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Muslim Brotherhood

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End of the Arab Spring

7 July 2013

End of the Arab Spring?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the people in charge of the various opposition parties in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on 4 July. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is probably still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is a good deal of chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring,” some of it by commentators who can barely conceal their delight. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s total Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, as are many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. Indeed, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned last weekend that Egypt risks stumbling into a civil war like the one that has devastated Syria.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, justified the military coup by claiming that it had been the only alternative to civil war – which could, he said, have been as bad as Somalia. Really? One suspects that he doesn’t know much about Somalia. Indeed, one suspects that he doesn’t really know much about his own country either (he has spent most of his career abroad).

There was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now either. What we are seeing is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 percent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Many voted for Morsi in recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long resistance to six decades of military dictatorship. Others voted for him in gratitude for the Brotherhood’s unfailing support for the poor, or in disgust at the fact that Morsi’s only opponent in the second round of the election was a left-over from the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps as few as half of them actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society – but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was not wise.

Some of the constitutional changes that Morsi imposed, and some of his tactics for pushing them through, may actually have been the result of political compromises within the Brotherhood, where he constantly had to fend off the fanatics who wanted even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, the secular opposition parties inevitably saw him as an extremist, and genuinely feared that he would somehow manage to force the whole package on Egypt.

So the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own: mass demonstrations that were explicitly intended to trigger a military take-over that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. In only four days of demos, they succeeded, in large part because the army, a resolutely secular organisation, had its own grave misgivings about where Morsi’s government was taking Egypt.

But the army hasn’t actually seized power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections. It will not be possible to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce – especially since the Brotherhood will probably be going through some changes of its own.

The Muslim Brotherhood took little part in the 2011 revolution, and the men at the top, including Morsi, were utterly unprepared for power. They are now likely to be replaced by a younger generation of leaders who are more flexible and more attuned to the realities of power. They might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 3 and 4. (“Morsi…abroad”)

 

 

Egypt: The Not So Bad Constitution

26 December 2012

Egypt: The Not So Bad Constitution

By Gwynne Dyer

Egyptian politics over the past nine months has not been an edifying sight, but the new constitution does not spell the end of democracy in Egypt. It scares the 36 percent of Egyptian voters who rejected it, but their fears are probably misplaced.

The revolution was made in the big cities, mostly by people who were secular in outlook. However, most Egyptian voters live in rural areas that are devout and deeply conservative, so three-quarters of the votes in the first free election went to Islamic parties.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political vehicle of the Muslim Brotherhood, got almost half the votes but it did not really get a mandate to impose strict Islamic law on Egypt. Some of its votes came from people who wanted that, but some came from people who value the Brotherhood’s charitable work, or were just grateful for its role as the only real resistance during the decades of dictatorship.

The Brotherhood’s leadership understood that – but another quarter of the votes went to “Salafi” parties that have an extremist interpretation of Islam. The Salafis would obviously steal the votes of the Freedom and Justice Party’s more devout supporters in the next election unless there was some Islamic content in the new constitution.

The Brotherhood’s last political platform in 2007 called for a board of Muslim clerics to supervise the government. It also insisted that only Muslim men could become president. “The state which we seek can never be presided over by a non-Muslim,” said Mohammed Morsi, who drafted that platform and is now president of Egypt.

Maybe Morsi still privately thinks that, or maybe he has realised that these rules are unacceptable in a democracy where all citizens are equal. It doesn’t matter. The new constitution does not contain any such provisions, and the main reason is obviously the Brotherhood’s tacit bargain with the armed forces.

The deal, which guarantees the military’s privileges, was necessary to persuade the staunchly secular armed forces to accept an Islamic party in government, but it had a price: the new government could not be TOO Islamic. This posed a problem for Morsi, because Muslim Brotherhood activists wanted to use their political power to entrench “Islamic” rules in the new constitution.

So Morsi had to walk a fine line. He had to put enough Islamic language into the constitution to mollify his own supporters, but not so much that the military would break their alliance with him. He didn’t walk that line very well.

The whole constitutional process was a poisonous battle even before Morsi became president last June. In April the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members had all been appointed by the Mubarak dictatorship, dissolved the newly elected House of Representatives on a flimsy pretext, and also dismissed the constitution-writing assembly that it had chosen.

