The power and promise of Tahrir Square has given way to a slower, less dramatic process of change in Egyptian politics and society – but one that will have at least as much impact on the country, the region and the world. As the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood begins to define its role in political leadership, the nature of Islamist democracy is on the table and the stakes are high.
This blog is based on a synthesis of a recent Sussex Development Lecture by Mariz Tadros, author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? The lecture illuminated the current transformation in Egypt’s political system and proposed the need for more robust debate and challenge regarding the emerging model of Islamic democracy.
Democracy on the move in Egypt
Back in June, Mohamed Morsi rode a wave of popular support to become Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. The Western world cheered the democratisation of the Arab world’s biggest and in many ways most influential country. And there was much to cheer about: the Egyptian people had expressed themselves through the ballot box and had given power to a moderate Muslim party. The Brotherhood had mass popular support, did not condone violence and played by the democratic rules of the game.
But in what direction?
As the initial euphoria wears off, it is only now that serious questions are emerging regarding the type of democracy that is filling the space that Tahrir Square created. In her work on this, Mariz points out that on the ground many of those who initially supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s sweep to power are beginning to wonder what they have let themselves in for as executive power grabs accompany restrictions on the media, limitations of minority rights and constraints on individual choice.
As the new Egyptian democracy uses religion to legitimise and enforce what could turn into a new form of tyranny, the democratic rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood sits in sharp contrast to their authoritarian reality. This raises the question: what is happening to Egypt’s infant democracy?
What does the new political order mean for the Egyptian people?
Egypt has democracy, but it is a heavily qualified democracy. It is an attempt to do something new: to merge liberal democratic systems and institutions with traditional Islamic substance and values; to carve out a path somewhere between theocracy and secularism.
Should the Muslim Brotherhood be given time to show that they can consolidate their many promises and contradictions into one new order, and deliver the revolutionary dreams identified by Mariz: dignity, freedom and social justice? Will the substance of Egypt’s infant democracy develop to come into line with its structures and processes, providing a better overall fit with the liberal Western understanding of democracy? Or will the attempt to anchor democracy within a stringent Islamic ideological framework result in the creation of a wholly new kind of political order? And what would such a system mean for the Egyptian people, and for the many others that will be influenced by what happens in Egypt?
The imperative to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood
There is a current window of opportunity to influence the direction of Egypt’s emerging political system. The Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political party is still new, and its approach is meeting resistance from some elements of Egyptian society. Its approach is not yet fully embedded in politics or society, and the shape of the democracy that they currently represent is not yet fully defined. Policy-makers and practitioners now need to listen to academics and engage in constructive analysis, and where appropriate criticism, of the political developments underway in Egypt.
It is not enough to feel grateful for a supposed ‘lesser of two evils’; the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood are not Al Qaida does not mean that all is alright in Egypt. As Mariz argues, it is not acceptable to self-censor for fear of being seen to criticise Islam. It is also not enough to assume that the current political transition will build on the positive foundations of the revolution, or to apply the label of ‘democracy’ to smooth over a much more complex reality. Those with power and influence – the US, the UK and closer neighbours such as Turkey – need to immediately engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, to understand, to challenge, and to help shape a positive future.
Is there enough political will to engage in robust debate with the Muslim Brotherhood? Would this engagement be constructive? Could it threaten a delicate relationship between Islam and the West? The most important question is: can we afford to miss this opportunity?
* Josie Stewart is a student on the MA Governance and Development course at IDS, 2012 - 2013.