On 3 July 2013, then minister of defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered a crucial statement on the army’s support for the legitimate demands of the mass protests staged by hundreds of thousands of people at least in many of Egypt’s cities and most notably in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square against the rule of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
Tahrir Square was the same place where protesters had earlier ended, again with the army’s full support, the 30-year rule of Egypt’s long-serving president Hosni Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution. In July 2013, Egypt’s hottest summer ever, the oldest nation in the world was at a crossroads, since an extremist ideological group was in power, albeit as a result of elections. But remember that Adolf Hitler was also given a popular mandate to rule, ushering in the atrocities of the Third Reich in Germany. Unlike in the case of Egypt, Hitler was not confronted early on, and his racist policies were massively stretched out, leading to a predictable outcome: a fallen, humiliated and defeated Germany.
A chaotic year in power was more than enough for ordinary Egyptians to fully apprehend that politics is not about preaching and that the rule of a nation, particularly one as diverse and multicultural as Egypt, cannot simply be seen as being like running a business or a charity. These were the “back-door” methods by which the Muslim Brotherhood had succeeded in attracting the marginalised, the unheard and people who lacked the most basic facts about their religion to support it.
It was an unforgivable mistake that the Egyptian state committed in allowing “Political Islam” to re-grow and gain ground, particularly in the mid-1970s when former president Anwar Al-Sadat came up with the idea of a balance of power that would confront secular ideas with religious ones. The plan was mainly aimed at quelling his opponents among supporters of his predecessor, former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who were better known for harbouring “secular” ideals and firmly standing up for Nasser’s legacy of a country free of any “heinous” Islamist ideology.
That wrong perception later cost Al-Sadat dearly. He was assassinated after a fatwa (religious ruling) had been issued against him by extremist Islamist clerics claiming that “the faithful president” was in fact “treacherous” for signing a “peace deal” with Israel.
The battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated extremist groups should not be mistakenly thought of as Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s own battle against Political Islam, as some pro-Muslim Brotherhood media and other circles have been trying to portray it. It also ought not to be considered as part of a crackdown on “dissidents” because the Muslim Brotherhood has never been a peaceful political group. Instead, it has always been an extremist one, hell-bent, from its foundation onwards, on violence and using a jihadist mindset as a means of rule.
Before it assumed office in Egypt in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood used to sell its agenda in Western circles by claiming that it would respect personal liberties and freedom of expression and thought and show respect for minorities and do its best, should it take over, to build democratic institutions in Egypt. However, all this was just a Trojan Horse ridden to serve a malicious end and with the regrettable support of some supposedly “secular and liberal” figures in Egypt prior to the presidential elections in 2012.
In practice, the outlawed group never heeded the values of democracy and free speech. Instead, it is now recognised as a well-established fact by everyone, including a large segment of those who went to the polls to elect a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in 2012, that the group’s discourse was based on an official orchestrating of hate speech against other points of view. That hate speech was not politically oriented, but was, much more seriously, religiously motivated.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the mid-1970s coincided with the early spread of the Wahhabi version of Islam, named after the Saudi religious figure Mohamed Bin Abdel-Wahab, in the country in the 1970s and through the 1980s. Both the Brotherhood and the Wahhabi version of Islam argue that mainstream Islam needs revisiting and that a more “orthodox” version needs to take root. As a result, less-educated, and even some well-educated, categories of the Egyptian community embraced this “orthodox” version of Islam and changed their habits and traditions to match this newly preached faith. Focusing on form rather than substance, many Muslims in Egypt started to abandon older versions of who they were in favour of a new and Bedouin-inspired style of life.
Given the circumstances that led to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak in 2011, particularly as civil political parties failed to attract the public and there was a false perception in the transitional administration after Mubarak fell that the Brotherhood might fill the “political vacuum” left by his fall, the disputed election of later ousted president Mohamed Morsi was more than predictable.
The conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the “deep state” in Egypt, as the group has called it in its propaganda, giving rise to a narrative of victimhood aimed at Western circles, was not about instilling democratic values or the promotion of human rights. Instead, it was about the Brotherhood wishing to cling to power maybe for decades and establish a ruling “milieu” similar to that of the former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019. It was about courting the West in secret and demonising it in public in order to secure the support of the masses.
I recall the days when I was serving as a diplomat in Ethiopia, when Egypt, then under the rule of Mohamed Morsi, was the only African country blocking a call by the African Union (AU) for military intervention to restore order in Mali, to the surprise of the continental bloc itself. Mali has been a beautiful African democracy, but Morsi held the view that the Islamists in Mali who had staged a bloody coup should not be called “terrorists” but should instead be seen as “reformers” seeking to enforce Islamic Sharia Law.
A rotten ideology should never be given a chance for survival, and the respect for human rights should never contradict a given nation’s right to exist. Winning the battle against Political Islam is a process, focused, over the long haul, on stemming the roots of Islamist ideology in a country with as rich a heritage as that of Egypt. It is not that common to find a nation like Egypt, which throughout its time-honoured history has embraced different thoughts and religions, whether polytheistic or monotheistic. A country that embraces different cultures is in practice a healthy and a growing one.
There is a need, therefore, to do more to empower a liberal and secular civil society in Egypt that promotes difference as long as it is exercised in a peaceful and non-compulsive way. The further promotion of personal liberties and the firm honouring of the rule of law are essential if Egypt is to proceed with a final and lasting solution to the atrocities committed under the name of “religion”. Above all, committing to the constitutional stipulation on the prohibition of all faith-based parties is now a more pressing need than ever.
Such policies may serve as a shield to prevent the recurrence of the kind of dark scenario that was seen in 2012, when many ordinary people elected, voluntarily or not, a group that publicly preaches violence and regrettably instilled false thoughts into the minds of millions, causing them to elect it to the government of Egypt.
*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly