Monday, November 20,  2017

Politics

Ten Months of the Mediocre Muslim Brotherhood

BY Sarah Eltantawi

What we need now in Egypt are visionaries, not conservatives, generous and courageous people who are not afraid to take risks and try new things. 


On April 7, 2013, masked gunmen attacked a Coptic cathedral in the Qalioubiyya neighborhood of Cairo during a funeral for victims of a sectarian clash.


If you had told me a year ago that such an incident would take place in Egypt, I probably would not have believed you.


It is true that sectarian attacks have become an increasing problem – to put this serious problem into perspective, we need only remember the horrific attack on a church in Alexandria shortly before the start of the revolution on New Years Eve, 2010-2011.


But masked gunmen firing automatic rifles during a funeral? Such are the problems of post-invasion Iraq or failed states with weak governments, like Pakistan, not Egypt.


Adding to this terrifying incident, Egypt’s new, unelected public prosecutor recently issued an arrest warrant against the country’s most famous satirist, Bassem Youssef, who is known as Egypt’s “Jon Stewart.” The warrant accuses Youssef of insulting President Mohamed Morsi and Islam. The incident is another ominous development, not least of which because little attempt was made to distinguish between the two allegations.


What has happened to bring Egypt to this troubling point, less than ten months after the Muslim Brotherhood took power?

President Anwar al-Sadat was the first Egyptian president to make deals with Islamist forces, which threatened freedom of conscience in the country.


A look at a number of important issues currently facing Egypt is instructive. There are those who would not find such an exercise useful in the first place.  For these observers, it is unrealistic to expect a transitional government to have accomplished much, especially under worsening economic conditions in a polarized country with a recalcitrant and unfocused opposition.


This is how I felt for the first six months of Morsi’s presidency. While it remains utterly unrealistic to expect the government to solve the massive problems facing Egypt, it is certainly justifiable to note what the government has focused its energies on, what it has been neglecting, and the direction toward which its behavior points.


On to the facts….

Reform of the Interior Ministry

Egypt’s Interior Ministry is the most notorious institutional hangover from Hosni Mubarak’s police state. The torture and violence inflicted by Ministry officials against Egyptian citizens was one of the revolution’s chief catalysts.


Since taking office, the Morsi government has failed to institute any reforms of the Ministry. While it is understandable that a new government must work with existing institutions, the fact that the Ministry remains implicated in disturbing instances of torture suggests that the government is collaborating with the Ministry in the service of its own authoritarian interests rather than as part of an overall strategy to implement incremental reform.  This fact has taken some time to recognize and diagnose.


Government-sanctioned torture is arguably worse than ever before, with the bodies of anti-government activists found in ditches and on the sides of roads throughout the country.  The disturbing story of Ibrahim Hanafi, found naked and tied to a tree, is but one example of this.


Economy

Egypt’s economy is in a shambles.  The nation’s financial reserves are nearly depleted, making the government desperate to secure an IMF loan. Morsi’s administration has made no attempt to debate with the Egyptian public the merits and downsides of accepting such a loan.


The status of the loan is currently in question, partly because of IMF concerns that the current Egyptian government is powerless to implement mandatory and deeply unpopular austerity measures.  To meet the IMF’s demands, the government will have to institute measures that include reducing deep subsidies on fuel, which will cause major popular unrest in the country.


Egypt’s economic issues undoubtedly predate the Morsi government and cannot, as such, be blamed on the current administration. Nevertheless, productive and successful reform of Egypt’s economy requires political skills to facilitate the necessary societal buy-in and compromise with other political players, which the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to display.

We need people who are just crazy enough to wake up each day to fulfill the demands of the revolution. What we have now – selfishness, arrogance, dullness, the mind numbing grayness of conformity – simply will not do and the increasing violence proves it.
Freedom of Conscience

President Anwar al-Sadat was the first Egyptian president to make deals with Islamist forces, which threatened freedom of conscience in the country. This policy of appeasing Islamist forces primarily by ceding ground on family law (that is to say, restricting women’s and children’s freedoms) is a strategy that continued throughout the Mubarak years and is one that has been seen in several Muslim-majority states with authoritarian, “secular” governments contending with Islamist oppositions.


