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The Great Collision

Egypt’s descent into chaos

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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For most of those who were so hopeful when the Great Arab Revolt downed the dictator Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the travails of Egypt’s fledgling democracy have been depressing. Many in the West expected the country’s hodgepodge of secularists—the young men and women who were the cutting edge of the demonstrations, first against Mubarak, then against his freely elected Muslim Brotherhood successor, Mohamed Morsi—to do better than they did at the ballot box, where Islamists so far have triumphed. Real optimists even hoped that the Brethren in power would be more inclusive, allowing non-Islamists more influence in the cabinet and in drafting a constitution. Now that Morsi in turn has been toppled, the optimistic set—though they would have preferred the military coup with a bit of democratic camouflage—sees hope that secularists can build a more stable, liberal government. 

Soldiers in the suburbs of Cairo, July 8

Soldiers in the suburbs of Cairo, July 8

Reuters

These aspirations likely won’t be realized, for two big reasons: Devoutly religious Egyptian Muslims outnumber their secular counterparts; and there is little ideological common ground between those who want to see Islamic values backed by state power and those who want religion to play a much smaller role in government. As long as the religious are more numerous, political parties that explicitly claim the faith will have an advantage over the secular, intellectually undernourished, Westernized youth who drove both rebellions. Compromise—the liberal virtue that the Framers forced upon us through our checks-and-balances Constitution—depends on the contending parties’ essentially sharing the same mores. When compromise wasn’t possible in America on slavery, the system cracked. 

A frightful collision has occurred in Egypt between Muslims who’ve imbibed a lot of the West and those who see themselves as faithful to “authentic” Islam. This battle between Westernization and authenticity has defined much of the Muslim Middle East’s cultural life for 150 years. Free elections in Egypt turned this competition into a wrestling match, the likes of which we’d not seen since the revolution in Iran in 1979. In the post-9/11 Middle East, the secular denizens of the region and most Westerners saw dictatorship as the principal engine of Islamic radicalism. But that phase may be over. Today, Westerners and many Egyptians sympathetic to the coup against Morsi don’t see elected fundamentalists as part of the solution to Islamic militancy. With echoes of Mubarak’s admonitions against free votes in Muslim societies, their analysis invokes a belief common in the early to mid-1990s: that elections Islamists can win only fuel the expansion of radicalism. For those liberally inclined, military repression of the religious has again become an indispensable tool of effective, stable, and progressive government. 

Identity politics

Being a religious Muslim in Egypt isn’t the same thing as being a religious Muslim in Iran, where three decades of theocratic misrule have created real dissent and a growing acceptance of secularism among the faithful. The fears of the revolutionary cleric Mohammed Reza Mahdavi-Kani in 1989 have come true: If every state action carries a religious stamp, religion withers. Islam’s historic marriage of church and state has been badly battered in modern times by Westernization and the excessively political use of the faith by both religious and nominally secular regimes. 

But even in the Islamic Republic, the religious bedrock of the mullahs’ popularity probably remains stronger than many in the West would like to believe. History matters. The Koran, the literal word of God, pulls the faithful back in time and towards a certain religious-political fusion. Muslim fundamentalists can easily align themselves with the great figures of Islamic civilization—an enormous number of whom gained fame for their wars of territorial and religious expansion or their successful defense of orthodoxy. Islam, unlike Christendom, beat back the Greek challenge. Plato and Aristotle, well known and well studied in the Muslim world, are not seen historically as the harbingers of a successful, seditious philosophy that puts man at the center of the universe. In Islam, as in Christianity for a time, they became part of the masonry of accepted belief. No matter how hard Muslim religious reformers try to find support for their positions in Islamic history, it’s still politically more effective for fundamentalists to highlight the Occidental roots of the reformers’ political and cultural aspirations than to affirm their own version of the Islamic tradition, often outrageously stripped of diversity and latitudinarianism. 