But the upper house of parliament is also dominated by Islamist parties, and it simply appointed another constituent assembly with the same make-up. After that it was open war.

By October most of the non-Islamists in the second constituent assembly had walked out, and the Supreme Judicial Council was about to dismiss that body too. Morsi’s clumsy response was to grant himself unlimited powers and forbid the judiciary to dismiss the assembly.

There was an outcry by the opposition, a fractious coalition of leftists, liberals and Christians, and the protestors were instantly back on the streets. But the constituent assembly promptly rendered the whole crisis unnecessary by passing the new draft constitution in a 29-hour marathon sitting, so Morsi cancelled his special powers – and on 22 December, Egyptians ratified the new constitution by a 63.8 percent majority.

Small crisis, not many hurt. The army got what it wanted: henceforward, the minister of defence must be a serving officer, and the military will effectively control its own budget. The parliament cannot even debate it.

The Brotherhood got less of what it wanted, but there are bits of Islamic language in the constitution to keep the activists happy. For example, Article 2 of the old constitution (1971) says: “The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”

The new one still says that, but Article 219 adds: “The principles of Sharia include general evidence and foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars.” And what practical difference does that make?

Article 30 states that “citizens are equal before the law and equal in rights and obligations without discrimination,” but as in the old constitution, there is no separate and explicit guarantee of women’s rights. Putting that in would have required a major battle with the misogynist rank and file of the Brotherhood, and the old formula would be quite adequate if the courts enforced it.

Nervous secular Egyptians fear that these bits and pieces of Islamic rhetoric are the seeds of a constitutional revolution that will turn the country into an Islamist dictatorship, but there is little evidence for that.

As for the frantic haste with which the constitution was passed – after two years of revolutionary upheaval, the Egyptian economy desperately needs the political stability that a new constitution and fresh elections (due in February) will provide. It’s not a plot. It’s just the politics of necessity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“The Brotherhood’s…constitution”; and “Article…that”)

 

Morsi Goes Too Far

25 November 2012

Morsi Goes Too Far

By Gwynne Dyer

“There is no middle ground, no dialogue before (Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi) rescinds this declaration,” said pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. “There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says ‘let us split the difference’.”

Morsi won last June’s presidential election fair and square, but many Egyptians really are frightened that his decree of 22 November sweeps aside the democratic gains of last year’s revolution. The decree gives him absolute power, although he swears it is only for a limited time.

Morsi was already governing by decree pending a new parliamentary election, since the courts had dissolved the lower house of parliament because the election was flawed. His latest decree declares that the courts cannot challenge any of his edicts until that new election takes place.

The decree also states that he can take any steps necessary to defeat undefined “threats to the revolution” – and nobody can ask the courts to decided whether those steps are legal and justifiable. In theory, at least, Morsi has given himself greater powers than the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ever possessed.

This is as puzzling as it is alarming, since nothing in Morsi’s previous history suggests that he wants to be Egypt’s next dictator. He is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and shares its conservative social and religious values, but that organisation, the mainstay of opposition to Egypt’s military dictators during half a century of tyranny, has moved a long way from its radical and sometimes violent origins.

So was Morsi a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just waiting for the chance to impose Islamic rule on everybody, including liberals, Christians, and secular Egyptians? How else can you explain what he has just done? The answer matters, because if Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country (90 million people), succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole “Arab Spring” was just a brief illusion.

Morsi’s actions are wrong, but he is not actually aiming at a dictatorship. He just wants to thwart the Supreme Judicial Council, made up of judges who almost all date from the Mubarak era, which had already dismissed the first body charged with writing a new constitution. There were indications that it might be about to dissolve the second one on the same grounds.

The grounds were legally sound, for the first assembly chosen by parliament included a large number of MPs who belonged to the Islamic parties, although the law said that members of parliament could not themselves sit in the Constituent Assembly. A second Constituent Assembly, chosen in June, once again included members of parliament in clear defiance of the law, which is why it is facing further court challenges.

In the last month or so, the prospect that this new body will produce a constitution based mainly on Islamic law led most of the secular and Christian elements to withdraw. That deprived it of a voting quorum, but the remaining members, including many MPs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, carried on regardless, so there was a growing probability that a new court ruling would dismiss this assembly too.

