Best laid plans: Egypt's Islamist project on the brink

Yasmine Fathi , Tuesday 25 Jun 2013

Despite decades of planning for Egypt's eventual transition into an Islamic state, only two years of post-revolution politics appear to have put paid to the Muslim Brotherhood's longed-for Islamist renaissance

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi (C) attends with prominent Sunni clerics a Syria solidarity conference organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, in Cairo in this handout picture provided by the Egyptian Presidency dated June 15, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

As Egypt's first freely chosen president took the stage last summer, the thousands arrayed in Cairo's Tahrir Square roared their approval. After a knife's-edge vote, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi had clinched the country's most powerful civilian position – the secretive Islamist organization’s goal for over eight decades. Now, surely, an Islamic state was within its grasp.

But one year on, Morsi's unofficial inauguration in downtown Cairo seems more like the pinnacle of the Islamists' power then the emergence of a Sharia-compliant Egypt.

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s dream of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt is nowhere close to becoming a reality. Some experts believe that, not only has Morsi’s first year in power tarnished the image of the 85-year-old group, but that of all Islamists.

Following Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011, the Islamists – and specifically the Brotherhood – were expected to effortlessly climb to power. They were the largest opposition present at the time and had the sympathy of many average Egyptians. Their selling point was Islamic Law and the establishment of an Islamic state that would take Egypt back to the glory days of Islam.

The Brotherhood quickly established its political leg, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Meanwhile, members of Egypt's Salafist Call – the country's largest Salafist movement – established the Nour Party. During the Mubarak era, Salafists had refused to participate in opposition politics on grounds that it was sinful to oppose a Muslim ruler.

Parliamentary, constitutional travails

The two competed in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary and Shura Council elections, winning majorities in both. Despite their lackluster performance in parliament – in which they were accused of ignoring pressing matters, such as Egypt’s failing economy, while focusing on trivial issues – they remained popular with many Egyptians.

"Their performance in parliament had a negative impact," explained political analyst and former MP Emad Gad. "But when Morsi came to power, most people still had a positive view of the Islamic project. But during his first year in office he managed to destroy this image in the eyes of most Egyptians."

He points out that Morsi has made many promises that he never kept and that his regime has tried to 'Brotherhoodise' the nation by taking over many of the country's top institutions, including the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary.

However, Gad adds that the turning point came when he passed a constitution that was rejected by most political forces in Egypt.

The constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution saw numerous squabbles, along with accusations that Islamist assembly members were forcing their opinions on the non-Islamist minority. This led most non-Islamist members to withdraw from the constitution-drafting body, leaving only the Islamists to conduct a final vote in a 14-hour marathon session.

"After this, he confirmed to the public that the Islamic current is undemocratic and does not like dialogue," said Gad.
Morsi's refusal to fulfill his promises, including the creation of a coalition government that would include Egypt’s diverse political forces, also hurt his popularity, say critics.

"His lack of commitment to democracy made people not trust him," explained Khalil El-Anani, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "Secondly, it showed that the Islamists are fascists, and don't have a democratic ideology."

Additionally, many Egyptians began to realise that what is said and what is done are two different things.

"He talked about the Islamic project, but did not apply Islamic Law, which is one of the main sellers of the Islamic project," said El-Anani.

El-Anani pointed out that Morsi agreed to take a loan from the IMF at interest, which is forbidden by Islamic Law.
However, Ahmed Sobie, a leading member of the FJP shoots down these accusations.

“The Islamic current has actually proven to be much more democratic and more serious about pushing Egypt into a democratic path then the other currents,” he said.

He pointed out that it is the Islamist current that has fought to keep the parliament and Shura Council in place. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that was ruling Egypt after the ousting of Mubarak had dissolved the parliament in June after a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) found fault with laws governing the assembly’s elections.

One of Morsi’s first actions after becoming president is to reinstate the parliament. When the SCC suspended his decision a few days later, the Islamists began a yearlong fight to keep the Shura Council, which was threatened with a similar fate.

“We did this to protect Egypt. We had to make sure that all its important institutions were working,” Sobie added.
He also said that it was the Islamists who fought to draft a new constitution for Egypt. He also denied that the Islamists controlled the constituent assembly.

“Let’s not forget that it was the Islamist ultra conservative Building and Development Party that decided to give up their seats in the constituent assembly for the liberals and leftists,” Sobie said. “They did this in order to give them a voice,” stressed Sobie.

