President General Abdul Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt arrives in Britain today for the UK-Africa Investment Summit. In 2019 Egyptians voted in a referendum for an amendment to the 2014 new constitution enabling him to stay in power until 2030. Safeguards for religious minorities, notably Coptic Christians (10% of the population, the largest Christian community in the Middle East) remain, but discrimination against them continues while sectarian attacks go unpunished.
The Egyptian Arab Spring deposed the dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Then there was a brief period, 2012-2013, when Muhammad Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, became President after winning Egypt’s first free and fair democratic elections as leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), formed on 21 February 2011. It was an important moment for Islamic democracy with which Christians with a tradition of Christian Democracy might find some sympathy.
For a brief while a modus vivendi prevailed between Morsi and key elements in the military. Then the military detained and charged him with terrorism. He later died of a heart attack in court during his trial. The Muslim Brotherhood which formed his Party was declared a terrorist organisation. Most of its first tier leadership were imprisoned, others went into exile. Many members have been killed or arrested and charged in Military and State Security Courts. In protests against the military take-over in August 2013 Human Rights Watch believe up to 1,000 protesters in two of Cairo’s main squares were killed in one day by Egyptian security forces and innumerable others wounded.
To all intents and purposes, for the last decade military power has prevailed whether overtly, or covertly. Or put in another way the elected Muslim Brotherhood never achieved full control of the state.
Beneath the stereotype of a conflict between a monolithic, unchanging “political Islam” and Western secular democracy lies a variety of different dynamics. The complexity of this Islamic story has been quickly lost as different interlocutors shoe-horn it into their narratives.
Religious experience is interpreted in different kinds of narrative. The experience of pious Muslim Brothers in Egypt is no exception. But there are some general lessons to be drawn. Fruitful, positive, development within religious traditions comes from an experience of encounter and dialogue. Most of the key leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood never experienced genuine dialogue; they were locked up long before they tried to form a functioning government.
Without agreeing with them, the religious ideas in play within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood deserve a measure of respect and understanding. People of all faiths want to see their values inform, and transform, the societies in which they live. Wars and political upheavals have in the past accompanied this quest or, at least, generated it. Christian democracy in Europe, for example, came as a reaction to the dual totalitarianisms of Communism and National Socialism. It proved remarkably successful in Germany, significantly flawed in Italy. The nature and implementation of democratic politics has determined the contours and dynamics of the European Union, and Christian social and political thought has played a significant part in its origins.
Hope that the Arab Spring might also be a historic turning point, acting as mid-wife to political reforms and new forms of engagement with politics within Islam was dashed. For a time, a dialogue between a secular vision and a commitment to Islamic values in society seemed possible, as once Christian democrats imagined a future in a democratic post-war Europe. This neglected the different contexts in the Middle East and North Africa, out of which progressive change was expected to happen: polarised societies, social turmoil, revolutionary mobilisation and upheavals, sectarianism, military interventions, and the allure of religious extremism.
As a terrain of political activity, the state and civil society need to be considered together. Much of the discussion today amongst Muslims, as amongst Christians, works within this dual framework, considering appropriate ways of introducing a religiously motivated agenda about family life, social and economic justice, both nationally and internationally. People of faith behaving in – what might be deemed - a political way in civil society look different to a secular world from religious people seeking governance based on religious principles. Christian Democracy in Germany was religion-lite compared with the religious engagement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Though both were attempts to bring a religious heritage and values into governance by democratic means.
Context and history matter. The Muslim Brotherhood inherited an authoritarian structure, and a leadership with closed ranks, after repeated periods of repression. Its social conservatives, inveterately cautious to ensure survival after periods in prison, had very limited experience of national government.
Authoritarian decision-making alienated most of its reformist leaders who found themselves marginalised. But, in terms of narrow electoral democracy, or at least the formation of a government representing majority opinion, the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood reflected popular views. Urban and rural poor were, in the main, comfortable with a patriarchal, socially conservative agenda in the name of Islam. According to an authoritative Pew Foundation survey, 85% of the population saw Islam as a positive force in politics. Within a year of Morsi’s winning 13.2 million votes, 51.7%, of the total, he was overthrown by the military with widespread popular support .
The gradualist politics of the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be neither a monolithic bloc forcing conservative Islamic values on an unwilling majority, nor an effective carrier of a new Islamic democracy modelled on Christian democracy. Unlike Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, it failed to confront a binary opposition between secular and religious worldviews by dialogue. It was several years from evolving into a modern political party with timely compromises and careful crafting of its public statements.
The abiding question was gradualism towards what? Above all it was impossible to know whether the commitment of individual leaders to democracy was merely tactical –- or represented a serious evolution in Islamic political thought. Most likely, irrespective of intentions, the former was planting the seeds of the latter.
Lumping the Muslim Brotherhood in a catch-all category “political Islam” that includes Da-esh and Al-Qaida – as often occurs - does not help analysis of its significance. Though internationally connected the Brotherhood differs from country to country. Its cruel fate in Egypt does not make General El-Sisi a welcome visitor.