Monday, December 12, 2011

In the Shadow of the Rising Islamic Crescent

by Mordechai Kedar

In Iran, Turkey, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, perhaps even Libya, and now in Egypt it is official: the Islamic crescent moon is swelling and gaining height and imposes an ever-expanding shadow over the region surrounding us. The poor, unemployed, ignorant and neglected peoples who were sick of the hell-on-earth that was their lives and the cruel rulers who oppressed them, shake themselves, wounded, bleeding, stumbling, they rise up and continue - despite the heavy price in blood - to run amok towards the green incandescence that pierces the darkness of the bitter reality from the heights of the minarets, and guides the way upwards to Paradise, where there is no poverty or deprivation, no pain or oppression, no limitations or prohibitions.

"In Those Days"

Egypt began its path toward independent modernity more than two hundred years ago, but the longer its journey towards stability and ascendancy of reason over emotion, the further it gets from this goal. During the twenties, thirties and forties, and more accurately, until the 23rd of July, 1952, Egypt enjoyed a vibrant cultural life, celebrated literary salons, many active civil movements, theater, opera, and women began to walk bare-headed in the street challenging the male hegemony and Islamic radicals. Yes, feminism really began in Egypt in the twenties, almost ninety years ago.

The opera house was active in Cairo since the mid 19th century, and women performed there publicly, in severe contradiction to the dictates of Islamic Shari'a. The secular, and even the permissive culture of Europe was attractive to many of the elite, which was evidenced by the many Egyptian films that dealt with "the eternal triangle" of marital infidelity. There were those in Egypt who saw themselves as European, descendants of the Greek and Roman residents of Alexandria. But this sort of public conduct, which is tainted by liberalism and permissiveness, is not accepted in Islamic tradition.

As a result of the discovery of the Pharaonic graves and the deciphering of hieroglyphs in the middle of the 19th century, their glorious past was revealed to the Egyptians, and many of them - especially the Copts - began to draw upon it and define themselves accordingly. However, according to Islam, the name "Pharaoh" is synonymous with heresy and war against Allah, therefore to define Egypt as a continuation of the ways of the Pharaohs was anathema in the eyes of Islamic radicals.

The reaction to these anti-Islamic trends began in 1928, when Hasan al-Banna gathered a group of like-minded friends (the "Muslim Brotherhood") who were very concerned about the cultural and ethical deterioration that was spreading among the elite. They blamed the British occupation and claimed that it was under its auspices and with its encouragement that all of these evils penetrated into Egyptian society, and they formulated an active plan built on three components: a struggle to get rid of foreign occupation, a struggle to purge society of the elements of foreign culture that had penetrated it, and the imposition of Islamic Shari'a on all spheres of private, family and public life. These three principles still form the doctrine of the "Muslim Brotherhood".

The military took control of Egypt in July, 1952, and quickly tried to build legitimacy for its regime on the doctrine of "Arab Socialism", which is also inconsistent with Islamic values, and has been in conflict with the "Brotherhood" ever since. Some of their leaders were executed, most notably their primary ideologue, Sayyed Qutb, who was hung in 1966 because he determined that the leadership of a country which is not built on Shari'a is heretical and is a valid target for jihad to be waged against it. Many in Egypt saw the defeat in 1967 as divine punishment for the hanging of Qutb.

And "In This Season"

The Egyptian constitution, which remained in effect until a few months ago, forbade the establishment of religious parties in order to prevent the Brotherhood from taking power, and so the Brotherhood turned to social action, mainly in helping the poor, and in Egypt there are many such unfortunates, to deal with everyday life. The Brotherhood are those who help the millions of Egyptians who are living in unplanned neighborhoods by supplying food, drinking water, medical clinics, education and employment. When buildings would collapse upon their residents (a common occurrence in Egypt because of the failure of corrupt officials to properly oversee the quality of construction) representatives of the Brotherhood were always the first to arrive to rescue the wounded, before the government bulldozers arrived to clear the ruins with the wounded still inside.

