Egypt is the stage for a confrontation that is going to affect the relations between Muslims everywhere, and beyond that, between Muslims and everyone else. The issue is Islamism, the ideology resting on the belief that the God-given supremacy of Muslims is the natural order of things. Currently spreading throughout Muslim countries and further taking hold of Muslims in the countries of the West, the ideology is motivating growing numbers of them to resort to terrorism. What is happening in Egypt has implications for the world order, to be compared in importance to the nuclear program in Iran.
For years, everything in Egypt has been going from bad to worse. It is a classic autocracy. Of the last three presidents of Egypt, one died in office, another was murdered, and only the upheaval of the Arab Spring prised out the third, Hosni Mubarak, after his stint of 30 years. A president who repudiated strong-arm methods or resigned voluntarily would have to be an exceptionally self-sacrificing character.
Unexpectedly, the Arab Spring provided the opportunity for Egypt’s Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, to take power. Hitherto relatively unknown, Mohamed Morsi emerged as leader, and is credited with having won the first free election ever held in Egypt. He proved to be every bit as autocratic as his predecessors in office. One of his first measures was to fire the field marshal previously at the head of the army. In place of this Mubarak loyalist, he appointed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Widely assumed to be a crypto Muslim Brother and crony of Morsi’s, Sisi in fact decided against Islamism. He started a test of strength. Morsi and about 300 Muslim Brothers are now held in detention, and some may have to face trial.
Founded in the late 1920s as a secret society by a few like-minded friends, the Muslim Brothers have been unique propagators of Islamism, consistently arguing, scheming, and even fighting for the introduction of sharia law. Acquiring the status of an unofficial opposition, they have persecuted their persecutors. Muslim Brothers tried to assassinate every one of the presidents of independent Egypt, succeeding in the case of Anwar Sadat. Between them, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Hosni Mubarak kept the Brothers in check by executing their leaders and imprisoning or detaining without trial thousands of them.
Sunnis, the Muslim Brothers imagine that the British and now the Americans, Jews and now Israelis, secular Arabs and Shiites have all been ranged against them and conspire to do them down. Although employed at Oxford University, famous for its school of logic, Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Brotherhood and now its principal apologist, believes that invisible and unnamed plotters manipulated the downfall of Morsi. He writes: “The Egyptian people have been unwitting participants in a media-military operation of the highest order.” Since the rationale of these media-military demons can only be malice, the Muslim Brotherhood practices a culture of violence and terror under the guise of self-defense. It is a measure of the country’s poor standards of education and wretched governance that the masses are willing to adopt this mindset and the measures that go with it. With a presence in some 60 countries and a membership in the millions, the Muslim Brotherhood has given them a sense of belonging.
In old days, the winner of a test of strength like this would simply have taken over the citadel and eliminated rivals actual or potential. Today, with the media after him, the winner needs the veneer of legality. The British were the first to introduce a constitution for that purpose. Inexplicably based on the Belgian model, the constitution served merely to add an extra layer of intrigue to power struggles at a high level. According to best estimates, after the British left Egypt in 1952 Nasser took three years to remove all political traces of their occupation. The constitution that he wrote was designed for his one-man rule. His model was the Soviet Union, where in 1936 Stalin had promulgated the perfect dictator’s charter that guaranteed all the rights anyone could want but did nothing to prevent him from launching the Great Terror. Morsi wasted no time preparing a constitution that would allow him to rule over an Egypt firmly and irrevocably remodeled for sharia and Islamism. (In order to set up as an autocrat answerable to himself and not to parliament, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting another example of writing the appropriate constitution. It took Bashar Assad a matter of minutes after his father’s death to have the Syrian constitution revised so that he could take power.)
People accustomed to democracy have to make an effort of imagination to avoid the Eurocentric mistake of interpreting a foreign political system and its practices exclusively from the perspective of the West. In the context of Egypt, it would be a Eurocentric conceit to treat the lexicon of “election,” “coup,” “liberal” and “secular,” “democracy,” the “Arab Spring,” “the will of the people,” and suchlike as having familiar meanings with the same validity everywhere. In tones of surprise and shock, politicians and journalists have jumped to the Eurocentric conclusion that Sisi has indeed mounted a coup of the sort that gives the Third World its deplorable reputation. President Obama foreclosed on the decades of American support for Mubarak and so is largely responsible for Egypt’s present predicament. He now says, “The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties — secular and religious, civilian and military.” In the purest Eurocentric manner, this prescription has no connection to reality, no prospect of being more than verbiage. Anne Patterson, the American ambassador in Cairo, goes even further, urging General Sisi to open dialogue with the Muslim Brothers with a view to making concessions to them.
A columnist in the London Daily Telegraph is one among others to ask what is the point of democracy if some general doesn’t care for the winner of an election and kicks him out. In the name of the “magnificent values” of Britain, according to this article, there is a moral obligation to support Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. Television programs specialize in giving time to Muslim Brothers who speak English and duly rehearse the line that Morsi alone has legitimacy to rule. One spokesman says of Egyptians that “their freedom, dignity, and right to choose have been attacked,” and another calls for “an uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal their revolution with tanks.”
It is a tragicomic marvel that an Islamist mass movement intent on autocracy, dictating and enforcing an inflexibly narrow religious and political standpoint, furiously intolerant of anyone different, and defining democracy as a Western instrument for harming Islam should now be appealing to that selfsame democracy in their own defense. Vice versa, it is no less marvelously tragicomic that as a matter of “magnificent principle” Westerners are coming to the defense of Islamists who hold them in the deepest contempt.
In reality, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s intention to transform Egypt into an Islamist experiment is a good deal more like a coup than anything Sisi has done, and Sisi is at least as close to representative democracy as the Brotherhood, and probably closer. Morsi is the agent, Sisi the patient. In autocracies, power remains an absolute. There are no means, no institutions, either to mediate power or to safeguard its transmission. Morsi’s supporters and Sisi’s supporters are out on the streets, each setting about mustering a larger demonstration than the other. Numbers carry the implication of a civil war in which the winner takes everything and the loser is left with nothing. Sisi is preparing a constitution to suit himself. Things may not work out his way. Every month another 100,000 babies increase the population. There isn’t enough land to meet the agricultural demands and there isn’t enough money to import the requisite food or to maintain subsidies. The guardian of law and order, the army is daily exchanging shots with rioters and is also taking casualties from jihadis who have taken over Sinai. If Sisi cannot hold the line, Islamism may become the most influential organizing principle of politics since Communism.
Islamists by definition are never going to throw their hands up and say how sorry they are to have been so dreadfully wrong and done such harm. The difficulty of dealing with this ideology suddenly sprung upon them has mentally and morally paralyzed those in the West responsible for policy. The world is made to stand by listening to “ancestral voices prophesying war,” as Coleridge expressed it in one of his visionary poems. Perhaps only a Muslim general can tackle the issue. Thankfulness that there is such a general might be in order.