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Egyptian Winter

by Andrew C. McCarthy

The Islamists are solidifying their control

For more than 80 years, their notorious motto has included the proclamation: “The Koran is our law.” The Muslim Brotherhood has not been kidding. And now, at long last, the Brothers have captured the prize that was the dream of their movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna: an Egyptian constitution, backed by a firmly Islamist government, that formally imposes sharia — “the Islamic order.”

The adoption of a sharia constitution was assured after just one round of a bifurcated popular referendum. Although the initial vote involved governorates, such as cosmopolitan Cairo, where the non-Islamist opposition was thought to be strongest, sharia won going away. The lopsided margin, 56.5 to 43.5 percent, was certain to widen in the second round, which would include more Islamist strongholds.

That meant it would mirror the string of Brotherhood electoral triumphs that had followed Hosni Mubarak’s fall. On March 21, 2011, a referendum was held over a handful of amendments the Brotherhood had proposed to the old constitution. It was the first free election in the world’s most populous Arab country, and Islamists won in a rout, 78 to 22 percent. This opened the door to quick elections for the parliament and the presidency, a schedule precisely tailored to the Brotherhood’s greatest strength: a nationwide, grassroots network of disciplined local leaders and dedicated followers — a get-out-the-vote powerhouse the non-Islamist opposition could not hope to match.

Islamists rolled to a victory that gave them a hammerlock three-quarters control of the legislature. Indeed, the most notable thing about this second round of free Egyptian elections was the strength of the so-called “Salafists” — factions even more rabid for rapid sharia transformation than the Brotherhood, some spun off from violent jihadist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Group, and even al-Qaeda. The Salafists won 25 percent of the parliamentary seats (on top of the Brotherhood’s 50 percent), outperforming the slivers of secular democrats, leftists, and Mubarak-regime remnants.

Emboldened, the Brotherhood did what the Brotherhood always does: It reneged on prior commitments made to camouflage itself as reasonable and moderate. To assuage the caretaker military regime and Western governments apprehensive about a complete Islamist takeover of Egypt, the Brothers had promised not to field a presidential candidate. Now, with total control in reach, they announced that their popular leader, Khairat al-Shater, would in fact run. More important, in the prior elections the Brothers had feigned appreciation of the need for post-Mubarak Egypt’s eventual constitution to be a consensus document that represented all strata of society. But now, with command of parliament firmly in hand, the Brothers stacked the “constituent assembly” — the committee tasked to draft the constitution — with Islamist ideologues who would insist on imposing the Islamic order.

Ever since Banna gave the Brotherhood its purpose and methodology, the creation of an “Islamic order” (al-nizam al-Islami) has been its top imperative. As the late Arabist Richard P. Mitchell explained in his nonpareil 1969 study, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, “it would be difficult to overstate the intensity of the Brothers’ conviction that while other civilizations could dispense with religious institutions (because of multiple roots), Muslim civilization without the shari’a as its central inspiration was meaningless” — a “contradiction in terms” that would render “a society of cultural mongrels.”

This aspiration to an “Islamic order,” in which fidelity to sharia is the defining metric, has often been misunderstood as the Brotherhood’s quest for an “Islamic state.” To the contrary, the Brothers see themselves as the vanguard of a global civilizational movement. The sharia framework is a set of all-encompassing legal principles — Allah’s law — that Banna and his progeny saw as transcending the political arrangements of nation-states. The Brotherhood would conquer non-Muslim societies — and, particularly, non-Islamist regimes that ruled Muslim societies — by dominating the culture across national lines.

Thus does the Brotherhood in the United States refer to its mission as a “civilization jihad.” It aims, as an internal 1991 memo put it, to “eliminate and destroy Western civilization from within.” The enterprise is no different in Egypt or anyplace else the Brotherhood operates. Shortly after Mubarak fell and the Brothers won the vote assuring rapid elections, the organization turned to its champion, Shater, to fashion a program for the new Egypt. In April 2011, Shater unveiled the plan: “The Islamic Renaissance Project” (the Nahda). In it, Shater emphasized that the Brotherhood’s fundamental principles and goals never change, only the tactics by which they are pursued. Above all, he asserted, “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 theummah [the notional worldwide community of Muslims] and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to subjugate people to God on earth.”

