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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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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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