Egypt’s no-win dilemma

Amid the fast-moving developments in Egypt since the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi, it is easy to be distracted by peripheral issues and lose sight of the critical question at the heart of the crisis.

As put by Mike Spindell in his excellent article “Morsi, democracy and the problem with fundamentalist politics”, the critical question is: are religious fundamentalists – in this case Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood organization and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party – capable of participating in a pluralistic democratic society?

Spindell points to the contradiction between the Muslim Brotherhood’s objectives and the path through which it believes it could realize those objectives.

Thus, on the one hand, it proclaims:

We believe that the political reform is the true and natural gateway for all other kinds of reform. We have announced our acceptance of democracy that acknowledges political pluralism, the peaceful rotation of power and the fact that the nation is the source of all powers. As we see it, political reform includes the termination of the state of emergency, restoring public freedoms, including the right to establish political parties, whatever their tendencies may be, and the freedom of the press, freedom of criticism and thought, freedom of peaceful demonstrations, freedom of assembly, etc. It also includes the dismantling of all exceptional courts and the annulment of all exceptional laws, establishing the independence of the judiciary, enabling the judiciary to fully and truly supervise general elections so as to ensure that they authentically express people’s will, removing all obstacles restricting the functioning of civil society organizations, etc.

However, that statement is belied by the following objectives, openly acknowledged by the Brotherhood. According to Wikipedia,

In the group’s belief, the Koran and Sunnah [the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad] constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, was to reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny, an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia. It preaches that Islam enjoins man to strive for social justice, the eradication of poverty and corruption, and political freedom to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam…

On the issue of women and gender the Muslim Brotherhood interprets Islam conservatively. Its founder called for “a campaign against ostentation in dress and loose behaviour”, “segregation of male and female students”, a separate curriculum for girls, and “the prohibition of dancing and other such pastimes…

The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to instill the Koran and Sunnah as the “sole reference point for…ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community… and state.” Their credo was and is: “Allah is our objective; the Koran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

As Spindell states, this in essence is the dichotomy of beliefs that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party presented to the Egyptian voter. On the one hand they had denounced violence and agreed to work within the framework of a democratic political process. But on the other hand their core beliefs are that they should be ruled by Islamic law and justice in accordance with their interpretation of the Koran which they believe is perfect.

The way this dichotomy was resolved in practice by the Morsi administration was alarming and, if allowed to continue, potentially irreversible:

Part of the task of the Morsi government was to create and implement a constitution for Egypt. It was also promised that his government would include all factions of Egyptian society including the large group of Egyptian Coptic Christians.

What occurred though was that Morsi only brought in Brotherhood political allies into the various ministries of government and created a constitution that was decidedly Islamic in content. Egypt, which was one of the most enlightened countries in the Middle East in the treatment of women, was being pushed into a far more fundamentalist outlook…

Consequently,

However, noble their motives may have been and are, within their beliefs is this inherent problem. If you see that everything you believe is “perfect” and mandated by God, then the idea of compromising those beliefs is blasphemy and sacrilege. How indeed can you live in a pluralistic society, when those who reject your beliefs, are by your definition “evil” and “sinful”?…

Spindell expresses the doubts which everyone familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties must share:

I seriously wonder whether it is possible for fundamentalist religionists to actually be able to take power in a democratic society and wield it in a way that allows people of differing beliefs their freedom to have those differing beliefs? When you have a belief system that you not only see as “perfect”, but as the road-map for a perfect society, how can you make the compromises that are necessary to maintain a pluralistic, democratic society? From the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood, indeed it is their stated goal; you can only build a “perfect” society based on Islamic law and justice. In this respect they are not really very different from other fundamentalist true believers that see “their way” as the only way towards true righteousness…

Spindell’s conclusion is spot on, and it underlines the irrelevance of the talk about whether the ouster of Morsi was a coup or whether it is right to force a democratically elected president out of power:

There is strong evidence, that contrary to their platform, once in power those of the Muslim Brotherhood returned to their stated principles and were moving quickly to establish the version of Muslim law upon Egypt, while at the same time denying equality of treatment to others. This fanaticism in the application of their beliefs distracted them [from] dealing with the economic and social problems that plagued most Egyptians and led inevitably to the Egyptian military’s coup.

I think this is a quandary that is at the heart of the difficulty of maintaining a democratic, pluralistic system in many countries, including ours… While [it] certainly is not the only difficulty, it ranks high on a list of contributors to political dysfunction. The question is what to do about it and the answer is quite difficult. The problem is that if you exclude religious fundamentalists from the political process due to their authoritarian views, then you no longer have a pluralistic society because of that exclusion. In a pluralistic society religious fundamentalists should also have a voice, or when do you stop excluding…

This is the dilemma facing Egypt, and it seems to have no answer.

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