Gaza, Pakistan and ignoble US legacy

The anti-government protests now raging in Pakistan and the travails of Hamas in Palestine remind me of Nurul Amin, my mentor. He served, at different times, as prime minister of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan.

In February 1972, in Rawalpindi, Amin was telling me about the political intrigues that had led to several military-bureaucratic coups against democratic governments in Pakistan. “Did you notice,” he asked, “that all of those who threw out democratic governments kept promising to give us ‘true democracy’?”

Nevertheless, the elder statesman was hopeful of the eventual triumph of democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere. Like the proverbial cat, he said, “democracy has nine lives.” Pakistanis would take time to cultivate “the art of democracy and guard it” against usurpers, as did most Western countries. Until then “you will see our generals and politicians giving lip service to democracy,” while scrambling to “grab power by any means.”

In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party won the 2013 parliamentary elections, which it probably rigged. Opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, instead of working to insure that the next elections are free and fair, have paralyzed parts of Islamabad, the capital, with crowds agitating for Sharif’s resignation as prime minister. I wonder if they’re playing into the hands of Pakistan’s notoriously power-hungry army generals. In the past, Pakistani generals have used most of the country’s major political crises as excuses for military coups against civilian governments.  I’m especially disappointed by Imran Khan’s role in this anti-democratic drama. I admire his progressive social and political agenda.

Egypt is another stark example of the betrayal of democracy. In 2012 Egyptians had their first-ever free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood won and formed the government. But the Egyptian military and “liberal” groups didn’t like it. They called in the army and got President Mohammed Mursi’s democratic government overthrown, returning to the military-led pseudo-dictatorship with which they’re more familiar.

More ironic is the assaults on Palestinian democracy by the world’s most eloquent advocate of democracy and human rights: the United States. In 2006 the Palestinians, prodded by Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials, held their first-ever free and fair elections. Hamas won the parliamentary vote by a landslide and formed the government. The Americans and Israelis didn’t like it. Instead of congratulating the Palestinians for ushering in democracy in hostile environment, they instigated the losers in those elections, the Fatah, to stage a coup against the Hamas-led government. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, held on to power in the West Bank, now in the ninth year into his four-year term! Hamas continued to rule the Gaza Strip, as it carried on its armed struggle to liberate Palestinians from the Israeli colonial rule.

That wasn’t the end of the punishment Hamas has suffered for winning the Palestinian elections. With American blessings, Israel collaborated with pro-Israeli Egyptian dictatorships to place the 1.8 million people of Gaza under a most gruesome economic blockade. Americans and Israelis had hoped that the extreme hardships caused by the blockade would turn Gazans against their Hamas regime. They haven’t.

Israel remains undaunted by these setbacks. Early last month the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel into its third war against Hamas, vowing to disarm it and other Islamist groups in Gaza. The war ended with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad standing and valiantly fighting the invading forces. In a charade of truce talks held in Cairo, Israel and Egypt pressured the Islamists relentlessly to achieve what the powerful Israeli armed forces couldn’t: Disarm Hamas. They couldn’t. Hamas and Jihad have resumed their armed struggle for freedom, while Israel rains its U.S.-supplied bombs on the already devastated Gaza.

Sadly, America has set the precedents for the assaults on democracy in non-Western societies. Successive U.S. administrations coddled all five Pakistani dictatorships that had supplanted democratic governments. Besides, America used the CIA to overthrow nearly a dozen democratic governments in South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia, and replaced them with repressive pro-American dictatorships.

All the same, I see the masses in Pakistan and around the world pulsating with democratic fervor. I remember Nurul Amin’s prediction about the eventual success of democratic movements. Britain went through seven turbulent centuries – marked by regicide, religious pogroms, and bloody ethnic and trans-national warfare – to mature as a full-blown democracy.

America needed two centuries to settle down as a real democracy. American women didn’t win their voting rights until 1920 and African Americans didn’t achieve theirs until 1965. As I wrote elsewhere, developing countries should be able to build enduring democratic institutions much faster than did Westerners. Among other things, the dramatic spread of education and modernization will help them to do so.

As an American citizen, however, I’m troubled by the United States’ legacy in man’s epic march toward freedom and fulfillment. When future historians would be recounting democratic movements in non-Western societies, they wouldn’t, I’m afraid, condone America’s continual hostility to those the edifying and heroic human endeavors.

The United States can’t expect to regain its moral stature in the world until it realigns itself with forces of freedom and democracy. A good place to start would be Palestine. The Obama administration should dissociate America from the scandalous anachronism of Israeli colonialism. It should stop shielding Israel against charges of war crimes in Gaza, brought by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Nothing could have been more shameful for Americans than seeing their government casting the solitary vote against opening the U.N. investigation.

This Gaza war is a watershed in Palestinians’ 66-year struggle for freedom and independence from Israeli subjugation. It has shown that Israel, the superpower in the Middle East, could slaughter more than 2,000 Gazans and destroy their homes, economy and infrastructure, but couldn’t dent their resolve to rid themselves of Israeli suppression and oppression. It has shown, too, that the world, with the deplorable exception of the United States, has little patience for Israeli colonialism.