As the presidential election beckoned, the junta mistakenly believed that it was still in a position of political strength, that it could still stem the Islamist tide without a full-blown coup that would draw the wrath of the democracy-smitten West — more accurately, the election-smitten West, for there is nothing democratic, in the Western sense, about a sharia system imposed by popular vote. So the generals disqualified Shater from seeking the presidency on the bogus ground that he had laundered money on behalf of a “banned group” — i.e., the Brotherhood, which, far from being any longer banned, had now been elected to lead the civilian government.

The generals hoped this would pave the way for the election of a non-Islamist, perhaps even one with regime ties. As always, however, the Brothers had a Plan B: Mohamed Morsi, a faithful Shater protégé and a co-author of “The Islamic Renaissance Project.” Morsi was then running the Brotherhood’s new Egyptian political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, which, in conjunction with the “Renaissance” plan, issued a 93-page platform that proposed to put virtually every aspect of life under sharia-compliant state regulation. He had quietly been proposed as the Brotherhood’s alternative candidate in the event anything derailed Shater’s run.

Morsi relied on the Brotherhood’s powerful support network. At rallies, he stoked the country’s massive Islamist base with promises of a new constitution that would reflect “the sharia, then the sharia, and finally the sharia” — a constitution that would echo the Freedom and Justice Party platform. Not nearly as charismatic as Shater, he was given little chance, especially in light of his renowned patron’s eleventh-hour expulsion from the race. Yet he won anyway.

In his half-year in office, Morsi has shrewdly agglomerated power to himself. When the military junta again tried to stall the Brotherhood’s march by disbanding the elected parliament, Morsi declared that he would exercise legislative authority unilaterally. It was a shrewd move — he knew he would have the backing of the Obama administration, which is fully invested in the Arab Spring narrative; and he knew the generals needed to tolerate the presidency lest they be flayed as “anti-democracy.” With adulation from the Western media and the State Department, Morsi made a point of very publicly acting the part of Egypt’s singular leader, journeying to Saudi Arabia and Iran — and playing them off against each other — to drum up support for Cairo’s cratering economy. And when the opportunity to sack the top generals presented itself — courtesy of an embarrassing massacre in Sinai that left 16 soldiers dead and infuriated the masses — Morsi pounced, replacing them with Brotherhood loyalists.

Finally, Morsi issued a proclamation in late November declaring that his “sovereign acts” were immune from judicial review. This gambit, like the others before it, was broadly characterized as a would-be dictator’s usurpation — as Morsi’s becoming just another Middle Eastern despot. That badly misunderstands Morsi. He is a faithful Brotherhood apparatchik, a true believer. The domination he seeks is not his own; it is the Islamic order’s. By temporarily emasculating the judiciary, one of the few remaining institutions in which secularists and the old regime have a foothold, Morsi insulated the constituent assembly. As a result of various legal challenges, the judges were poised to invalidate the assembly, and the sharia constitution it was drafting, because the mass exodus of secular democrats had left it rigged by Islamists.

Morsi’s proclamation brought waves of protest back to Tahrir Square, but this time they were not nearly as potent. This time, after all, the Islamists were with the president. By pretermitting the legal challenges, Morsi gave the assembly the few days it needed to approve a draft constitution. He then used “democracy” as a sword against the democrats: The dictatorial proclamation would be lifted once the sharia constitution was put to a popular vote. The choice is yours, Egyptians were effectively told: the Islamist dictator you have elected or the totalitarian sharia system you can adopt by referendum.

In the real Egypt, rather than the Egypt of the “Arab Spring,” Morsi knew exactly what choice would be made. The “Islamic order” has arrived, and with it the long, cold Arab winter.

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