Guest editorial: Egypt on the cusp of change
This week’s writer is Haviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief who served in eastern and western Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.
Egypt on cusp of change
Voting on the new Egyptian constitution, which was written almost entirely by the Muslim Brotherhood, shows the Brotherhood won. However, with internal dissent evident in the low overall voter turnout of 32.9 percent, and street protests mounting, it is time to take a closer look at the likely ramifications of that divisive win. To do that, it is critical that we understand more about Egypt’s history, what the Muslim Brotherhood is and what it stands for.
Although Egypt has some of the issues of tribe, sect and nation that affect stability in the “countries” of the Middle East created over the past 150 years by Western imperial powers, what is happening there right now has its own very distinctive Egyptian markings.
Since its beginnings before 3000 B.C., Egypt has not avoided repressive rule. The last native Egyptian dynasty fell to the Persians in the fourth century B.C. Since then Egypt has been ruled by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. Arabs have ruled only since the seventh century A.D.
Thus, Egypt has not escaped the one reality that dominates the evolving political scene in the Middle East. Since the seventh century A.D., the Egyptian people have no direct, personal experience with democracy, only with the realities of repression, Islam and Sharia law and military dictatorship.
In 2011, the Egyptian people overthrew the military dictatorship that had been in place since 1952, most recently under General Hosni Mubarak. Since 1952, Egypt has no native experience with governance except through military repression. What makes Egypt different from the many other Arab countries that suffered under military dictatorship is that, since 1928, Egypt has had the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood was founded as an Islamist religious, political and social organization. What has made it unique in the Muslim Middle East is that, despite numerous, often brutal, governmental crackdowns, it has functioned as a disciplined political opposition to Egyptian regimes in power. The point is that it has been involved in governance for over 80 years.
That means that when Mubarak was overthrown, the only two organizations with any kind of practical political experience were the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. It seemed inevitable that one or the other would grab the reins.
Tahrir Square in 2011 was populated by people of widely differing motivation ranging from the rigid Islamist views of fundamentalist Salafists to the rather fuzzy democratic views of the many secular Egyptians who had had some indirect brush with democracy. Unfortunately, the secular forces are untidy, uncoordinated and disunited. The closest they have come to unification, organization and any hope for power has come with the National Salvation Front headed by Muhammad el-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
And while el-Baradei was getting his act together, the Brotherhood was in full swing. Through their new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, it ran in and won the elections of November 2011. Muhammad Morsi, a leading figure in the Brotherhood and chairman of the Brotherhood’s party, ultimately was declared winner of the election and president of Egypt.
Since then, Morsi has acted decisively to consolidate his position. He has, at least for the moment, emasculated whatever hopes the Egyptian military may have had for power. He took over the Constitutional Assembly that wrote Egypt’s future constitution, causing the resignation from that body of virtually all those Egyptians who might have disagreed with the Brotherhood’s position.
Finally, he unsuccessfully tried to arrogate to himself all the powers previously vested in Egypt’s judicial system, effectively neutralizing any possibility that the courts would rule the assembly or its constitution to be illegal. Hardly a democratic process.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s credo was and is, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”
Its principles include the introduction of Sharia law as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society”; and to work to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberate them from foreign imperialism.” If this represents the true beliefs of President Morsi, then under his rule Egypt would appear to be heading in the direction of sectarian Islamism of an intensity as yet undetermined.
So, the issue is: Will Egypt be ruled by an ideologically true Muslim Brotherhood, or has Mr. Morsi, only recently a significant player in the Brotherhood, really been able to effect democratic changes as he claims to have done in an organization that for 84 years has been traditionally hostile to the most basic tenets of democracy?
Whatever evolves, Egypt will remain internally divided and difficult to govern until the political needs of all its citizens are more fully considered.
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