Friday, 19 July 2013

Egypt news: why the Islamic government fell

What broke the unity of Egypt's revolutionaries and where is the struggle-weary nation headed next?

March to Tahrir Square, January 2013
by Lydia Green

Egypt’s 2011 revolution was a lesson to the world in national intercommunity and interfaith unity. Two years on, the army is swearing in a new government imposed by force as mothers sit by the freshly dug graves of a new wave of young protestors. What was it that broke the steadfast unity of those January protestors and where is this struggle-weary nation headed next?

Fault lines of Faith
For many supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi’s election victory was a victory for democracy, freedom and national self-determination. It was also a triumph for political Islam, which for many years had been denied access to the Egyptian ballot box by secular dictators. For the country’s 10% Christian minority, as well as its more secular minded youth, it spelled disaster. Morsi instigated a new constitution, incorporating more religious statutes than ever before. He limited the power of the judiciary while consolidating his own, and failed to stop a number of deadly attacks on Christian neighbourhoods. It was this, as well as the worsening economic situation, that triggered several million Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square earlier this month, promising to leave only when President Morsi was president no more.

Jihad of the Sword
They got their way of course, and the intensity of the celebrations that followed Morsi’s departure certainly rivaled those of 2011. Yet both in the Middle East and back in the West there is a palpable nervousness about what response a military coup might trigger among Egypt’s more extreme factions. After years of being denied a voice in politics, they have seen their democratic voice smothered in its infancy. Democracy as the West sells it, and as many political Islamists bought it, has been irrefutably and categorically undermined by the imposition of a new, unelected government before the end of the acting president’s term.

If democracy can be so easily overridden, what use is there investing in it? Many of Morsi’s supporters think there is none. Instead, some say, they will turn back to what one of the Brotherhood’s most influential thinkers, Sayyid Qutb, called 'Jihad of the Sword' – violent struggle against those who stand in the way of an Islamic Egypt. Former Presidents Sadat and Mubarak fought endless battles against the country’s violent Islamists. If democracy is no longer on the table, such wounds look set to reopen with a vengeance.

Pointing Fingers
If this is the case, Morsi’s departure may yet turn out to be a mixed blessing for Egypt, and in particular, its Copts. They are a vulnerable minority in the country, and despite the good relations they have with the majority of Egyptians, if Egypt were to become a victim to jihadi violence, the Copts would most likely be in th direct line of fire. Among some Brotherhood supporters there is a suspicion that Copts might have somehow had a hand in the events themselves, and since Morsi’s overthrow, the number of violent incidents appearing to target Christians has surged.

Second Thoughts
Despite these worrying incidents, and the noticeable increase in violence in the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel, the peace, though fragile, is more or less holding and Egypt has so far avoided the full-scale civil war that some feared. Although Morsi’s support is palpable on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, it isn’t as strong as it used to be. Now legal and free to campaign as it wishes, it seems the Brotherhood struggles to maintain its position as the principle representative of those who seek a political role for Islam in Egypt.

Why? The Brotherhood was founded as a simultaneously charitable and political organisation, seeking to improve the lot of poor Egyptians through Islamic teachings and politics, as well as general education and public works. Its support has therefore traditionally been strongest among the lower classes and those with strong religious convictions. Yet the party struggles to maintain their legitimacy when food prices have skyrocketed, unemployment increased from 9% to approximately 13% over the two years since the revolution and the economy is struggling to stay afloat. The ranks of the disaffected are, therefore, swelled not just by secularists and Christians, but by ordinary Sunni Muslim Egyptians who see no future in a government that cannot put bread on their tables, no matter how worthy its other aims.

Mahmoud Abuldahab (aka MC Dahab) is a student of the Islamic world’s most prestigious centre of Islamic learning, al-Azhar University, and a part-time Islamic rapper who draws increasingly large crowds. Despite his strong belief in political Islam, he is no longer able to support Morsi’s vision for Egypt. "I think that what happened on the 30th was the will of the people," he told me, referring to the protests that culminated in the recent military intervention. "The President made many mistakes and he failed to achieve many of his aims."

Abduldahab’s vision of the Egyptian political Islam of the future is quite different. "I dream of an Islamic regime," he explained, "but it must be free and fair, allowing both opposition and agreement, encouraging love and art, and rejecting discord (between religious communities)."

Eyes on the Horizon
Egypt is split between those who support the ousted President and those who celebrated his deposition. Yet unlike in the days of the former dictators, that split cannot simply be sketched along religious and economic lines, with more religiously conservative and less wealthy Egyptians supporting the Brotherhood, and wealthy secularists and Christians opting for secular rulers. Today’s Egypt is a lucky dip of different opinions and different visions of Egypt’s future, which split fathers from sons and those sons from their friends.

For Egypt to move forward once more it must first look backwards. It must turn to its own inspiring example of unity and nationalism in the 2011 revolution and remember how the spirit of a people toppled a US-backed regime and sent shockwaves round the world. But it must also keep its eyes on the present, since neither the pro-Morsi camp nor its opponents have a shot at political legitimacy without compromise. Political freedom is the gift that comes with Egypt’s newfound democracy, but it is also the virus that threatens to destroy it. @LydiaGreen17

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