Morsi moved swiftly, not only giving himself supreme powers beyond the ability of the courts to challenge, but specifically forbidding the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss the second Constituent Assembly. He also gave that assembly an extra two months to finish writing the constitution, after which it would have to be approved by referendum.

Only then (perhaps next May) would a new lower house of parliament be elected – and once the constitution is in place and the subsequent election is past, Morsi promised, he will relinquish his extraordinary powers. But by then Egypt would have an Islamic constitution, and almost certainly a lower house of parliament dominated by the Islamic parties.

What is happening now, therefore, is not the rise of a new dictatorship but rather a ruthless political manoeuvre aimed at creating a democratic but Islamic Egypt. Naturally, it frightens a large proportion of the 49 percent of Egyptians who voted against Morsi in the presidential election earlier this year, and it absolutely terrifies the country’s 8 million Christians.

Morsi’s edict has been met with impassioned protest in the streets, and the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at uniting all non-Islamist groups to force Morsi to rescind his edicts. Its leaders include three of the candidates who ran against Morsi in the election earlier this year. But that may not be enough.

The truth is that the elections produced a parliamentary majority and a president who want to impose Islamic law, and that its opponents are using various legal devices in an attempt to stop the process. Moreover, a new constitution imposing Islamic law would almost certainly get a “yes” in a referendum.

But the other truth is that majorities in a democracy should not try to impose their religious and social views on large minorities who do not share them. Morsi is already showing signs of wanting to compromise – but, as ElBaradei pointed out, he cannot take these extreme measures and then offer to “split the difference.” Egypt is in for a rough ride.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“The grounds…challenges”; and “Only…parties”)

 

 

The “Arab Spring”: Good News

11 July 2012

The “Arab Spring”: Good News

By Gwynne Dyer

The good news about last weekend’s election in Libya, as relayed by the Western media, was that the “Islamists” were defeated and the Good Guys won. The real good news was that democracy in the Arab world is still making progress, regardless of whether the voters choose to support secular parties or Islamic ones.

The Libyan election was remarkably peaceful, given the number of heavily armed militias left over from the war to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship that still infest the country. Turnout was about 60 percent, and Mahmoud Jibril, who headed the National Transitional Council during last year’s struggle against Gaddafi, won a landslide victory.

The explicitly Islamic parties, the Justice and Development Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-Watan, did far worse than they expected, getting barely 20 percent of the vote in Benghazi, the big city in the east. But they should not have been surprised.

In Tunisia to Libya’s west and Egypt to the east, the Muslim Brotherhood was the mainstay of resistance to the dictatorships for decades, and it paid a terrible price for its bravery. It was natural for voters in those countries to reward Islamic parties when the tyrants were finally overthrown. Gaddafi was more ruthless and efficient in crushing all opposition in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhoood had scarcely any local presence.

So Libya gets a “secular” government, while Tunisia and Egypt get “Islamic” governments – but the point is that they all get democratically elected governments, and stand a reasonable chance of becoming countries that respect human rights and the rule of law. Tunisia, indeed, has already made that transition, and Egypt, with one-third of the entire population of the Arab world, is still heading in that direction too.

The relevant question is not whether a party is Islamic; it’s whether it is democratic. The Western prejudice against Islamic parties (and local prejudice as well) comes from a confusion between Islamic and “Islamist” groups, the latter being the English word for fanatical groups that reject democracy and advocate violent jihad against infidels and “heretical” Muslims.

This confusion, sad to say, is often deliberately encouraged by Western and local interests that really know better, but want to discredit those who oppose them. That phenomenon was much in evidence during the recent Egyptian elections, where the other major parties, instead of offering serious policy proposals of their own, concentrated on trying to scare the voters about the “Islamic threat”.

It didn’t work in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s party won both the parliamentary and the presidential elections. This did not please the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its allies from the old regime, and they arranged for the Egyptian Supreme Court to dismiss the new parliament on a flimsy constitutional pretext.

Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammad Morsi, has refused to accept the army’s decrees, and a delicate game is underway in Cairo in which he is trying to discredit the soldiers and gradually drive them back into their barracks without risking an open confrontation that could trigger an actual military coup. He will probably win in the end, because the army knows that the masses would promptly be back in Tahrir Square if it did try a coup.

And if Egyptians don’t like what their Islamic government does, they can always vote it out again at the next election.

 

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.