He also pointed out that it was Morsi who turned Egypt from a military state to a civil state.

“I doubt either the liberal or Nasserists would have been able to do this amidst all the criticism we received,” explained Sobie.

Alienating the Islamists

However, it is not just the liberal and leftists forces that are at loggerheads with Morsi. The Islamists themselves have also felt let down by him.

“I believe that Morsi’s first year in power, had a negative impact on the Islamic project,” said Nader Bakar, spokesperson of the Salafist Nour Party.

He accused Morsi and the brotherhood of marginalizing and alienating anyone who is not a member of the group. The he points out shed a bad light on the Islamic project.

“The Islamic project does not say that you discriminate between the citizens of one country; it does not say promote authoritarian rule, it does not tell us to ignore those who have opposing views,” explained Bakar. “The stubbornness of the brotherhood and the unprofessional manner in which they dealt with all the problems of the country has had a negative impact on the way average Egyptians view the Islamists.”

The Islamists also had other gripes with Morsi including his decision to license liquor stores and his lack of support to officers wanting to sport Islamist-style beards. He also opted to smooth relations with Iran thus paving the way for Shia tourists – often seen as a threat by Sunni Muslims – to enter Egypt.

"He also allowed security forces to pursue jihadists, which turned even more Islamists against him," said El-Anani.

He adds that several other factors have led to the Brotherhood’s failure to lead the country, one of which is the lack of experience in running a populous, diverse and complex state like Egypt.

Mubarak's iron-fisted rule and repression of the Islamists also resulted in their being excluded from working in government bodies and gaining needed experience.

"Another is the secretive character of the Brotherhood," said El-Anani. "They know how to work under pressure, but not openly."

Nor did Egypt's January 25 Revolution provide the group sufficient time to go from repressed opposition to ruling power.

El-Anani cited the example of Turkey, where the Islamists were gradually drawn into politics allowing them to develop their ideas and moderate their political discourse and approach.

In Egypt, by contrast, the Brotherhood was faced with what El-Anani calls "sudden inclusion."

"They couldn't strike the balance between being an opposition movement and a responsible political force or ruling party. So they now hover between both," he explained. "They still think of themselves as an opposition movement, staging protests, strikes and sit-ins; the mindset has not changed."

On a more practical level, Morsi's government has failed to provide Egyptians with much needed services. During the past year, there have been frequent power cuts, along with shortages of diesel fuel, gasoline and bread, among other vital commodities.

"These shortfalls are what bother people the most," says political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie. "In terms of other issues – concerning politics, judicial independence, human rights and civil rights – Mubarak repressed the Egyptians in all this, too. But he, at least, offered these services to the people, so they were patient with his rule to a certain extent."

Islamist disunity

What's more, the Islamists' united front after Mubarak's downfall did not last long. Within months, cracks appeared, as electoral rivalries heated up.

Hostilities climaxed when the Salafist Nour Party split in early 2013, after party president Emad Abdel-Ghafour defected and announced the formation of a new party, the Watan Party. There were reports that the Brotherhood had played a role in the falling out.

"The Brotherhood encouraged the differences between the Salafists to split and weaken them," explained El-Anani. "This is what used to happen under Mubarak; it's the same old game played by Mubarak-era leaders to divide the opposition in order to manipulate them."

Another issue is that inter-Islamist divisions have always been present. Their unity in the days following the revolution, says El-Anani, was only temporary.

"There has always been historical tension between them," he explained. "They never trusted each other. This dates back to the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, when they clashed in Alexandria University."

Tarek Osman, author of 'Egypt on the Brink,' added that the revolution had brought together different Islamic forces to fight a common enemy.

"The revolution brought together these forces behind a very clear objective: defining themselves as 'Islamists' against the old regime and against the liberal current in Egypt," he said. "The more they delve into the details of the country’s legislative, political and economic transition, the more the fractures appear."

Many Egyptians are now discontented with the Brotherhood’s performance. The group's seeming confusion has prompted a popular joke: "The Brotherhood fought to control Egypt for 80 years but had no plan what to do when it actually achieved it."

It remains unclear how much damage this last year has done to the Islamists' popularity.

"In this struggle about the country's social identity, the shape of the future, the loudest voice – the key determinant – will be the 45-million Egyptians under 35 years old," said Osman.

"Their preferences, ideas and views will be the deciding factor," he asserted. "At the end of the day, it is a fight over the hearts and minds of this generation."

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