The Brotherhood "sowed with tears" (all the years by the sweat of their brow) for the benefit of the many poor of the nation, and today - after Mubarak was thrown out and the Brotherhood was permitted to enter into politics - they "reap with joy" their social investment and "carry the sheaves" (the admiration among the people) with pride. It was only natural that the people, who are mostly religious and believing, who pray even in the streets, fast during Ramadan, and make the Haj pilgrimage despite the expense, would give their vote to the Brotherhood, and almost thirty seven percent voted for their Freedom and Justice Party among the third of the country that voted two weeks ago.

But the big surprise was the great support for the Salafis, who won 24.4% of the votes. The word "Salaf" in Arabic is an abbreviation of the expression "al-Salaf al-Salih", which means "the Righteous Ancestors". The difference between the Salafis and the "Muslim Brotherhood" is this: the Brotherhood tries to take the Islamic religion, which was established in the seventh century, and adjust it to the society of the twenty-first century, while the Salafis try to take the society of the twenty-first century and adjust it to the seventh. One may say, in general, metaphorically, that the Brotherhood are more like Modern Orthodox Jews, and the Salafis are more like the Ultra-Orthodox, who cleave to the words of Allah and Mohammad, and are stricter about women's head coverings; therefore the faces of the women are covered with the niqab, which allows only the eyes to be seen, and their hands are covered with black gloves. When a quarter of the electorate voted for the Salafist "al-Nur" ("The [implicitly: Divine] Light") party, it was a surprise to many.

The total number of combined votes that were given to the "Brotherhood", the Salafis and the moderate religious "al-Wasat" (The Center) Party in nine of the 27 zones that voted, is 65.3%, almost two thirds of the voters. If this continues to be the picture after all the rounds of elections to the Peoples' Council - the Lower House, and the "Shura Council", the Upper House, then the combined religious forces - who were chosen strictly democratically - will be able to form a strong and stable government. But things are not that easy, especially because the world-view of the Brotherhood is different from that of the Salafis, and they might have differences over a number of issues: The attitude toward seculars and Copts; the status of women in the public sphere: media, educational institutions and the workplace; and the question of separation between the sexes has already arisen, and quite powerfully.

'Abd al-Mun'im Shahat, one of the Salafi leaders, already expressed with great decisiveness in the media that Shari'a will be the law of the state, and it will determine citizenship, equality and freedom. This means that the Christian Copts might lose their freedom, their status and even their citizenship, despite the fact that they - in any event, in their own eyes - are the indigenous residents of Egypt and the Muslims are the "new kids on the block". One Salafi spokesman, Hazem Abu Isma'il, who is also a candidate for president, said this week that if he is elected as president, he will forbid the selling of wine and the mingling of men and women in the workplace and, in his opinion, the time has come that the government should prepare public opinion for the imposition of women's head coverings. One of the leaders of the "Light" Party, Muhamad 'Abd al-Hadi, did him one better when he declared that the Kor'an has already announced the victory of the Salafis in the elections, because it is written: "We will turn you (the believers) into leaders and inheritors (of power)". The dangerous part of this saying is the hidden message that is contained within, that if "We (the Salafis) were chosen for leadership", they may never yield power, even at the price of a non-democratic transformation of the government.

The Muslim Brotherhood fears for the status of Egypt in the world if they take steps such as these against the seculars and the Copts, so the radical Salafi approach might throw the ability of the Brotherhood to form a coalition with the Salafis into uncertainty. It's reasonable to believe that the Brotherhood will try to form a wide coalition with a few of the secular parties, in order to decrease the Salafi demands, if they agree to join the coalition.

