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No Spring in its step

If the people of Egypt really want a pluralistic country and society, the Brotherhood and other Islamists will have to be an integral and equal part of both, writes Arundhati Ghose.

world Updated: Jul 08, 2013 23:55 IST
Arundhati Ghose

There are at least four narratives woven into the fabric of the massively popular protests on the streets of Egypt — not just Cairo — and the replacement of the elected president Mohamed Morsi by the civilian chief justice of the Egyptian supreme constitutional court, by, not the Egyptian military, but a representative (almost, the Muslim Brotherhood Party having refused to join,) group of leading Egyptians, religious and civil, who met, at the invitation of the military, to find a solution to the crisis facing the country. An attempt to unravel some of these threads might make clearer the patterns of the future of Egyptian politics — and, inevitably, the rest of the Arab world.

Within Egypt, instead of simplifying the situation by seeing it only through a binary ‘secular’ and ‘moderate religious/extremist religious’ lens, given the fact that many of the protesters on the streets included Salafis and other devout Muslims who had earlier supported Morsi, there are two other strands which can be clearly identified — the Muslim Brotherhood and its accession to power, and the institutions of the State — the executive, legislature, judiciary, and of course, the military. A fourth, weaker yet significant strand, is the role of outside powers in the tumult.

The protesters numbered in millions, across the country. Many who joined the protesters were spurred perhaps by the acute shortages of fuel and electricity. A steep decline in tourism occurred during the period of Morsi’s governance, affecting a major source of income for many and indeed for the country as a whole. While this may have added to the strength of the protests, few would have expected any government to have solved their economic problems within a year. On the other hand, Egyptian society has essentially been a pluralistic, laidback one. In the last one year, however, there were attacks on the Coptic minority (10% of the population) and even smaller Shia groups (1%), when there was little action taken by the government.

The move away from their sense of a plural identity would have frightened many Egyptians, not least the minorities themselves. Lastly, Morsi had been undermining the institutions of the State: having pushed through a Constitution by a Parliament dominated by Islamists, indirectly imposing Sharia, the coup de grâce was the constitutional decree which put the decisions of the president and the Shura above judicial scrutiny. This was not the Egypt many people, who had supported Morsi in the elections, had expected.

For the Brotherhood itself, having suffered years of suppression and exclusion, winning the elections was a validation, a legitimisation of their existence, their philosophy and their beliefs. It spent much of its time in power consolidating its position, including through appointments of its members to important positions. The Constitution itself and the decree giving Morsi almost authoritarian powers shocked much of Egypt.

On the other hand, Morsi paid more attention to its foreign relations: The Brotherhood has close linkages with Turkey’s ruling Party and is a major member of the Syrian rebel front. Its activities in the Gulf countries, however, have been strongly opposed by all the states, except for Qatar which is a major financier of the Brotherhood. Morsi also tried to reach some understanding with Iran, perhaps in an effort to balance the power equations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Its self-image and regional aspirations appear to have led it to ignore the warning signals within Egypt.

The Brotherhood’s argument that a duly elected president was overthrown by a military coup deserves closer examination. Of all the State institutions, the military was the only one that Morsi left intact, constitutionally guaranteeing it freedom from parliamentary and executive oversight. Why, then, did Egypt’s army side with the protesters? The army had been warning Morsi of the evolving crisis since December last year.

What is clear is that the military did not act alone; the meeting which approved the ‘road map’ which started with the removal of Mohamed Morsi, included the Sheikh of al Azhar, the Coptic Patriarch, el Baradei, representative of the Salafi al Nour Party, a member of the judiciary and a representative of Tamarod, the youthful rebel organisation behind the protests. The Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party refused to attend. Power was handed over to the chief justice immediately and the army has made clear its mandate to protect all Egyptians, including Islamists and members of all parties. Clearly not the usual ‘military coup!’
The last strand in this tapestry is the role of outside powers; the relief with which the Gulf countries have greeted the ousting of the Brotherhood is telling. The US, and much of the West, had their own narrative — democracy would inevitably lead to the rise of Islamist forces to power. Of the various groups, the Muslim Brotherhood was the ‘safest’ bet and a secular, pluralist government was unlikely.

The Americans miscalculated the aspirations of the people in a country they know so well. The African Union’s decision on continued membership of Egypt is still not known at the time of writing. Turkey has expectedly condemned the ‘coup’ while Iran has been cautious in its response.

It is still too early to say whether the ‘road map’ will be followed by the interim President — the appointment of a technocratic interim Cabinet, followed by Presidential and Parliamentary elections and revisiting the controversial Constitution which now stands suspended. Whatever the coming days may bring, and if like Shahbag before them, if the people of Egypt really want a pluralistic country and society, the Brotherhood and other Islamists will have to be an integral and equal part of both.

Arundhati Ghose is a former Indian ambassador to Egypt
The views expressed by the author are personal