Egypt: Religious Extremism And Military Authoritarianism In Absence Of Democracy

By IndepthAfrica
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Jun 10th, 2014
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By Hojjatoleslam Davoud Firahi

To talk about the Muslim Brotherhood, one will need to have good knowledge of theoretical and internal problems facing the Brotherhood as well as other relevant issues at a regional level. Nobody can blame everything, which has happened to the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt, on the influence of foreign countries’ policies or even on security issues faced by this country. During the past years, Western countries, especially the United States, did not consider the Middle East as a political community, but they only viewed regional countries from an ethnographic standpoint. Therefore, the fate of people living in this region was of no high importance to them. The important point for the Western countries was the establishment and maintenance of stability in the region, even through suppression of people. Therefore, from their viewpoint, the use of suppression was of no objection as long as it helped to establish stability in this region.

For this obvious reason, the presence of military powers in the region was considered very useful for the Western countries. However, the presence of such military powers in the region is no more useful to the Western countries because firstly, the globalization process is sweeping through the entire world and, secondly, the Middle East, as well, is playing its role in this process by taking part in external dialogues. On the other hand, a big proportion of Middle Eastern immigrants in the West are discussing the idea of democracy and human rights in American and European universities. Therefore, the West can no more remain indifferent to the process of democratization in the Middle East. There are two reasons why the West cannot remain indifferent to democracy in the Middle East. The first reason is the value-based approach taken to the issue of democracy by the Western countries that incessantly encourage other countries to go along with it. The second issue is that they consider democracy the only way to overcome the radical Islamism in the region. The West has even come up with solutions in this regard like what we have already seen in Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Anywhere that democracy has been promoted, radicalism has been in retreat. For this reason, the West cannot ignore this equation and is sure to keep the democratization process going across the Middle East.

In the absence of democracy in the Middle East, its void would be filled by either radical Islamism, extremism, and jihadist wars, or by secular militaristic authoritarianism. The past experience has shown that almost anywhere that militarism has thrived, conflicts have ensued. This reality can be clearly seen in Afghanistan and Syria. Therefore, Western countries have no other choice, but to opt for democracy and take steps to bolster it. If they want to support democracy, the sole available option is the Muslim Brotherhood because secular groups do not have a powerful support base in the Middle East. On the other hand, secular groups can get along with the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, one may claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is important to the West as a suitable alternative to Islamism and this is why they cannot totally ignore the presence and role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

It is true that the ongoing political developments in Egypt show a reverse movement toward the past, but this regression to the past will not be lasting and it is quite unlikely that the situation in this country will become quite similar to what it was in the past because the Egyptian military is already occupied with internal conflicts within its ranks. The most important point is the high chance for the Muslim Brotherhood in the future developments of the country, which will be of a democratic nature. A democratic atmosphere in the Arab country will be beneficial to Iran as well provided that certain changes take place in the country. Political currents in our country can get along with the Muslim Brotherhood and this is clear in view of the growth of moderation in Iran, which is very close to the positions held by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In spite of the above facts, the Muslim Brotherhood is stranded by internal problems and one of the most important of those problems is the specific mentality that governs the group. Three components are essential in order for democracy to run its roots deep in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world: democratic thinking, special groups advocating democracy, and democratic institutions.

The main point, however, is that there are no democratic institutions in Egypt. Even the recent presidential election that was held in the country was not based on a democratic institution. Such elections are considered as representing “monarchical democracy” in which kings still hold their vote, even in a titular manner.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood lacks a good understanding of democracy. The only experiences that the Muslim Brotherhood has had with governance were in Tunisia and Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood has reduced the concept of democracy to the concept of council and counseling, but even that council is also limited to Muslims and no interest is shown to assigning any role to those who are not considered insiders. The Muslim Brotherhood failed to get along with the Coptic and secular groups in Egypt. As a result, they have been facing theoretical challenges within their ranks. The Brotherhood practically reduces the concept of democracy to simple councils and even the concept of council, as they interpret it, is restricted to internal dialogue among themselves without any plan to reach a compromise with other political groups. For this reason, I am of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood is facing a major snitch within its ranks and its main problem is not with the United States, Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country.

If the Muslim Brotherhood manages to overcome this challenge, it will be able to get along with both Coptic youths and other sections of the Egyptian society. The Brotherhood appears to be the main driving engine behind democracy in the Middle East, but that engine has broken down because it is suffering from theoretical problems. This is why the United States is still in doubt about this group. The Americans have to choose between two kinds of government in Egypt: the first government that accepts democracy, but reduces it to councils and formulates its constitutions on the basis of this reading of democracy, and a second government which is run by the military and looks upon democracy as mere formality. Therefore, the United States is trying to make it clear which one of these governments will operate as the main engine for democracy in the country. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood should take every step to repair its democracy engine. An attempt to do this has been evident in meetings that the Muslim Brotherhood has already held in the Egyptian capital city of Cairo and Turkey’s port city of Istanbul. This shows that a major political current is thinking about this issue and, therefore, this issue should be taken into consideration.

Not all problems can be blamed on external forces because those external forces have lost control on many issues. Israelis, Russians, Americans and even Saudi Arabia have sometimes lost control of the situation. The problem, however, is that those forces that have gained control, have been unable to pull their project off.

On the other hand, the Egyptian youths are devoid of positive ideas. They have an illusion of democracy in mind, which is to do away with the status quo. However, when it comes to really building democracy in their country, they are not able to engage in real political activities, nor have they a correct understanding of the concept of democracy. As a result, they are always used as a tool by opposition forces. Egyptian youths cannot be attracted by the army and, therefore, I think this time, they will become a tool in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The late Iranian politician, Mehdi Bazargan, used to tell the Iranian youths that “an unripe fruit is animal fodder.” At present, the political literature used by the Coptic youths is like an unripe fruit. By emphasizing on democracy they actually want to say no to the status quo. That status quo may be the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian army, or General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Hojjatoleslam Davoud Firahi
University of Tehran Professor and Islam Scholar

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