The most significant and damaging of these compromises was the reform of the constitution in 1981, allowing Islamic sharia to be the source of legislation.  Since then, the interpretation of this provision has been broad. Amendments to the constitution made in November 2012 introduced specific language regarding sources of law that can be interpreted in ways that come dangerously close to theocracy.  While this language in and of itself does not exert causal power, its presence leaves open interpretive possibilities that are dangerous for proponents of a secular state.


With the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood now in power and having staked their claim to authority on a loosely articulated version of Islamic morality, freedom of conscience remains a serious concern.


The treatment of Bassem Youssef and the virtually unchecked proliferation of government-supporting televangelists who are often, ironically, quite vulgar in their evisceration of the president’s critics, are not encouraging signs on this point.


Sectarianism

Sectarianism is worsening both because of a general breakdown in law and order and because of the vicious rhetoric from some Salafist preachers, who enjoy a great deal of airtime on Egyptian television. While Bassem Youssef was summoned for questioning, perpetrators of various sectarian crimes against Copts (the most notorious example beingthe massacre at the Maspero television station in Cairo in October 2011 have not been brought to justice.  In addition, anti-Shia sentiment has reached alarming and unprecedented levels, a reflection of the Mubarak-era’s cynical exploitation of Sunni chauvinism to bolster its unpopular tilt toward American, Israeli and Saudi anti-Iran policies (and saber rattling).


Political Oppression 

That the long persecuted and banned Muslim Brotherhood is now in power is a striking sign that the space for political organizing has been expanded in an unprecedented way.  Unfortunately, the opposition, in so far as it can be characterized as the National Salvation Front (a disparate and deeply unorganized collection of groups and personalities), has not taken advantage of this opening or competed effectively in mainstream politics. At the same time, much like the ancien régime, the Muslim Brotherhood has been quick to accuse “foreign hands” of coordinating street agitations against its rule.


Judicial Independence 

The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) is currently made up entirely of Mubarak-era appointees who are empowered to strike down laws on constitutional grounds.  Though the Brotherhood has taken steps to somewhat disempower the SCC, the Court remains a force to be reckoned with – most recently, it postponed elections for the lower house of parliament from April to October 2013.


The Muslim Brotherhood would like elections to occur as soon as possible, as Islamist parties have a strong chance of winning a majority of seats. Undoubtedly with this outcome in mind, the Court has effectively stalled the process. While it may be unwise for the country to continue to operate without a lower house of parliament, the possibility of an Islamist dominated parliamentary body also raises legitimate concerns.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry is the most notorious institutional hangover from Hosni Mubarak’s police state. The torture and violence inflicted by Ministry officials against Egyptian citizens was one of the revolution’s chief catalysts.
The opposition seems unwilling or unable to effectively organize and successfully contest these elections, and prominent opposition leaders, including Mohammad El-Baradei, have foolishly declared their intention to boycott the elections.


Conclusion

Of course, there are other challenges facing the current government, including issues of infrastructure, traffic, garbage, and, of course, foreign policy.  Nevertheless, the short elaboration above suffices to inform deliberations about the legitimacy of holding the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for the nation’s downward spiral.


Answering this question raises a series of further questions: what does “fair” mean?  Does it mean “realistic”?  Guess what was not realistic – the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, 2011. The fact of the matter is that the Morsi government was supposed to be a revolutionary one elected on a mandate to fulfill the hopes and dreams of Egypt’s long-suffering masses.  Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken this opportunity to entrench its own rule.  The pettiness and smallness of its actions, like the Bassem Youssef matter, are a disgrace.  Failing to reform the Ministry of the Interior and the police forces is a betrayal.  Telling protesting women they do not belong in public spaces is an act of moral turpitude.


At present, the most generous thing that can be said of the Muslim Brotherhood is that it is mediocre, a designation, that, among other things, should prompt reflection on the group’s use of the phrase “Islam howa al-hal” (Islam is the solution), if it was ever used for anything other than cynical populism.


What we need now in Egypt are visionaries, not conservatives, generous and courageous people who are not afraid to take risks and try new things. We need people who are just crazy enough to wake up each day to fulfill the demands of the revolution. What we have now – selfishness, arrogance, dullness, the mind numbing grayness of conformity – simply will not do and the increasing violence proves it. 

"This article was originally published in the Fair Reporter at http://www.fairobserver.com/taxonomy/term/1081"

Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of religion.  She holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Harvard University, and is currently a Scholar in Residence in Religion, Gender, Culture and the Law at Brandeis University.



READ MORE BY:  Sarah Eltantawi

 

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