Don’t write Brotherhood off too soon

(Published in The Daily Star, Lebanon, July 16, 2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsy said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The French filmmaker’s remark was resoundingly vindicated by Egypt’s liberal elites. They led massive crowds against President Muhammad Mursi and succeeded in getting the all-too-willing army to overthrow his year-old democratically elected government. The army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, has announced a shotgun process to overhaul the constitution, created by a democratically elected legislature, and produce a pliant “elected” government.

The Egyptian activists and masses who had agitated for the overthrow of the Mursi government should have realized by now that the army has taken them for a ride. Its has used the anti-Mursi rallies as a cover for dumping the democratic process and reimposing its stranglehold on the government and the economy. So far the liberal elites are either cooperating with the army or looking the other way.

This is because most of today’s Egyptian liberals and others were born during the six decades the country languished under uninterrupted military dictatorships. They had never known democracy until the 2012 elections that ushered in the government of Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, fast-evolving Islamist organization, the oldest in the Middle East. Throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has been subjected to brutal repression by successive dictatorial regimes. Through it all, its membership and support grew steadily among all sectors of Egyptian society.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s best-known secularist intellectuals, lamented to me in Cairo in 1995 that “foolish mishandling” of the Brotherhood by dictators had made it popular. Otherwise, the movement would have “fizzled” long before.

During several reporting and research stints, I found, however, that while brutal persecution by dictators and the hostility of secularist groups had endeared the Brotherhood among Egypt’s many devout Muslims, the organizations’s strategy of moderation and its members’ adaptation to modernity have been the main sources of its stamina and public appeal.

Muslim Brothers are among the best-educated in Egypt. Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of South Carolina. Essam el-Erian, the head of his political party, Freedom and Justice, is a physician.
To most Egyptian secularists, however, the Brotherhood has been anathema.

Ever since Egypt slipped under the military dictatorship of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, most of the country’s upper class secularists collaborated with successive military dictators and benefited from their patronage. If you tried to talk with them about their government, most of them would change the subject. During the Mubarak era, the only educated people who would talk freely about Egyptian politics were members and supporters of the Brotherhood and the youth – not the older and wiser ones – among progressives and liberals.

Many of the secularists were hurt professionally and financially when the Mubarak dictatorship was thrown out of power by the 2011 revolution. Many of them have now jumped on the military bandwagon.

It’s a familiar drama, played out in many Muslim (and non-Muslim) post-colonial societies. Among them Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many of those countries the democratic process encountered military intervention, in some more than once, but eventually growing political consciousness succeeded in taming power-hungry generals.

My native town is Sylhet in what used to be Pakistan’s eastern province and is now Bangladesh. In the summer of 1946 the leader of the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, paid a brief visit there. The town was paralyzed by an unprecedented human avalanche.

Many of the visitors, I was told later, had walked 20 or 30 miles, to have a glimpse of the leader of their struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Some shed tears of joy when Jinnah stepped up to the podium to give his speech in Urdu, which most of the Sylheti-speaking audience didn’t understand.

In a few years East Pakistanis became disillusioned with Pakistan’s central government, based in what was West Pakistan. The old West Pakistan is what is left of Pakistan since East Pakistan’s secession. East Pakistanis’ main grievance against the Pakistani government was its failure to alleviate their grinding poverty. Their frustration deepened when Pakistani army generals, supported by a Western-oriented bureaucracy, established a decade-long dictatorship, interrupting the nascent democratic process. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan to become independent Bangladesh.

Two years later the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Sylhet, and was also greeted by huge crowds. But while Bangladeshis had taken 22 years to rise up against Pakistani rule, they staged the first a anti-Mujib rally in Dhaka, the capital, 23 days after Mujib became the country’s president. Public frustration with the Mujib regime reached its peak two years later, when Mujib was assassinated in a military coup.

Not a soul in all Bangladesh came out to the street, or held a meeting or issued a statement to condole the murder of the father of the nation. Bangladeshis’ disillusionment with the Mujib government was spawned mostly by a devastating famine, shortages of necessities and widespread government corruption, which followed the birth of Bangladesh. Today democracy, though more chaotic than in many other countries in the region, has taken root in Bangladesh. Few Bangladeshis expect the return of an extended military dictatorship.

In Egypt, as we know by now, crippling power shortages, the near-collapse of the security apparatus and other administrative and economic problems were artificially created by Mubarak-era employees and anti-democratic activists. Their purpose was to discredit Mursi’s democratic government. I believe that few Egyptians would enjoy very long the sights of corrupt anti-democratic politicians, judges and pundits back in power or on the air waves. Fewer still would like to see the army, which they struggled hard to dislodge from political power, pulling the levers of government once again.

A democratic process in Egypt wouldn’t have legitimacy without the participation of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organization with deep roots in society. Most Egyptians are devout Muslims. Despite their frustration with Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Islam-oriented political agenda will continue to resonate among large numbers of them.

I don’t know how long it will take, but democracy will eventually prevail in Egypt, as it has in many other post-colonial countries. While the upper crust of the liberal establishment may continue to collaborate with an army-led government, post-revolutionary Egyptians in general are much too politicized and rights conscious to accept any system other than full-fledged democracy. And if the democratic process has to work in Egypt, the Brotherhood would need to be its integral part.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

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