I know that Palestine will jettison, sooner than later, Israel’s colonial tutelage. I don’t know how long it will take America to jettison its ignoble role as the lone defender of the world’s lone colonial power.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ http://beyond-freedom.com.

 

 

Let EU rein in Egypt’s military junta

I’M RELIEVED to see that Egypt’s military junta has blinked first in its bloody confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime apparently has dropped its interior minister’s threat to stamp out the Brotherhood sit-ins. Tens of thousands of supporters of Mohammad Mursi have since been allowed to stage rallies, demanding his reinstatement as president. Mursi was elected president on the ticket of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm.

The generals who staged the June 30 putsch against his government are in a pickle now! So it seems is the Obama administration, which had befuddled or amused many by its persistent refusal to call their coup as a coup. The government of Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour, appointed by the military chief Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, can’t dismantle the Islamist sit-ins without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the junta an international pariah.

The Mansour regime is already becoming paralyzed, as it can’t make headway with its planned overhaul of the constitution without a settlement with the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized political organization. The Islamist group is fast regaining its strength, eroded during last months of the Mursi presidency, as it has paid a high price in blood to resist the military-backed autocracy. The Brotherhood’s campaign against bureaucratic meddling with the country’s constitution could block the project.

I see a silver lining, however, in the European Union’s diplomatic effort to defuse the Egyptian crisis. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, is working with the generals and Brotherhood sources to help Egypt resume its democratic process. The United States’ failure to oppose the overthrow of Mursi’s democratic government has alienated it, at least for now, to the Brotherhood. This leaves Ashton mission the best tool to untangle the Egyptian imbroglio.

The Obama administration has become the butt of jokes around the world for playing with words to avoid describing Mursi’s ouster by the military as a coup. It’s doing so to circumvent the American law that demands the cut off of aid to any country in which the military has overthrown a democratic government. The administrations thinks that Israel’s security interests requires it to continue the aid flow to Egypt, no matter what.

Ever since the 1978 Camp David Accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has been giving Egypt more than $1 billion annually, mostly in military aid, which essentially is the price for Egypt’s continued adherence to the treaty. That treaty neutralizes Egypt, the most populous Arab country, in the ongoing Arab-Israeli belligerency. President Obama and his advisers obviously fear that stopping U.S. aid could jeopardize the Egyptian military’s commitment to that peace accord.

During his brief, one-year presidency, Mursi had disillusioned large numbers of Egyptians. They held huge public rallies, demanding his abdication. Many of them eventually supported the military as it toppled him from power.

It has happened in many other post-colonial countries. Initially, democratic governments fail to fulfill people’s aspirations, generated by democratization campaigns. Many of them give military adventurists a chance to do a better job of giving them the goodies. But their trust in power-hungry generals doesn’t take long to evaporate.

Egyptians’ frustration with Mursi was partly manufactured by the military, judicial and bureaucratic establishments. They resented their accountability to his democratic government and sabotaged many of his economic, infrastructure and constitutional programs.

But the mobs mobilized against Mursi don’t have viable political organizations. And the feckless Mansour government’s rubber-stamping military decisions, including the massacres of Brotherhood supporters, already has begun to antagonize many of Egyptians who opposed Mursi.

I expect the Freedom and Justice Party to win Egypt’s next democratic elections as well, or form a powerful constitutional opposition. The United States needs to mend fences with the Brotherhood. It should backtrack from its tacit acceptance of military coup and throw its full weight behind the EU mission in Egypt.

Egypt’s return to the democratic track would extricate the administration from its embarrassing amnesia about the murder of a newborn democracy.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered Egypt and the Middle East as reporter and conducted fieldwork there as a researcher for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

Pulling US chestnuts out of Egypt fire

EGYPT’S MILITARY junta is in a pickle! It can’t dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in camp, as it has vowed to do, without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the military junta an international pariah, especially after it overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Mursi. More ominously, a large-scale army massacre would rally more and more Egyptians behind the Brotherhood, paralyzing the military administration. On the other hand, if the administration of Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi fails to carry out its threat to remove the anti-coup crowd from Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, the outcome would be the same, and more dramatic. A victory over the military regime would rejuvenate the Islamist organization and expand its support base, probably to an unprecedented level. That, too, would paralyze military rule. Either scenario could also dissuade the Sisi regime from proceeding with its so-called democratic reforms. A strengthened Brotherhood party – the Freedom and Justice Party – would return to power with a vengeance through any democratic process in which it would participate. The Egyptian military’s power grab, though still not considered a coup in Washington, has also put the Obama administration in an embarrassing pickle. The administration isn’t willing to jettison the Egyptian military, whose adherence to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has been pivotal to Israeli security. Yet its tacit support for Egypt’s murderous military dictatorship has got the administration stuck in an unseemly foreign policy fiasco. I have a suggestion that could help the Obama administration pull its chestnut, along with that of the Sisi cabal, out of the Egyptian fire. President Obama may want to call on his Turkish friend, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, to begin mediation between the the Egypt’s military government and Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan would be trusted by the Brotherhood and acceptable to the military brass. He is uniquely placed to broker an arrangement to de-escalate the dangerous confrontation, and help usher in a process to restore democracy in Egypt. Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.

