June 20, 2012
Pretend democracy
With reports of Hosni Mubarak's passing, Cairo's streets are filling again. But some clarity may emerge, as the man himself is separated from the legacy he served.

Long before Mubarak, Egypt had laws banning sectarian political parties. That is why a celebrated lawsuit against the Freedom and Justice Party has been proceeding through her High Constitutional Court, for the party is unambiguously the political arm of the extremely sectarian Muslim Brotherhood. The case is now recessed until September. Meanwhile, that party has continued to win lowturnout elections. The freshly elected People's Assembly was, in fact, dissolved by the same high court, not by the military acting alone.

But, of course, the law in Egypt was under dictation from the series of not very freely elected presidents the country has endured since the overthrow of the arguably constitutional monarchy in the 23 July Revolution - of 1952. The Muslim Brotherhood itself was banned, and much of its membership held in concentration camps by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Gadhafi-like figure once the darling of Arab nationalists across the Middle East, and socialist-progressives in Europe and America.

It is useful to flip back over these three-score years because the history is unlikely to become irrelevant in the near future. While paranoia enters into it, there is much speculation that we may see a repeat of the events of 1952-54, wherein the Egyptian military, which does after all have the guns, again attempts to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian civil life.

For behind and beyond legalities, there is a huge clash within Egypt between secular and religious ideological forces of exactly the sort that leads to civil wars. An analogy may be made to Turkey, where the forces of "secular modernism" triumphed under Kemal Ataturk after the fall of the old (consciously Islamic) Ottoman Empire. The new order seemed settled for all time, until the present generation of Islamist politicians began unsettling it.

There are two big mistakes here, adopted as assumptions throughout the western media, so far as I can see. The first is to identify the secular forces with an emerging "middle class" and attribute "democratization" to the arrival of the social media. The most westernized Egyptians are naturally those with whom we converse and who in turn interpret events using the kind of small talk we understand. But those people, over-represented in the first scenes from Tahrir Square during last year's Arab Spring, make up only a small part of the overall opposition to Islamicization in Egypt and, let me suggest, the part most politically maladroit.

The complementary error is then to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood commands the loyalty of the rest of the population. Their presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in fact defeated Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, by only a close margin in the run-off, in which it appears a solid majority of eligible Egyptians did not vote.

The Brotherhood has a long history of waiting for its opportunities, that has made it canny and cautious by disposition. This is not to say that its intentions are not essentially totalitarian and fanatic. Rather, it has the discipline and wit to consolidate its power before straying from its public pose of "Islamic moderation."

That the military regime was unpopular goes without saying. But it does not follow that the Brotherhood enjoys overwhelming popularity, that it is entirely trusted even by its supporters or that a plurality of Egyptians are seriously grieved by the dissolution of the People's Assembly or restrictions on the power of the president-elect announced by the still-ruling military council. The attitude instead seems to be: "a pox on both your houses."

Indeed, as in any representative democracy, old or new, we might say that the great majority of people are not participating, but watching to see what happens with a sense of their own powerlessness that is forgotten only while running with a mob.

Demands from Washington for the Egyptian military to stand down and let "democracy" prevail are astoundingly foolish. An Islamist Egypt is among the worst nightmares western statesmen could face, and the party the Americans are now backing, de facto, is their worst available enemy. But shallow, democratic rhetoric tends to addle the brain.

To have any chance of working, a democratic order must also be constitutional. That means legal continuities must be respected, until they can be changed by legitimate means. The imposition of, say, the Muslim Brotherhood's interpretation of the Shariah, over an existing constitutional order no matter how compromised and corrupt, cannot be justified by any one-time vote.

And, as I've indicated above, the Brotherhood has much less than a majority in a country with huge minorities that aren't even Sunni Muslim, let alone Sunni Islamist from one branch of the late Sayyid Qutb's school.

Or, to put it another way, democracy has no chance of working in Egypt in the foreseeable future, and western observers should be able to grasp that.

David Warren