It's important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were not at the forefront of the demonstrations that began in late January and consequently brought about the fall of Mubarak. They stood behind, and watched as the youth and the seculars, ground into mincemeat by the police and the military, succeeded to bring down Mubarak. The Brotherhood waited to see what would happen, and when the time came for elections, they were already organized enough to establish a party, present well-known and genial candidates, publish a party platform, staff polling committees and compose and finance election propaganda. They also were able to bring people - even the handicapped and the ill - to the voting booths and to "help" them vote. The ability of the Brotherhood to organize in such a short time is the result of long years of organized activities carried out for the benefit of the population.

There is a possibility that in the next rounds of elections taking place in the coming weeks, that the religious parties will strengthen their position because the regions where the next rounds of elections will be held are more conservative than were those in the first round.

The Seculars and the Military

The situation of the seculars is truly tragic. They were the ones who tried over the years to advance Egypt towards modernity; they were the ones who went out to Tahrir Square to get rid of Mubarak and they were the ones who clashed with the army in recent months in order to reduce the violence used to break up the demonstrations and in order to minimize the army's involvement in the new political life. But they spent their time fighting the army instead of setting up a party, they demonstrated in the streets instead of organizing meetings, they organized elitist organizations instead of connecting with the poor, and so, they did not meet their own expectations in the election results. All of the secular parties together, including the veteran "al-Wafd" party, achieved about one third of the seats in the Lower House, and if this trend continues in the next rounds, the Islamist majority in the Parliament might form a new constitution reflecting their own interests, values and world-view: a weakened position for the president and a strengthened parliament that could successfully challenge and oppose him, Shari'a as the basis for legislation, placing the status of the judicial system underneath Islamic law and placing the military under the authority of the elected bodies, i.e. the Islamists.

The matter of the military is especially sensitive, since the military in Egypt is an economic empire that comprises companies, shopping malls, financial institutions, enterprises and real estate; so the military will not agree to be under the authority of politicians or even elected officials. This situation might create great tension between the military and the religious parties, which will seek to fulfill the mandate of governance based on the trust of the majority of voters, and the military has a clear agenda to maintain its independence and its assets, despite the fact that the country finances it.

Future Conduct of Egypt

The most important question is how will the new Egyptian government conduct itself, when for the first time in modern Egyptian history ("Since the days of Pharaoh", in the words of the head of the elections committee) it represents the people in a fair way. After more than two hundred years of "unanimous" decisions, i.e., the dictates of the ruler, authentic representatives are about to administer Egypt according to the cultural world-view of the electorate. But "your people have many needs" and anyone who takes a position of responsibility must give solutions to the ninety million residents of Egypt, a third of whom live in unplanned neighborhoods without running water, a sewage system, electricity, means of communication, suitable education and social services.

The new government will be expected to restart the economy, and if they don't do it, and soon, they might find themselves up against a "revolution of the hungry" among those who elected them. The government must renew foreign investments in the Egyptian economy, because this is the only way to provide employment for the many thousands of graduates from universities, colleges and professional schools who enter the labor market every year in the shrinking economy, and don't find a decent livelihood. It's even worse for women, because of the social and traditional limitations on occupations and places in which they can work.

Another important task that stands before the new government is to bring back the tourists who, since January, have been avoiding Egypt, and as a result, millions of Egyptians whose livelihood depends on tourism, have lost the source of their income during the past year. But to the Salafis, tourism is quite problematic because the tourists do not behave according to the Islamic code: they demand alcoholic drinks, they eat food that is not "Halal" (the Shari'a version of kosher) and female tourists don't always dress modestly, according to the principles of Islam that are adhered to by the Egyptian public. Also because in the nightclubs that tourists like to frequent, people don't behave according to the Islamic concept of modesty, and also because of the fact that the tourists come to see and be impressed by the Pharaonic culture, which, according to Islam, was especially heretical. So the matter of tourism will have to undergo public debate in Egypt. To the Salafis there is a solution to the decline of income from tourism: Muhammad 'Abd al-hadi, who was mentioned above, said that if Egypt can get their hands on all of the money that Mubarak's people stole and still are stealing from the public coffers, the economic situation of the country would be much better.

