By Richard T. Sale, author of Traitors.
Islam is on the march in the Middle East. For the past few years, in every
Mideast election, the Islamic parties have won: in the Gaza Strip in 2006, in Iraq
and Tunisia in 2010. In 2011, they won again in Turkey and Morocco, and in
Egypt the Islamist parties confirmed an overwhelming victory in the first
parliamentary elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt represents the new reality. In February 2011, its youth, liberals, and leftists at last gave voice to theirlong-suppressed outrage over the economic and social injustice of Mubarak’s regime. Within a few weeks, a senior U.S. official passed the word to Egypt’s military that Mubarak had to step down. “It is time for him to go,” the U.S.
official said, and Mubarak did, ending a thirty-year rule.
This was a hardly a revolution, however. It was a revolt, with a dictator being removed, but leaving in place the old military structure that continued to run the country. To the leftists, the youth, and the liberals, who had fully expected that their democratic idealism would own the future of the country, the recent Islamic victory left them stunned and dismayed. Like many in the U.S. media, they were the prisoner of
words like, “democracy,” “liberty,” “the future,” and “the needs of the
individual,” phrases that have been used by so many countries in so many parts
of the world and in so many different ways, that they have become weak,
hackneyed, and dangerously vague.
Team of Rivals
The views of the authority of religion and its social effects of its severe moral
discipline are currently at the heart of the disputes between Al-Nour and the
The emergence of two huge blocs of Islamic
interests in Egypt gave the United States pause. The United States is
inextricably bound to the success of these new Middle East movements. It is an aged cliché that we in the West re addicted to oil but in the past, US ideals like transforming the social,political, and economic structures of the region were quaint and appealing, butspreading unrest and dangerous chaos raised horrible visions, because the
United States has long been a victim of strategic necessity and could do little
more than make intermittent efforts to further modest reform while buttressing
the status quo. It wanted popular change, but to back the protestors meant
estranging long-standing allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain, who
feared that US support for democratic change would destabilize their own
regimes After Mubarak’s fall Jordan's King Abullah II was asked
whether the region's leaders could still depend on the United States. With
shocking candor, Abdullah responded, "I think everybody is wary of dealing
with the West...Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on Mubarak, I
would say that most people are going to try and go their own way."
Religion can be a common bond but it also divides. The other big winner of Egypt’s recent election was the MuslimBrotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The one thing the Salafists share with the Muslim Brotherhood is their distrust of each other. The Brotherhood members wear suits and ties,
and many are upwardly mobile professionals. Its critics say it is secretive,
arrogant, and devoted only to its own interests. Its chief strength is in the
middle class. By contrast, the Salafist strength rests with the poor; the men
dress in gowns and sandals, and the elders wear full beards and use scripture
in expressing their ideas. Their followers deny any separation between religion
and politics. Many leading Brotherhood members profess they are at heart
Salafist. Both agree that Islam should be the paramount ideal and influence in
daily life. And there are sinister similarities of outlook between the
Brotherhood and Al- Nour. Like the Salafists, Brotherhood leaders have put
Islamic law over economic common sense, calling for a ban on beach bathing,
alcohol, and bikinis, despite the fact that these are the chief engine for Egypt’s
tourism, which makes up about 10 percent of the country’s stagnating
economy. The Brotherhood has also been
busy bolstering new legislation that would curb foreign funding of
non-governmental-organizations, thus drastically undermining Washington’s
ability to support pro-democratic reform.
The Al-Nour party, founded in 1985 and now an odd alloy of conservative and formerly militant groups, suddenly emerged
into the spotlight in the spring of 2011. The party had close ties to Saudi
Arabia, hardly a bastion of democratic change. The Saudis have offered a safe
haven for fallen Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, and Riyadh gave
$100 million from the oil-rich Wahabi kingdom to the Salafists. Al-Nour was also getting money from the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf. For example, Kuwait and Qatar gave $50 million
in 2011 alone.
The Al-Nour politicians are austere, profoundly religious, devoted to the literal interpretation of the Koran. When the party considers Egypt’s new destiny, it looks to the ancient past rather than the future. To them, Islam is the
soul of Egypt, and they are busy assembling a political program whose goal is
to emulate the pure Islam proclaimed by Mohammad and his Companions almost fourteen hundred years ago. The overall objective of Al-Nour is the preservation of
Egypt’s Islamic identity, which the Salafists believe is under attack by
liberals and “foreign forces.” Its chief aim is to ensure a prominent role for
Islam in every aspect of life.
