New president in Egypt: Implications for political Islam (Comment)

July 3rd, 2012 - 4:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Egypt, land of the Nile, splendour of the pharaohs and now remembered through the majestic pyramids is birthplace of one of the oldest civilizations of the world. It marked a historic event June 30 when Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as the first democratically elected president of his country in Cairo. The long three decade Hosni Mubarak era has come to a symbolic end with the assumption of office by Morsi - a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who represents the common man of Egypt - in contrast to the kings and military dictators who ruled Egypt for the last century.

The question that has been repeatedly raised within Egypt and beyond since the Morsi victory was declared is: what kind of democracy is Egypt likely to give unto itself with the current leadership, which is rooted in the ideology and objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an Islamic party that was formed in 1928 as part of the anti-colonial movement. The central tenet of the Brotherhood at the time was to promote adherence to the tenets of Islamic sharia law in Egypt, even while working with the under privileged population as part of their social and charitable agenda.

The anti-British orientation of the MB led to their supporting the Nazi cause during World War II and this in turn led to the seeds of both anti-Zionism and recourse to terror techniques to thwart the British in Palestine and elsewhere. Post World War II, the MB pursued its Islamic agenda and defiance of the ruling regime in Cairo and was implicated in the 1948 assassination of the Egyptian prime minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi.

Subsequently with the beginning of military rule in Egypt (1952) led by then Colonel Nasser that overthrew the monarchy, the MB was marginalized in the power structure of the country. The military’s secular, socialist ideology was at variance with what the Brotherhood espoused and after the failed 1954 assassination attempt on Nasser, the MB was abolished. The leadership of this vast organization was imprisoned and the cadres forced to go underground - and this pattern, with a varying degrees of leniency continued through the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak years.

Thus the swearing in of a MB member as the president is an event of near tectonic proportion in the annals of Egyptian history but the implications of this for the trajectory of political Islam in its post 9/11 context are opaque and cause for both concern and reflection.

While there are many anomalies about the swearing in - which was preceded by Morsi’s public address at Tahrir Square Friday (June 29) - the reality is that the powerful Egyptian military has dissolved parliament and retained most of the actual control of the state. Complex negotiations will be held to work out the power distribution between the elected president and the uniformed fraternity.

While President Morsi has reiterated that Cairo’s external policies and treaties will be respected - meaning the peace accord with Israel - it is evident that relations with the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran will be reviewed. The weakened economy is in need of deft political and professional handling - and will be the single most important indicator for the average Egyptian who is now overcome with fatigue after an extended cycle of elections and protests.

It is the internal dynamic and divisions that will challenge the Morsi leadership - the co-relation with the military; finding a modus vivendi with the former Mubarak faction that won almost half the votes in the election; and assuaging the concerns of the youth in Egypt who formed the core of the Tahrir demonstrations and who do not want a return to the past or a conservative, stifling Islam to restrict them. The gender issue and the status of women in the new political Islam of Egypt could prove to be an early indicator of where the Morsi regime proposes to take Egypt.

Reviewing the various statements made by President Morsi - both in the election campaign and in the run-up to the swearing in Saturday, what is discernible is an attempt by the new Egyptian president to be all things to all people - meaning that he is seeking to endear himself to the vast Islamic constituency within Egypt - the support-base of the MB and reach out to his political opponents and the minorities - the Coptic Christians in particular.

Whether this is pragmatic politics or tactical opportunism will be evident within the next few months as the new regime in Cairo begins to deal with a range of challenges - both external and internal.

The MB victory in Egypt also signifies the arrival of the first Islamic party using the ballot-box to come to power in a major Sunni dominated nation and this could be as significant as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which saw the advent of political Shia Islam.

Given Egypt’s historical role as the leader of Arab politics and learning, the politico-religious ideology that will be advanced by the Morsi regime will be critical not just for the Arab world - but for the extended Islamic belt including South Asia.

If the new Egypt decides to revert to the more conservative and intolerant interpretation of Islam that has shown its virulence in Pakistan and Afghanistan with active support from Saudi Arabia, the possibility that this kind of political Islam will gain ascendancy is more likely. In the event, the Muslim Brotherhood will be going back to its original objective of implementing the Islamic sharia in Egypt and extending this to the rest of the region.

But for a party that has defied authority and power since its birth and adopted a revisionist agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood has become that very symbol of authority and power and the deeper challenge will be to see if Morsi’s political Islam can nurture into a more inclusive and tolerant governing ethos. At this point the optimism will have to remain muted though the hope generated in Cairo is high and infectious.

(03.07.2012 - C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at cudayb@gmail.com)

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