Once, when European power was unchallengeable, and new, state-run secular universities were being built on European and American models, Muslim intellectuals could openly praise Western imports—though they always did so at a cost. That disposition is rarer today, and usually considered demeaning if not dangerous. Left-wing Middle Eastern Muslims, who ought to be the bridge between the West and their homelands, are usually so overloaded with anti-imperialist cant that they haven’t figured out how to sell the “good” Western ideas. 

Egypt was the first Arab Muslim land to confront and then embrace the Occident. Algeria and Tunisia, under the spell or domination of France, soon joined the Nile Valley as incubators of Westernization. It’s not an accident that the three most Westernized Arab lands were the first to rebel against secular dictators—or that these countries produced powerful Islamist movements. Westernization creates modern Islamic militancy. Contemporary religious radicalism isn’t just a reaction to Westernization; Westernization is integral to the way Islamists think and the way they view and interpret their own history. 

In the best-case scenario for Westernization in the Middle East—in Turkey, where the enlightened secular dictator Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was explicit and dogged in his attempt to transform his country into a European state—80 years of secularizing autocracy did not free people from their Ottoman past. As Turkey’s politics have become more democratic, the Islamist percentage of the vote has risen. When I was serving with the Central Intelligence Agency in Istanbul in the 1980s, Langley and the State Department were convinced that the ceiling for the “Islamic vote” was 10 percent; Turkish generals and admirals were not so sure. 

Twenty years later the Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) decisively won national elections. The army’s and the judiciary’s anti-Islamist efforts, including hard and soft coups against ruling Islam-friendly politicians and parties, may have postponed judgment day and moderated the Turkish Islamist temperament. They did not stop the rebirth of a more vigorous Turkish Muslim identity and Islamic political aspirations. 

Dictatorship forever?

Some observers in Washington—the New York Times’s David Brooks, the Washington Post’s George Will, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Rob Satloff, for example—appear to believe that Egyptian military rule has at least the potential to evolve in a more positive direction than government by elected Islamists, who’ve shown their “anti-modern,” “anti-pluralist,” “anti-secular,” and “revolutionary” teeth. But how? What exactly can the Egyptian military do now that it hasn’t done in the past to fertilize “real democracy”? How in the world could the Egyptian army—assuming it had even a smidgeon of the historical mission that drove the Turkish army to nurture the development of a European democracy within the Turkish Republic’s top-down secular society—do a better job than Kemalist officers and judges, whose eight decades of secular repression and stage-managed balloting produced an electorate that freely voted for a Turkish offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood? 

Approving of the coup, Will uses Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 article in Commentary magazine against the Islamists. In “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Kirkpatrick described the slow evolution of Western democracy. Islamists, Will suggests, would, like the Communist revolutionaries she wrote about, halt the beneficial political and cultural evolution that is possible under traditional authoritarian rule. “In Britain,” Kirkpatrick wrote, “the road from the Magna Carta to the Act of Settlement, to the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1885, took seven centuries to traverse.” To which one can only answer: Do Muslims ever get the chance to start? Or must they patiently wait, living under military rule that has ruthlessly extirpated the democracy-building “little platoons” of Edmund Burke that Will and Brooks rightly extol, until they are acceptable liberals, springing fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? It is odd that Will and others now cite Kirkpatrick’s essay given how thoroughly events have rebuked it since 1979. As Robert Kagan pointed out in Commentary 18 years later in a critique of Kirkpatrick’s thesis, the expansion of representative government exploded after 1979, into lands that had not been maturating for centuries. And Ronald Reagan didn’t in the end follow Kirkpatrick’s advice: He successfully pushed hard for the expansion of representative government in Latin America and Asia, even in countries then under threat from communism.

