44. What is happening in Egypt today?

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The author discusses the current political trends in Egypt, and considers how history has shaped them. Is division in society a new phenomenon, was it pre-existing, and what should be addressed to strengthen society as a whole.

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Talking about what is happening in Egypt today, as in the case of any country, is a broad subject that might require an in-depth study of the past of the country, particularly when the issue concerns the roots of present problems. But since the present socio-political scene, as worrisome as it appears, moves by leaps and bounds, it becomes incumbent on citizens at large, and especially liberal political thinkers, to confront the situation in hope of doing whatever possible to at least stop the collapse of the entire political system, even as democracy remains a strategic goal. It is true that the Arab Orient and what is known as the Muslim world, with Egypt in their midst, suffer from poverty and political despotism, in addition to the byproducts of these two evils. Yet many of these countries sit on great natural wealth that could have been exploited to provide a reasonable share of social justice, had opportune conditions such as good governance and modern science been applied. Evidently, the problem is partly in the unjust system of distribution of national wealth. Indeed, we should not lose sight of the fact that the crux of the matter is, in fact, not poverty in itself, for the majority of Egyptians, for example, were poor for centuries, though, they had never resorted to violence unless they were politically instigated under the banner of religion. This is what happened during the Mamluke period in the 13th – 16th centuries in particular. Interestingly, what is happening in Egypt today resembles to some extent what happened then under the Mamlukes. Egypt today, as we all witness, is in a moral and cultural crisis, where logic is absent and the societal constructive will is paralysed: a condition from which both superstition and extremism emanate, and the impulse to violence is common among the masses. In such environment of ignorance and poverty, political Islamists and opportunists call for the establishment of what seems to be an “unattainable” socio-political Utopia in opposition to the actual autocratic, corrupt ruling authority, which also uses the same religious discourse to both control and oppress the opposition, claiming it thereby defends the tenets of the faith. This is the general framework of the power struggle in which Egypt as well as most Arab and Muslim countries are caught. This did not happen as a result of the American invasion of Iraq, as some people have claimed. In fact, it began with the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the subsequent establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan in 1947, followed later on by the establishment of a more strict Islamic state in Iran 1979. As far as modern Egypt is concerned, we saw this struggle between the “officers” and “the Muslim Brothers” after the 1952 revolution. So, the problem of sectarianism was not initially created by others; though one might not discount the fact that the Americans manipulated the so called Islamic Awakening or “Sahwah Islamiya” and the sentiments of the peoples to drive the Soviets out of the Middle East, starting with Egypt in the early 1970’s and later Afghanistan. At any rate, sheer American political pragmatism seems to only have emboldened extremism worldwide. The kernel thereof, as we shall see, has always been in the region. The conclusion that we live with today is not only a divided region but, in some cases, divided and disintegrating countries: among races, sexes, religions and sects. In a historical moment, it is apparent that peoples of the region had taken the Arab mask off and replaced it with an Islamic political one. The struggle then resumed on a “sacred” ground where a peaceful consensus in political life has never been reached. On the beginning of the historical roots of this “bloody sacred struggle,” I quote from professor Rafiq Zakaria’s book “The Struggle within Islam: The conflict between Religion and Politics, where he says: “The first two successors of the Prophet, known as caliphs, proved remarkably resourceful; they united the faithful under one banner to spread the faith. But after them there was trouble: rival groups took to arms, caliphs were murdered and their murders plunged the Caliphate into succession of civil wars. Since then the Muslims have never been a united community.” Then he elaborates, saying: “As most of the political rivalries in the past were based on different interpretation of Qur’anic injunctions, Muslim fundamentalists of today who are trying to rule by Islam are in clash with Muslim autocrats in power. On this modern dilemma and its repercussions, the same author says: “Whatever the means by which a ruler acquired power he found an appropriate chapter and verse from the Qur’an to impress upon his subjects the fact that rebellion was not permitted. By and large, dissent was silenced by authority. As a result, the concept of constitutional opposition to the government could not be developed in Islam.” (1) Likewise, as Zakaria pointed out, “while the Prophet’s injunctions regarding non-Muslims are clear, there has always been some controversy over their treatment in an Islamic state. For example, verses are quoted in support of the view that the Qur’an calls upon Muslims to continue fighting non-Muslims till they are destroyed or accept conversion to Islam. Those who quote these verses do not take into account their historical background."(2) I come now to what is happening in Egypt today, which seems to be a reincarnation of what happened in the past in most of the Islamic history. We see a power struggle between Islamic political groups, some resorting to terrorism since the 1980s, and an autocratic corrupt political system, but both using Islam as a legitimising tool. The turning point in this power struggle was initiated by President Sadat in 1980 when he changed the country’s Constitution to stipulate that “Islamic Sharia is the principal source of legislation”. With this change, he secured another constitutional provision allowing him, as president, to be reelected for life. As we know, Sadat was assassinated in October 1981 by a group of Muslim fundamentalists. Soon after, an armed struggle against the State and its authorities was waged until the mid-1990s. Then, the state of Emergency law has been declared till 2007, consequently curbing rights and freedoms. With the increasing political oppression, superficial Islamisation of society widened in scope, dividing Muslims and Christians, pitting liberal Muslims against traditionalist Muslims and causing a perpetual wave of sectarian aggression on the Coptic minority, first by Islamist groups in the 1980s, then by ordinary Muslims neighbouring Copts. I will not go into details of the forms of discrimination and persecution suffered by the Copts at the hands of the Muslim majority and the State agents themselves. These are available in the archives of the national and international press and human rights organisations in Egypt and outside. Suffice it to mention that the Cairo-based Ibn-Khadoun Centre has recorded 125 massive attacks on Copts in villages and towns throughout the last three decades. What is equally troubling is the attack on freedom of expression and thought. Examples of Egyptians who were officially prosecuted and persecuted because of their opinions are Dr Nawal al-Saadawi, who had to leave Egypt recently for fear of her life. Another case was that of Dr Hamed Abu-Zeid, who in 1996 fled with his spouse to escape an Egyptian higher court ruling imposing their divorce. Lately, the regime has clamped on the free electronic information highways. The resistance of the current regime to a genuine democratisation and establishing the rule of law is not only creating social tensions but also stalling the needed participation of the people in running the affairs of their country. The recent so-called constitutional reform is nothing but a cosmetic facelift of a deformed constitution. Egypt’s historical experience during the short lived constitutional and liberal period in the first half of the twentieth century should have been revisited and developed to a more advanced political and social vision by which a modern state could function today. The current situation where the rule of law does not exist is eroding what is left of the regime’s legitimacy. And this will give more power and public support to undemocratic backward forces to take the country into more chaos. In a region where domestic political struggle for power resorts to violence under the banner of religion, rather than democratic practice, Egypt is not immune of more dangers similar to those the region is experiencing today. The key to Egypt’s national security and immunity from the surrounding social ills is its people’s freedom, equality and social coherence; these are the prerequisite ingredients for genuine democracy. __________________

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