NEW PRESIDENT IN EGYPT: IMPLICATIONS FOR POLITICAL ISLAM
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
Egypt, land of the Nile, splendour of the
pharaohs and now remembered through the majestic pyramids is birthplace
of one of the oldest civilizations of the world. It marked a historic
event June 30 when Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as the first
democratically elected president of his country in Cairo. The long three
decade Hosni Mubarak era has come to a symbolic end with the assumption
of office by Morsi - a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who represents
the common man of Egypt - in contrast to the kings and military
dictators who ruled Egypt for the last century.
The question that has been repeatedly raised within Egypt and beyond
since the Morsi victory was declared is: what kind of democracy is Egypt
likely to give unto itself with the current leadership, which is rooted
in the ideology and objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an
Islamic party that was formed in 1928 as part of the anti-colonial
movement. The central tenet of the Brotherhood at the time was to
promote adherence to the tenets of Islamic sharia law in Egypt, even
while working with the under privileged population as part of their
social and charitable agenda.
The anti-British orientation of the MB led to their supporting the Nazi
cause during World War II and this in turn led to the seeds of both
anti-Zionism and recourse to terror techniques to thwart the British in
Palestine and elsewhere. Post World War II, the MB pursued its Islamic
agenda and defiance of the ruling regime in Cairo and was implicated in
the 1948 assassination of the Egyptian prime minister Mahmud Fahmi
Subsequently with the beginning of military rule in Egypt (1952) led by
then Colonel Nasser that overthrew the monarchy, the MB was marginalized
in the power structure of the country. The military's secular,
socialist ideology was at variance with what the Brotherhood espoused
and after the failed 1954 assassination attempt on Nasser, the MB was
abolished. The leadership of this vast organization was imprisoned and
the cadres forced to go underground - and this pattern, with a varying
degrees of leniency continued through the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak years.
Thus the swearing in of a MB member as the president is an event of near
tectonic proportion in the annals of Egyptian history but the
implications of this for the trajectory of political Islam in its post
9/11 context are opaque and cause for both concern and reflection.
While there are many anomalies about the swearing in - which was
preceded by Morsi's public address at Tahrir Square Friday (June 29) -
the reality is that the powerful Egyptian military has dissolved
parliament and retained most of the actual control of the state. Complex
negotiations will be held to work out the power distribution between
the elected president and the uniformed fraternity.
While President Morsi has reiterated that Cairo's external policies and
treaties will be respected - meaning the peace accord with Israel - it
is evident that relations with the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran
will be reviewed. The weakened economy is in need of deft political and
professional handling - and will be the single most important indicator
for the average Egyptian who is now overcome with fatigue after an
extended cycle of elections and protests.
It is the internal dynamic and divisions that will challenge the Morsi
leadership - the co-relation with the military; finding a modus vivendi
with the former Mubarak faction that won almost half the votes in the
election; and assuaging the concerns of the youth in Egypt who formed
the core of the Tahrir demonstrations and who do not want a return to
the past or a conservative, stifling Islam to restrict them. The gender
issue and the status of women in the new political Islam of Egypt could
prove to be an early indicator of where the Morsi regime proposes to
Reviewing the various statements made by President Morsi - both in the
election campaign and in the run-up to the swearing in Saturday, what is
discernible is an attempt by the new Egyptian president to be all
things to all people - meaning that he is seeking to endear himself to
the vast Islamic constituency within Egypt - the support-base of the MB
and reach out to his political opponents and the minorities - the Coptic
Christians in particular.
Whether this is pragmatic politics or tactical opportunism will be
evident within the next few months as the new regime in Cairo begins to
deal with a range of challenges - both external and internal.
The MB victory in Egypt also signifies the arrival of the first Islamic
party using the ballot-box to come to power in a major Sunni dominated
nation and this could be as significant as the Iranian Revolution of
1979 which saw the advent of political Shia Islam.
Given Egypt's historical role as the leader of Arab politics and
learning, the politico-religious ideology that will be advanced by the
Morsi regime will be critical not just for the Arab world - but for the
extended Islamic belt including South Asia.
If the new Egypt decides to revert to the more conservative and
intolerant interpretation of Islam that has shown its virulence in
Pakistan and Afghanistan with active support from Saudi Arabia, the
possibility that this kind of political Islam will gain ascendancy is
more likely. In the event, the Muslim Brotherhood will be going back to
its original objective of implementing the Islamic sharia in Egypt and
extending this to the rest of the region.
But for a party that has defied authority and power since its birth and
adopted a revisionist agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood has become that
very symbol of authority and power and the deeper challenge will be to
see if Morsi's political Islam can nurture into a more inclusive and
tolerant governing ethos. At this point the optimism will have to remain
muted though the hope generated in Cairo is high and infectious.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He is the Visiting
Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article first appeared in Newstrackindia on July 3)