The hope has always been that the Muslim Brotherhood would handle power responsibly. That they would pay attention to economic development and providing a better life for Egyptian citizens rather than to the length of women’s skirts. But there’s this disturbing document reported on the website for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs located here: http://jerusalemcenter.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/the-new-egyptian-parliament-takes-aim-at-the-camp-david-accords/.
The Egyptian Parliament has released a statement that jeopardizes the 1979 peace accords withIsrael. Again, as the Muslim Brotherhood began to take control the hope was that they would have more important things to worry about then taunting Israel. That appears not to be the case. The document is provocative and seriously capable of undermining the cold peace that has characterized the relationship between Israel and Egypt. Below are some of the qualities and themes of the document.
1. The document does not refer to the “State of Israel” but to the “Zionist entity.” This perpetuates the myth of Zionist conspiracies in the Arab world. The use of the word “Zionist” is designed to incite fear and stimulate images of Jewish manipulation and colonizing settlements. It clearly is not the language of any genuine peace process represented by the historic treaty of 1979.
2. Palestinian terror is referred to as “resistance.” In a peaceful relationship betweenEgyptandIsraelboth sides have denounced violence. To justify it as legitimate resistance is to justify violence.
3.Israelis officially defined as an enemy and any possibility of cooperative relations is rejected. This language is slippage into an “us” versus “them” mentality that seems to be the purpose of the document. These categorical group identifications lead to psychological and communicative distortions that exacerbate problems.
4. There is a suggestion of cutting off diplomatic relations. Such relations are important for maintaining a balance of power and the necessary lines of communication to prevent mistakes and misinterpretations. Cutting off diplomatic relations is usually a final insult before resuming violence.
5. There is a call for supporting the armed struggle against Israel including boycotts. Again, violence is justified.
6.Jerusalemis clearly defined as a Muslim holy place and the presence of the Jews is completely denied and ignored. A call to take up the cause of Jerusalem is designed to activate religious passions, especially amongst the lower and middle classes. Jerusalem is a symbol of loss and sometimes humiliation in the Arab world and reference to the city draws attention to this loss.
7. There is a frightening call to explore the possibilities of nuclear Egypt. Even if the Brotherhood is bluffing this is a dangerous game. How the nuclear standoff will play out in Iran remains to be seen.
The document was accepted unanimously by the Arab Affairs Committee and represents a new tone of confrontation and tension.Israelis defined as a major enemy and responsible for Palestinian suffering and instability in the Arab world. There are strong statements of support for Hamas and rejections of any direct negotiation or peace process withIsrael.
The relationship between Egypt and theUnited States remains hopeful. TheUnited States has supportedEgyptboth financially and militarily for a long time and is in a position to apply pressure. Nevertheless, if the Muslim Brotherhood foregrounds its religious convictions over political practicality then the “rational” influences theUnited Stateshas to bring to the table will be diminished. Difficult as it is to imagine, and just as unpleasant, Egypt could slide into becoming the next Iran if it pursues a nuclear scenario that is undergirded by religious convictions rather than political ones.
It is sensible to ask what recent events generally termed the “Arab Spring” mean. That is, even if we identify winners and losers and good things and bad things is it more than a parlor game. One wit took umbrage at the term “Arab Spring” because everybody knows that there are only two seasons in the Arab world neither one of which is Spring. It’s always an easy and correct copout to say it’s too early to know, and indeed there are numerous strategic and political implications yet to be realized. But it remains true that leaders have been driven from four Arab countries – Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia – and there is nothing insignificant about this. Syria is teetering on the brink while others – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon – have been influenced by the uprisings. As easy as it is to make a case in either direction I believe there are four trends, some of them positive but not all, to the events of the past year.
1. The people have spoken and are energized. It was common knowledge that most political action in Arab regimes was among the elites. That it was the elites who determined the future and set the agenda. The influence of popular will was considered minimal and easy to ignore. With strong military influences and authoritarian traditions the voices from the streets were easy to hold down. Tahrir square showed that this was no longer the case. Clearly a rational deliberative democracy is not going to break out in Egypt anytime soon, but there has been a power shift toward popular voices.
2. Popular will and democratic voices have unleashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The future will see the emergence of an Iranian presence and a developing role for political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt and held at bay for decades – now they hold electoral power. It’s possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could be considered an antidote to Al Qaeda, a softening of the Al Qaeda message because the Brotherhood must deal with the practical political issues of the population. But it is also the case that the Muslim Brotherhood will produce increasing anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, not to mention a stubborn and difficult relationship with Israel. The last thing Egypt needs is a war with Israel and troubles along the border with the Gaza Strip. But it’s difficult to imagine the parliamentary power of the Muslim Brotherhood making life easier for Israel.