Since so many hopes are pinned on the Egyptian military, it deserves a closer look. Although democratic sentiments have grown throughout the Arab world since the apex of pan-Arab fascism in the 1960s and Iran’s Islamic upheaval in 1979 (which itself combined theocratic and democratic aspirations), the Egyptian military didn’t encourage them. It assiduously went after secular liberals who challenged the military’s supremacy. Before Morsi’s fall, the military probably tormented obstreperous secular liberals more than it did the Muslim Brotherhood, which broadly accepted military rule in the 1970s. After decades of conflict and brutal incarceration, the Brothers resigned themselves to the view that the regime’s overthrow would have to come slowly, from the bottom up, one convert at a time. What the Egyptian military does encourage is overheated nationalism among both the religious and the secular. Pan-Arab fascism was potent in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser because it piggybacked on Egyptian nationalism, which, unlike nationalism in most Arab countries, draws on a real historical identity, connected to the unifying force of the Nile. The generals appear to be playing once again on nationalist nerves in their efforts to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s narrative of democracy betrayed. 

Some pro-coup Americans hope that the military, because it is so heavily involved in Egypt’s centralized economy, will want to protect its investment by fostering economic liberalization, which might, so the theory goes, gradually liberalize the political system. Again, history isn’t reassuring. Militarism married to socialism has been ransacking Arab societies since World War II. Socialism faded with the Soviet Union’s demise; in Egypt, capitalism got a foothold when Anwar Sadat escaped the Communist orbit in the early 1970s. The army has since moved with some enthusiasm into crony capitalism. But it’s pretty obvious that the army has no intention of allowing free enterprise to grow that could compromise its own hold on the country. Successful Egyptian businessmen, most of whom grew rich through partnerships with the Mubarak regime, speak of sharing with, not challenging, the army. Senior officers, like all Egyptians of a certain age, remember the bread riots of 1977, which shook the country. Bread subventions weren’t cut. And the army’s control of the economy has grown since. 

Liberal illusions

It’s unclear who—the Islamists, the secularists, or the military—has more patience when it comes to economics, but it’s a decent guess that the religious can better weather the rough economic times ahead. Self-help and community organizing are their strengths, and they have learned to operate without decrepit state institutions. The Egyptian government wasn’t able to handle employment demands in 1960, when the country’s population was 28 million, let alone today when Egyptians number 84 million. In fact, the Islamists are probably less attached to a state-controlled economy than the rest. The study of Islamic law engenders an unavoidable respect for property rights. As the late Marxist Orientalist Maxime Rodinson pointed out in Islam and Capitalism (1966), socialism—the triumph of equality over liberty—has weak roots in Islam. 

In Turkey, the AKP enthusiastically backed free enterprise; where else could the opposition to Kemalist statism go? Turkish Islamists and their religious supporters also understood that to be politically successful they needed to be economically dynamic. Something similar appeared to be happening in Algeria with the Islamic forces arrayed against the military junta from 1989 to 1991. Socialism had impoverished that oil-and-gas-rich country; the Islamic Salvation Front was beginning to think about exploring capitalism when the generals aborted the democratic experiment in 1992. The Iranian regime is the outlier among Muslims in great part because the Islamic revolution was profoundly permeated by Marxism. Yet even in Iran, traditional clerics have often fought back against the state’s penchant for expropriating property for political reasons.

Creating a modern economy in Egypt will hinge on devout Muslims buying into the project; they, not the super-rich businessmen of the Mubarak era, and certainly not the deeply socialist secular youth who look upon the government as the employer of first resort, are the key, as in Turkey, to unleashing Egypt’s economic potential. The coup has made that buy-in much more difficult; it may retard the development of large-scale private enterprise among religious Muslims. 

And there is little reason to be optimistic about Egypt’s secularists. We don’t even know whether they believe in political pluralism; they obviously are not firmly attached to the ballot box. Given the concatenation of forces in the anti-Morsi demonstrations, it’s perhaps best to think of the movement they formed as a mix of the meanings of the word they took as their name: tamarrod. Beyond “rebellion” there’s “refractoriness,” “disobedience,” and “insubordination.” What the scholar Olivier Roy has seen among the Islamists is triply true for the secular crowd: An inchoate but powerful individualism has taken hold. Rebellion against authority and the status quo, moreover, can be addictive, but isn’t likely to lead to personal tolerance and civil manners, let alone a coherent political philosophy, without which parties cannot form. Judging by the glee with which many within the rebellion have greeted the military crackdown on the Brotherhood, it’s doubtful that the Tamarrod would ever again agree to allow the Islamists, or even just the religious, a decisive hand in writing a constitution. 