An economic recovery may emerge, but only if the demonstrations cease and the new government is seen by the world as "reasonable", despite its Islamic nature. The peace agreement with Israel will also play a role in reinvigorating the economy. Abrogation might create an atmosphere of conflict, and even if war doesn't break out, this murky atmosphere will discourage investments and tourism. For more than a generation, the peace agreement has been the cornerstone of US-Egyptian relations. Since the signing of the agreement in Washington in 1979, the US has given Egypt billions of dollars in aid and food, mainly in order to preserve the agreement. Any attempt to violate the agreement is likely to cause harsh a American response and possibly even termination of aid, including the essential military aid.

There are other issues that the Egyptian public will have to decide upon: One of them is the status of Tahrir Square, meaning, has the era of "al-millioniyat", the huge, spontaneous, media-grabbing street demonstrations ended and has the era begun when elected institutions decide the fate of the country? On one hand, people must not be silenced, because the right to public protest is a basic right, defended by law, but on the other hand, decisions must not be left in the hands of street groups of one sort or another, whether small or large, who managed to organize themselves via Facebook.

The Tahrir issue represents another challenge to the new system: formulation of a new constitution which will have to resolve complicated questions including the status of the Islamic divine "sharia" law vs. the status of civil "man made" law; the division of power between the parliament, the government, the president and the judicial system; the place of the army in the institutions structural hierarchy and its role in keeping public order; the mechanisms needed to balance between the right of the parliamentary majority to run the state and the rights of the minority. Disputes about these questions have already started, and it will be very difficult to find good solutions.

What's Next?

An article titled "Wake-up Call," written this week by Munir Bashawi, a Coptic emigre in Los Angeles, demonstrates the feelings of those who are fearful of the Islamic movements. In his article he writes (my additions are in parenthesis, M.K.): The infuriating nightmare is over and now we face the bitter reality. The thing we most feared has come true, since the Muslim Brotherhood are just around the corner, and is now closer than ever to taking power. Whether from naiveté or wickedness, there were those who thought that we suffer from paranoia or a phobia regarding the Brotherhood and they claimed that we give more importance to them than they actually deserve, because they are nothing but a trivial minority that the previous regime demonized in order to justify its staying in power. The strange thing is that we haven't heard one word of apology from those people who made claims against us or even an acknowledgment of the mistake they made in evaluating the (actual) strength of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I'm not enamored with the Mubarak regime and I know well its faults and decadence, but I knew that the devil that ruled us in the guise of Mubarak was better than that which the future will bring. I saw this when I heard the cries of the people in Tahrir Square who demanded from Mubarak: Resign! Leave! And they didn't even have enough patience to allow him to finish his term in an orderly fashion when he could have handed the reins of power to the legal government, a government that would guard the country from dangers that await it and from those who were waiting in ambush to pounce, grab power and execute the agenda that they had been planning for decades. I remember that when people cheered the downfall of Mubarak, I was very concerned and I asked myself: will the time come when I will sigh over the fate of the Mubarak regime and say: "Those were the days, O Mubarak", exactly as we said after the overthrow of King Faruq (in July, 1952, when the "Free Officers" rose to power).

Now (when the Islamists stand to win a majority in parliament) that which was demonized turns out to be an actual demon, and it's clear that Mubarak was right when he threatened that if his regime fell, the Brotherhood would rise to power. However, I don't acquit the Mubarak regime of responsibility, because it allowed the situation in Egypt to deteriorate to such a low level that some of the people assumed that life under the Brotherhood could not be worse than the suffering they experienced under Mubarak. It was he who enabled the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was defined by law as a "forbidden organization", to operate under his alert ear and watchful eye; everyone knew where their headquarters were and who their leaders were, because the information about them was widespread in the Egyptian and world media. And despite everything, the regime averted its eyes and looked the other way, as if nothing was going on, and were satisfied as long as the Brotherhood didn't cross the red lines. We must admit that the Brotherhood was wiser and more clever than we thought, because they succeeded to achieve their goals within the limits that they were allowed.