Religion as Collective Power
“Religion is the soul of culture,” said
Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, the epigram has taken on a new meaning.
Islam, like Christianity, is a religion of human salvation. Under Mubarak, the
Islamics were given approval to work in mosques, and work they did. In one city, the Islamic clergy built over seventy-seven mosques, and all over the country they quietly established a vast and effective network of charities that provided social services for the unfortunate. For example, adherents of Al- Nour gave aid to the sick and poor;
they paid stipends for widows and divorcees; they gave money for young women
needing marriage trousseaus; they gave cut-rate food for religious feasts; and
they provided water buffaloes with easy repayment terms for landless peasants.
And, of course, there was a lot of religious instruction.
There are major historical difference between US democracy and Islam. The social
contract of the Puritans excluded much of the population, but its
congregational ideal was at heart democratic. And according to historians like
Hibbert and Dawson, it meant that society was not an external order imposed on the individual by authority and tradition, but a spiritual community in which membership involved personal acts of conviction and self-surrender.
It didn’t last. The earlier United States ideals of state regulation and local cooperation were replaced by laissez faire. The United States abandoned its Christian tradition of caring for the weak and the poor and adopted a harsher doctrine that made poverty the result of sloth or incompetence. The first half of
the eighteenth century showed a decline in the simplicity and equality of
America’s early years. Society became a victim of growing secularization where money was transformed from the root of all evil to the mainspring of social life.
Forming a Government
Most Egyptians suffer from grinding poverty, are ill-educated, and were condemned to almost unending misery under the old Mubarak system. Doors to opportunity were shut. The Brotherhood says that this must be changed. With their boundless optimism
and their hypnotic fascination with ideals, they ignore the fact that there is in Egypt no tradition of discussion as a way of founding and governing a country. The exchange of views, the weighing of alternatives, verbal restraint, reasonableness, and the development ofdiscerning judgment on political matters is missing because Egyptian masses have no practice in these things.
Thanks to the fact that early American colonies were governed by British officials
rather than by royal governors of France and Spain who ruled by decree, in
colonies like Virginia, the inhabitants very early enjoyed a large measure of
self-government. New legislatures governed by convening meetings of their members, and colonists acquired training in drawing up bills and measures expressing their grievances, ideals and demands, their actions protected by parliamentary laws. Egypt and most ofthe Middle East have no comparable experience.
In fact, the Salafists are hostile to democracy. In the beginning, they eschewed
politics as “the work of the devil” and loathed elections because they were
infiltrated by “whores and Zionists.” Ultraorthodox Islamics believe that the
rule of man rather than God is a sin.
It pays to recall that France in 1789 had the world’s most democratic
constitution in history. It had nobureaucracy, and no centralized administrative authority. The King was afigurehead, the ministers almost powerless.
King Louis XVI protested, quite rightly, that the government couldn’t
control a country the size of France. He saw that authority was so divided and restricted that the government no longer had any effective control over the country and freedom was so elaborately, almost neurotically protected that it was smothered under the burden of ceaseless elections. This could happen in Egypt.
That the ultraorthodox Islamists like Al-Nour wield great power there is no doubt. Its reach and its resources make it an impressive example of the worship of collective human power. But Hibbert and Dawson wrote of France’s
revolution that Louis XVI (who had little political insight), denounced the
Jacobins as an “immense corporation, more dangerous than any that had formerly
existed,” whose power would inevitably nullify the actions of the government.
The power of Islam, backed by centuries of submission to its religious power,
may instill a common will in the bulk of the people in defiance to our wishes.
Each group must strive to realize what lies uniquely in its bones, in its essential features, circumstances, and peculiarities that act to create customs, traditions, and initiate talents and the outcome of Egypt’s struggles may not resemble anything we esteem.
It pays to remember that despite the recent surge of the Salafists,
for now, nowhere has an Islamist bloc been able to win the support of a
majority of the electorate. In Egypt, Islamist parties contested the
parliamentary elections as part of a coalition designed to hide their identity.
Labeled more frankly in the presidential race, the two Islamist candidates, Al
Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood won the support of around 30 percent of the
vote in a 42 percent turnout.
But there is a concern here that won’t go away. A former veteran US intelligence source who lived in Cairo for years told me that America’s main worry centers on Egypt experiencing an Islamic landslide in which the Islamics secure a majority and then gradually leverage their legislative authority to divest the military of its traditional power and start to outlaw political opponents. If that occurs, Egypt could start linking
with similar groups in Tunisia, Syrian, Libya, and Yemen, which would be
catastrophic and that thought numbs the mind.