Sunday, September 01, 2013
Dr Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president since independence, was not perfect. He inherited a basket case economy dominated by family and friends of Egypt's top army brass, among them former dictator (and ally of both the United States and Israel) Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi tried and failed to unite various elements of Egypt's civil society, even failing to get other religious parties (such as Saudi Arabia's salafist allies) on board. Morsi wasn't the most polished performer overseas. At home, he was viciously lampooned by satirists on TV, radio and in print. In his clumsily fitting suit and poorly-trimmed beard, he looked more like Yogi Bear than a statesman.
Egypt has been longer a home of Christianity than Islam. Six decades of military rule haven't made Egyptian Christians feel safer, especially with allegedly secular military strongmen using their power to spread anti-Christian hatred to deflect attention and manufacture religious scapegoat. This isn't a peculiarly Muslim or Egyptian phenomenon. Billy Hughes and John Howard each had pieces of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak in them.
But to many of Morsi's opponents inside and outside Egypt, his biggest imperfection was his affiliation to the Egyptian branch of the pan-Arab social movement calling itself al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brothers or MB). The exact extent of his affiliation isn't very clear. Was he as close to the MB spiritual leadership as, say, Tony Abbott was to Cardinal Pell or the late Bob Santamaria? Or was he just one of those leaders who liked rewarding his political allies with cushy jobs, again something hardly unknown to Australian readers.
Some may find such comparisons offensive. They will insist there is a huge difference between Islamic chalk and Christian cheese. Christians don't declare jihad on other countries, nor do they seek to impose their theocratic politics on others. The MB is an Islamist organisation, much like to other Islamist organisations such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah and the Indonesian JI. Islamists aren't really committed to democracy. Islamists are theocrats at heart.
It's little wonder that those insisting on such reasoning will have little sympathy for any group meeting their label of Islamist. Which leads me to wonder: on what basis do we label individuals or groups 'Islamist'? Or 'fundamentalist'? Or 'extremist'?
How many times need it be said that it is impossible to have a monolith amongst a set of congregations making up almost one quarter of the world's human population? Further, when will anti-'Islamists' recognise that the history and politics and economics of Muslims is just as complex and complicated as the variations of history and politics and economics of Catholic communities? Political Catholics (or Catholic politicians, whatever) in El Salvador has different priorities to those in Germany to those in East Timor to those in Australia.
So if we want to get an understanding of why we should all be concerned with events in Egypt, let's start by removing our sectarian blinkers. This applies not just to anti-'Islamists' but also to the many Shia Muslims that perhaps regard Morsi as a Sunni sectarian fanatic for his opposition to Iranian and Lebanese Shia forces supporting the Syrian government. It applies also to other sectarian and political groupings across the Muslim world who have been fervently critical of Morsi and his government.
It also applies to people like me, people who were once 'radicals' and who once supported 'Islamic' movements (of which MB was one) largely because we were taken in by the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. We then became disillusioned with MB-style politics after seeing movements becoming embroiled in the Afghan civil wars that erupted after the Soviets withdrew and the American cash dried up.
In Egypt, many 'Islamists' also became disillusioned with and left the MB. But groups like MB never left their communities. Even when they ceased their political role, successive Egyptian dictators saw the MB as useful for providing social services – medical clinics, legal aid services, etc. The MB has been performing this role for decades. Its grass roots outreach is stronger than any purely political secular grouping in the country. Little wonder one of its allies won the presidential election.
When an elected government proves unpopular and incompetent, we only expect the army to intervene and a coup to take place if the country involved is Pakistan or Bangladesh or a central African nation. Indeed, these days it is rare even in Pakistan, Bangladesh and many parts of Africa. So why should our leaders speak almost approvingly of such a process taking place in Egypt?
It must seem hypocritical to the average person from a Muslim party, to the average cadre who would otherwise be volunteering in a health clinic or legal aid centre in downtown Cairo or Karachi or Jogjakarta. Or indeed Baghdad. The West can encourage democracy. It will even force-feed democracy (as in the Gulf War). It will jail hundreds of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay and in secret camps to protect what is left of its own democracy.
But woe betide any vaguely 'Islamist’ group which tries to democratise itself and its nation.
First published in Eureka Street on 20 August 2013.