacy to religious-based political parties that were about to erase Egypt’s identity,” thundered the Maspero Youth Union, one of the savvy progressive groups spotlighted by the media as Morsi fell. But these groups are actually trying to create a new Egyptian identity. The current one, Islamic supremacism, will not be easily erased.

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