For many years, there has been much concern expressed in the Western world about the consequences of letting the Muslim Brotherhood take over in Egypt. After all, it was the justification for providing oodles of financial support for Hosni Mubarak’s regime, after he succeeded Anwar Sadat (who dared to make peace with Israel and was assassinated as a result), who himself succeeded the warmongering personality cult figure of Nasser. Egyptians have been under the jackboot of dictatorship for decades, and as much as US Administrations have appeased Mubarak and Sadat (given both have maintained peace with Israel and kept the Suez Canal open), their opponents have long deified Nasser. Egyptians who dared cross with any of the regimes would face a police, secret police and military ably dishing out summary justice, engaging in imprisonment, torture and summary executions.
There were two comforts casually taken by Western supporters of the Mubarak regime. One was that he wouldn’t wage war against Israel, back Islamists in Iran, Israel or elsewhere. The value of having an ally who is peaceful in an area that has been volatile, is considerable, especially when it can have its hands on the throat of one of the great shipping routes between Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia. The second was that Egypt appeared to modernise. It could be seen in the malls and shopping centres in Cairo, where young Egyptian women would walk around in jeans, hair uncovered and look little different from those in Europe. It could be seen in the relative vitality of a country that welcomes tourists, has many fluent in English and had a semblance of a civil society. However, underneath that entire facade were multiple pressures.
The first was the tired nature of living under a tired corrupt regime that had last more than 30 years with one president. A regime where wealth and success could come to the well connected, the relatives, the friends and those willing to share with those in power the booty of contracts, trade and business. A regime where the victims of such corruption, victims of the extra-legal use of authority by the regime would be ignored, at best. A seething resentment that a country that was becoming wealthier, more connected, with an increasingly younger population, was sitting atop something rotten.
The second came from those who resisted the modernisation, who saw the wealth and success of fellow Arab regimes to east and west, and would spread resentment at the dependency of Egypt on the succour of the United States (Egypt being, until recently, the second biggest recipient of US taxpayer funded aid after Israel). They would prey upon the fact that most Egyptians are Muslims and see the hope in dealing with corruption, crime and what they perceived as moral decay, in dumping the quasi-secularism of the Mubarak regime, in favour of Islamism. They did not think of the 10% Christian minority, or the tiny Jewish minority, nor did they think women should be anything but “equal, yet not bearing duties against their nature and role in the family”. They would also prey upon the strong anti-Israeli sentiment, which harks back to the families whose sons were victims of the wars Egypt had waged against Israel in the past, and the strong fraternal sense of injustice many Egyptians felt with Palestinian Arabs.
So when Egyptians threw off the Mubarak regime and held elections, the inevitable binary result was that the top two candidates would represent the old regime, and the organisation best organised and longest protesting about it – the Muslim Brotherhood.
With Mr. Morsi becoming President, in a land that no longer has a working Constitution, the stage is set for a new battle. Given the Parliamentary elections have been ruled null and void, these will presumably be held again, but he faces the army first and the smaller mass of Egyptians who support modernity. The women who deep down fear new laws about what they wear, who they marry, their rights to divorce, their treatment if abused, their employment and their work. The Christians who fear new laws about worship, about free speech, about education and about equal treatment under the law. The Egyptians more generally who want a society where the state protects everyone’s rights, as individuals, including the right to apostasy (which has, at best, been controversial and difficult in Egypt).
For now, it is likely that Egypt will not become the new Iran. It is still receiving US government largesse, which is largely benefiting the military. Any shift in policy that results in this ending will risk a military coup, given the sheer size of the Egyptian military. However, it is difficult to envisage how a man who belongs to an Islamist organisation, which espouses Sharia law as definitive, which seeks to restrict the role of women, which supports the abolition of the state of Israel and considers jihad and martyrdom as glorious, is going to ever represent a step forward.
If his colleagues get elected in the Parliamentary elections (along with Salafists who are more extremist), then one can envisage a new constitution. Not one that separates religion and state, nor one that prioritises individual rights.
The intellectual bankruptcy of supporting democracy as the measure of freedom will then be revealed. Egyptians will be deemed to have “supported” an Islamic state, and it will be “better” than the Mubarak regime.
Those who would protest in the streets for civil liberties, for the rights of women and the rights of minorities would appear to be willing to surrender those, for the victory of a man who represents rejection of Mubarak, and implicitly, the United States which backed him.
It may be that fears of an Iranian style Islamist revolution are wrong, it may be that Mr. Morsi is in fact willing to support a secular Egypt, that respects religious and individual freedoms, that fights the scourge of corruption that has long infested that land and takes only token steps towards embracing the long held agenda of an Islamist state.
However, it is clear that being allowed to vote for a President is not freedom. Individual rights are not protected when people who do not belong to the dominant religion, live and worship in fear, and when laws are enforced to prohibit people abandoning the dominant religion with the death penalty.
State religion, deep cultural misogyny, suppression of “blasphemous words and deed” and death worship are not compatible with individual freedom (including the rights and equality under the law for women), freedom of religion, freedom of speech and embracing of life.
Like a train that has escaped one tunnel, had a brief smattering of daylight and may now be about to enter another…