Presently, there's no point in crying over spilt milk. We must cope with reality and see how we can overcome it.

First, we must wake up in order to learn what mechanisms the Brotherhood used to reach their goals. This mechanism is that anything is permissible as long as it brings them closer to their desired goal, in other words, the ends justify the means. The irony is that this radical religious group sees democracy as a foreign, Western principle that should be rejected, but if a certain component of democracy, the voting booth, can bring them to victory, then from their point of view, there is nothing to prevent them from using it as a ladder to climb on, in order to reach their goal, and then roughly kick it away. They used this strategy in order to achieve their objectives, and we must use the same strategy against them. The liberals, the Copts, the moderate Muslims and every Egyptian who values freedom must not abstain from the obligation of voting. Everyone must unify behind one list that can win and not waste their votes. I know that there is more awareness of this than before, but we must invest an additional effort so that everyone, without exception, can fulfill their civil duty and vote. (This was said because there were calls by secular groups to abstain from voting, in order to harm the validity of the elections).

Second, we must wake up in order to reveal the fraud that they perpetrated and to expose their schemes. They don't understand what real democracy is, because it is more than voting booths. Democracy is not consistent with alienation from the other, or taking over elections committees and preventing others from taking part. Likewise, democracy cannot subsist with the purchasing of votes with money or food, with legal transgressions that should apply to everyone, because they broke the elections law in the light of day when they continued to distribute election propaganda within the 48 hours before the elections (when it is forbidden to distribute propaganda), and to distribute fliers to the public that were standing in line in front of the voting booths. All of these are illegal acts.

Third, any collusion between them and state officials must be widely publicized, so that it can be stopped in any way possible. For example, it was clear that a scheme exists not to accept the votes of Egyptians living abroad, most of whom are Copts and liberals, by using tricks that were intended to deny them the right to vote or not to bring the voting slips to the embassy. Of the nine million (who have the right to vote from abroad) only a few thousand were able to vote, and from these, only a few hundred were accepted as legitimate votes. Within Egypt many voting places were shut down in areas where it was thought that the public would vote against the Islamists. Likewise, there were many irregularities when the votes were counted, and these things influenced the outcome of the elections. It is important to bear in mind all of these things in order to bring them to court. And if the legal authorities don't act fairly, then there is no alternative but to return to Tahrir Square.

Fourth, it is true that we are suffering from a serious disaster, however, even though we lost the battle, we have not lost the war. Many battles await us, because the elections for the parliament are not over yet. There are additional phases and there are repeat elections in many areas (where the victory between two candidates was indecisive), and there is still hope that it will be possible to change the original results. After the People's Council (the Lower House) there will be the campaign for the constitution, and we must insist that it will be written by a special committee of legal experts, who will represent all of the communities, religious and ethnic minorities, and not by the turban-wearing members of the new People's Council. The constitution, by its very nature, must defend the minorities from the tyranny of the strong majority and must not help the majority to crush the minority. Plus, we have before us another battle, the election of the president of the country, which I hope will be postponed so that things can calm down and laws can be determined that will assure a more informed and legitimate choice.

The most dangerous thing that can happen now is that we will become sunk in despair, that we will take off the gloves, that we will declare defeat before the match is even over. No! There is no need to give Egypt up so easily to the blackbirds who wish to return her to an era of ignorance and darkness. I feel that Tahrir Square will remain with us for a long time to come. If the parliament building turns into a stage for the Islamists, the rest of the people will have no other place for their voice to be heard other than the Square. And if anyone has a doubt about the legitimacy and effectiveness of Tahrir Square, he should recall that this square is where the whole revolution started ...


Dr. Mordechai Kedar ( is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the
Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally.

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Links to Dr. Kedar's previous articles on this blog:
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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