For the secularists, political pluralism appears to mean that their views must be dominant regardless of any vote. Where once secular liberals lined up, however reluctantly, behind the kings and presidents-for-life, they now line up, more enthusiastically, behind “limited” democracy, whose possibilities are circumscribed by the military, since only the military can check the reemergence of an Islamist majority. Egyptian liberals don’t want to see it that way, of course. They are convinced, as are some of their Western supporters, that after the massive protests on June 30 (engineered by the military, the Tamarrod’s leaders, and the business elite), a majority of Egyptian Muslims became part of a durable secular coalition. Twelve months of Morsi’s “tyranny” and economic incompetence (probably also engineered in part by the military and the business elite) have supposedly transformed the politics of the voters who gave fundamentalists some 70 percent of the seats in parliament in 2012. 

Profoundly Westernized, Egypt’s Muslim liberals don’t want to see themselves as a minority ruling against the will of the majority. As rich in rumor as the Islamists, they appear convinced that the large crowds who have defended Morsi since his fall are paid peasants brought in from the countryside. The Brotherhood, we are assured, has few followers left in Cairo, a metropolis of near 20 million known for vast neighborhoods of densely packed, broken-brick-and-cracked-concrete apartment buildings, where unveiled women are rarely seen and community-built mosques are the only structures of any beauty. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the European Westernization of Egypt produced intellectual titans of liberal secularism: Taha Hussein, Muhammad Hussein Haykal, Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, and more. Egypt then had a small political class, including landowners—some liberal, some autocratic—who could command the allegiance of “their” peasantry in the country’s embryonic democratic system. These secular liberals all lost in the end, against the power of the king and the conservative religious establishment led by the ancient seminary Al-Azhar. But before they surrendered, these men knew where they stood and where they wanted to take the country. Others knew, too, since these men wrote constantly and at length. 

The “globalization”—or rather, the American Westernization—of Egypt that has been gaining speed since the 1960s has no literary or political giants. Facebook and Twitter are media ideal for an age of unarticulated and uneducated revolt. The Americanization of Egyptian secular thought may be far stronger than the earlier wave of liberalization because it is vastly more popular. But the culture and style of Egypt’s Westernized youth or the less dissident relics of the ancien régime (the former U.N. bureaucrat Mohamed ElBaradei comes to mind) are unlikely to produce the type of politician that is needed: an Egyptian version of the late Turkish prime-minster-turned-president Turgut Özal, who was as comfortable among devout Turkish pilgrims to Mecca as with wine-sipping IMF economists. The driving force behind the Tamarrod may be just too far removed culturally from the Egyptian faithful. One thing is certain after the coup: Secular liberals will want to be protected from vengeful Islamists. And for that they will need the army. The ballot box will not do. 

It is temping to imagine that the Egyptian military planned much of the last six months of the Morsi presidency. The military and Cairo’s business elite were obviously gunning for him. Lots of things that had never worked well got worse—a bit too comprehensively and quickly after Morsi assumed office. The Obama administration has no intention of cutting off aid to the Egyptian military over the coup. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the situation “complicated.” In Congress, too, there’s considerable sympathy on both left and right for the military’s action, despite a law on the books requiring that U.S. aid be withheld from any country whose elected government is overthown by a military coup. The Muslim Brotherhood in power was just too unsettling. The relief in Israel is palpable. 

