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Egypt: Don’t miss the wood for the trees

Thursday 11 July 2013, by siawi3

Dr Taimur Rahman

The Daily Times, July 08, 2013

If this rejection of political Islam catches on in the Muslim world, it can lead to a complete historical ideological shift

The entire debate on the dramatic events in Egypt this last week is now centred on the military intervention that has occurred on the side of the protestors. Those who support right-wing politics, though they have never earnestly supported democracy, have no hesitation in characterising recent events as a crime against democracy and a restoration of the military dictatorships of the past. Liberals, who condemn any form of military intervention in politics, feel that President Muhammad Morsi should have been allowed to complete his term, and join the right in denouncing the coup. In my opinion much of this debate misses the wood for the trees.

The Arab spring woke millions of people to political life. It swept aside military dictatorships that had existed for three, sometimes four decades. But it did not usher in progressive or liberal forces. On the contrary, nearly everywhere the Arab spring brought to power and prominence the religious right. In Tunisia the Islamist party Ennahda came to power; in Egypt, the Ikhwan ul Muslameen; in Libya and Syria, the rightwing National Transitional Council and Syrian National Council, respectively, were helped by the west to come to power or contend for it. Meanwhile, the monarchies were completely untouched by the Arab Spring. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain continued much as before. In sum, the Arab Spring basically undermined all the secular governments in the Middle East and led to the whole scale victory of right-wing elements across the Middle East.

Turkish protests against Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP gave the first inkling that this was not where the pendulum of history was coming to a rest. Large-scale secular protests demonstrated that there were significant pockets of resistance to the right wing. But that is Turkey, a country with a longer and deeper history of secular development than any Muslim country. It could just have been Turkish exceptionalism. Except that it wasn’t.

Egypt followed soon in its wake. Morsi, who had won 13.23 million votes in 2012, became so unpopular in a year that 22 million people signed a petition for his resignation. During his year in office, food prices in Egypt doubled, at IMF’s insistence fuel subsidies for millions of the poorest Egyptians were removed. He supported NATO intervention in Syria. And he signed Free Trade Agreements with Europe that led to austerity and unemployment. Typical of all religious fundamentalists, Egypt saw rising tensions with people of other sects and religions. He accumulated vast dictatorial powers to his own office.

Finally, approximately 17 million came out on the streets against him. BBC called it the largest protest in the history of mankind. Egypt became ungovernable. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the secular opposition movement called Tamarod (Rebellion), argues that had the army not intervened there would have been a civil war. In the wake of Egypt, Tunisia has also begun a Tamarod movement against Ennahda.

Perhaps it is too early to say but it would be something if the protests in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia were the beginnings of the second phase of the Arab Spring, a phase that is leading to the increasing disenchantment with political Islam and a new movement for secular democracy in the Arab world. If so, the birth and victory of such a movement will not proceed in a straight geometric progression within the framework of parliamentary democracy. It simply cannot because what is under contestation is not who will be in power but the rules of the game itself.

Turning back to Egypt, I share the views of Pakistani liberals and progressives who are opposed to military dictatorship in Egypt. Thankfully, in Egypt today the Supreme Court is passing a draft law on parliamentary elections and preparing for parliamentary and presidential polls. If this goes through, and the strongest guarantee that it will go through are the millions of people mobilised to fight for their rights in Egypt, the military intervention will prove only to be a temporary measure.

Where I part company with them is that they focus almost exclusively on the temporary intervention of the military and fail to see the much bigger story. The bigger story, in my view, is the large-scale rejection of political Islam. If this rejection of political Islam catches on in the Muslim world, it can lead to a complete historical ideological shift, destroying all remnants of semi-medieval thinking and opening the doors to progressive development.

The writer is an Assistant Professor at LUMS