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.’

Modern Islam Egypt Islamists’ goal

“The revolution goes on,” said Mohammed Mursi, on being declared president of Egypt in its first-ever democratic election.  He ran for president as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.  The transnational Brotherhood has been the world’s oldest Islamist movement.

The president-elect has called for national unity. Mursi wouldn’t, of course, abandon his Islamist mission, but to signal his seriousness to become “president of all Egyptians,” he resigned his post as the head of the FJP.  He realizes that he needs the nation behind him for his upcoming battle with Egypt’s ruling military junta, called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF has got a compliant high court to dissolve the parliament, assumed all legislative powers, and curbed the power of the presidency. The military council’s decree requires the president to work with it to frame a constitution.

Assuming Mursi’s victory in the election, some Egypt watchers have been debating whether he and the Brotherhood are going to be co-opted by the military junta or pursue their Islamist agenda seriously. They have a reason to wonder. During the last three decades, the Brotherhood has consistently shied away from confrontation with military dictatorships, not even to challenge the decades-long ban on its participation in politics.

This year the Muslim Brothers were among the last to join the Tahrir Square uprising, which toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak. And when other groups were agitating to overthrow of the SCAF, which replaced Mubarak, the Brotherhood leadership engaged the generals in a dialogue over the crisis.

“Ideology does not determine [Muslim Brothers’] behavior whatsoever,” says Omar Ashour of Britain’s Exeter University, an expert on Muslim and Middle Eastern politics. “You can say it’s a very pragmatic, opportunistic group.”

Part of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s pragmatism comes from its realization that frontal confrontation with military dictatorships could prove suicidal, and that its decisive challenge to the political establishment should wait until it had a strong footing in society. Sayyid Muhammad Qutb, the Brotherhood’s original thinker, was executed by military dictator Jamal Abdel Nasser.  Nasser is believed also to have orchestrated the assassination of the organization’s founder, Hasan el-Banna.   Successive military dictators jailed, tortured and executed its members. Because of its strong support for the Palestinian cause, it had also been anathema to Israel and the United States.  The organization’s leadership realized that a clash with the dictatorial regimes would give them the excuse to crush it with U.S. blessings, leaving its main mission of Islamizing society unrealized.

I have been visiting Egypt since the 1970s, for research or pleasure.  From interviews with Egyptians and other research I understand that the “pragmatism” that Professor Ashour mentioned is part of the Brotherhood’s strategy to pursue its larger mission.

That mission was described succinctly to me during a 1995 visit to Cairo by a leading Brotherhood ideologue, Mustafa Mashhur.  “May Allah guide us in His path,” he said. “We are working humbly to carry on the da’wa (Islamization campaign) and strengthen (society’s) Islamic roots.” How the Brothers would go about its work would be decided in light of “our ijtihad, our situation and circumstances,” added the Islamic scholar, who would soon become the head of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Other Muslim Brothers and Egyptologists have given me the same description of the Brotherhood’s goals, in different words.

Ijtihad, which Mashhur mentioned, is an Islamic canon law tool to form new rules on matters on which scripture is silent. In such situations theologically competent Muslims are enjoined to use common sense to make new rules of conduct, which shouldn’t, however, conflict with Islam’s core principles.  Most Islamists, unlike many traditional fundamentalists, believe in ijtihad.

In practical life, everyday Muslims don’t go about looking for a theologian to issue a ruling on new situations, often presented by modernity and cross-cultural communication. Muslims familiar with Islam’s basic tenets and principles, use their own common sense to devise guidelines to  adapt alien values and practices to their lives. Most Islamists, including Muslim Brothers, don’t make an issue of it.  Hence unlike traditionalists and radical fundamentalists, Islamists in general are enthusiastic supporters of modernization. The difference between secular and Islamist modernizers is that the former’s goal is modernization for its sake; the latter’s modernization for Islam’s sake.

President-elect Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the United States and modern education spans the Brotherhood’s rand and file.  Muslim Brothers are especially focused on scientific and technological education. Egyptians call them the “Brotherhood of Engineers” (Ikhwanul Muhandithun) because of the large number of engineers (and physicians) in its rank.

Unlike in the early phase of the movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood today has acquired deep roots in society and has grown to become the country’s largest political organization.   Mursi’s call for a nationwide struggle to rid Egypt of the new military autocracy indicates that the organization now feels strong enough to challenge the military regime.  Other opposition groups, too, understand that a nationwide campaign against the SCAF autocracy isn’t possible without the Brotherhood’s lead.  Hence in spite of their bitter ideological struggle with the Brotherhood, most leftist and centrist political parties and groups have vowed to join its struggle for the democratization of Egypt.

I believe that Professor Ashour and other observers who see the Brotherhood’s pragmatism as its abandonment of its mission will revise their views. The Brotherhood remains committed to serving and propagating Islam, while spearheading Egypt’s democratization and modernization campaigns.

• Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’