Let fundamentalists be fundamentalists

All of this rationalization of the coup is likely to be a serious mistake. The Egyptian military may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In office, the Brethren were becoming a lot less special. Contrary to the fears of so many observers, the Brotherhood really wasn’t any longer a militant missionary organization. Jordan’s Muslim Brothers, independent of Cairo for decades, are far more intrepid in spreading the word to lapsed Muslims in challenging locales. Saudi Arabia is vastly more influential and pernicious in its missionary activity. Pakistan, a broken democracy where the military rules, is a much more fertile hothouse of Islamic radicalism. 

Granted, the leaders of the Egyptian Brothers were inept and old in an age of youth and rebellion. Their ideology—a blend of traditional Islamic values, Islamic law, black-and-white modern fundamentalism, socialism, fascism, European anti-Semitism, and the mores of the Egyptian street—hasn’t been a secret for decades. But many of those repellent ingredients are also pervasive in the secular crowd; a dinner party with the Cairene elite can be a voyage through a foul, conspiratorial swamp. 

Saudi Arabia fears the Muslim Brotherhood, a populist movement that doesn’t sit well with the royally controlled Wahhabism of Riyadh. But that hardly makes Egyptian Islamism “revolutionary” in the sense that Khomeini’s creed was, its votaries actively working to destroy a detested, Western-backed Sunni order. Morsi’s people didn’t mind associating with American diplomats in Cairo. And the Brotherhood was being out-recruited among the young by Islamist startups. The Salafists’ more socially conservative Nour party, which isn’t burdened with a calcified, hierarchical structure, is a much more curious, individualist, entrepreneurial organization. The Salafists, for instance, didn’t hesitate to use the services of American pro-democracy NGOs that teach all comers how to run better campaigns. The Brethren, like the military, regard these groups as dangerous foreign agents. 

Egypt’s Brotherhood isn’t devoid of charisma, but it is running primarily on fumes from the past, on its long record of opposition to Westernizing dictatorship. However much 12 months in office damaged the Brethren’s standing, more time and an eventual rebuke at the polls would have been vastly more discrediting. The Sunni Islamist embrace of democracy—until recently anathema to most Sunni fundamentalists—hinged on the assumptions that (1) most Muslims are good Muslims, who give great moral weight to consensus within the community, and (2) if a majority of Muslims voted for them, they had the right to undo the damage done by previous Westernizing rulers. Egyptian society, after all, has been de-secularizing since the 1970s: Islamic law and neighborhood clerics acting as judges are now the rule for probably a majority of Egyptians. 

Morsi clearly signaled that he had no intention of allowing secularists to checkmate democratic mandates through a rigorously secular constitution and an overwhelmingly secular, Mubarak-appointed judiciary. Upcoming parliamentary elections would have given ample opportunity to the Brotherhood’s foes to trim Morsi’s sails. A constant of Islamic history—the faithful’s practicality—could have hit the Brethren full force. Egypt could have seen Islamist supporters turn critics at the ballot box, with the enormous repercussions that would have had in the country and throughout the region. 

Instead, we have an intractable situation. The military, long a cancer on Egyptian society, has been able, once again, to preserve the status quo. It is subject to public pressure, if public pressure can again build. Real progress depends on whether Egypt’s faithful can find common ground with their secular compatriots and whether the military will allow people of faith to vote freely. The Brotherhood’s ossified leadership may well go down. In the vacuum, other Islamist groups may rise up, or the hardcore Salafists of the Nour party may expand their influence. Islamists may become as fractured and disorganized and mutually antagonistic as the secularists. That certainly would please the military. It might offer a chance for democracy since no voting bloc would likely gain preeminence. 

Egypt is in uncharted territory. It would be a perverse consequence of the magnetism of Western civilization if the Egyptians—one of the few peoples of the Middle East whose national identity is not an Occidental import—could no longer live together without the army’s iron hand upon the throats of millions of believers. Contrary to what George W. Bush hoped in 2003, the era of “Islamic exceptionalism”—when Muslims alone are seen as incapable of democracy—isn’t over yet. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East,” to borrow from President Bush, wasn’t, apparently, enough. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.

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