3. The American foreign-policy position will have to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood and religious oriented political parties. The United States will simply have to reconcile itself to Islamist dominated parties in Arab countries. The US still makes the mistake of believing that elections are the most important facet of democracy. We still have not internalized that when you are “in for a dime you are in for a dollar.” In other words, if we support open and free elections then you must be able to live with the results. Ideally, democracy building starts with institutions and habits of the mind before elections. But on the other hand political Islam is in its infancy stages and will, I believe, be one of the most interesting political theory developments in the future. If Western countries can play a role in this development, then so much the better for the future of international relations.
4. Finally, I have been surprised by the behavior of the Saudi’s. For most of their history they have been a rich and politically lazy society that did little more than produce oil and religion topped off with a dollop of authoritarianism. Moreover, the basis of much of their foreign-policy has been simply to buy off enemies and do what is ever necessary for their own self-preservation. They seem to be continuing down this path and have little regard for the promotion of any sorts of freedom or rights for their own people. Their assignment of military forces to Bahrain was designed to squash any hint of liberal democracy and to make a statement that they were not could allow such dalliances in their neighborhood.
There remains plenty of political and social forces that will shape the post-Mubarak Egypt as well as other “Arab Spring” countries. Hopefully, the spirit of Tahrir square, with its sense of social solidarity, will continue.
Change is coming to the Middle East in the form of the “Arab Spring.” At least that is what we keep hearing about. An immolation in Tunisia, a corrupt leader in Egypt, and an oppressive Syrian state are all crumbling under the weight of non-viable political systems. Successful democracies are a pipedream in many countries but the creaking in clanking of structural change continues. One country seems to be immune from these changes and has found a package of promises that continues to satisfy citizens.
Saudi Arabia, as a protection against social upheaval, has handed out billions of dollars in economic aid in order to head off discontent. It remains the case that many Saudi citizens are frustrated about unemployment, housing, and health services but the economic handouts have softened the blow. But there is nothing so strong, nothing that cements a society more than religious coherence and the successful spreading of obligation. The Saudi leaders, their voices ringing out from the minarets and mosques, regularly remind their people of their godly duties, which include allegiance to the house of Saud. The message is clear: the present Saudi leaders have returned civil obedience and purity to the land by reminding the people of their obligation to God. They warn the country against chaos and glorify themselves as the voice of Islam. The rhetorical strategy is very effective. Any call for demonstrations or suggestion of civil disobedience is characterized as a conspiracy and as a violation against Islam.
The Saudis also use the Sunni-Shia divide as a weapon in their cold war against Iran. They are convinced that Iran wants to increase its penetration into other societies and see the Arab spring as an opportunity for Iranian influence. The Iranians on the other hand have tried to use pro-democracy movements to advance their own position, even though their intentions may be less than honorable. Saudi anti-Shiite religious traditions are an effective policy against Iran and other threatening countries.
When the bonds of religious commitment loosen and citizens begin to ask questions and engage in debate and challenge conventional wisdom, the Saudis deploy their third foreign-policy strategy which is to tighten security. If God and oil are not enough, then security must be.
A group of activists called for a “digital day of rage” in Saudi Arabia and the goal was to gather momentum for democratic processes in the underground digital world. But above ground, in the real world, Saudi security forces were repelling the few demonstrators that showed up for the day of rage. A few petitions were passed around but to no avail and the Saudi government responded by invoking criminalization of any criticism of the King.
These three strategies of God, oil, and security are working fairly well for the Saudi’s at the moment. So far anyway, they have held off the weather by pushing back the Arab spring. To the credit of protesters looking for more individual freedom they have maintained their digital activism. The underground web networks are serving an important function to a population denied most basic freedoms. The Saudi leadership will have none of it. They continue to use oil money and religious doctrine to prevent protest. Democracy advocates have a difficult path ahead of them. They must face a wealthy government that tailors economic payoffs that would make Tony Soprano blush with envy. Tight security and an aggressive police force certainly cause citizens to think twice about real protest.
The prospect for revolt in Saudi Arabia is slim. The structural conditions do not exist to stimulate real mobilization and real protest. It is not a society that has developed trade unions, activist student populations, or other protest movements that can possibly play a role in leading revolt. Moreover, because of oil money most Saudi citizens do not suffer economic deprivation. So the cycle continues – security protects the oil money which is anointed by God.
If there were a moment in time when I was going to pay particular attention to what’s going on in Egypt, and trying to predict how its future will develop, it would be now. It’s a Monster’s Ball and the only couple dancing is the military and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I and others have been warning about the coming Islamic tide and what happens in the next few weeks could be the deciding factor. The elections are today. The public and the protesters in Tahrir square seem to have strong democratic impulses coursing through their veins. They are calling for the military to leave power, civilian control of the military, and limitations on the MB. At the moment, the military seems to be the biggest problem. They have tried to assign themselves special powers and protections under a Constitution including refusing civilian control of the military. How far beyond high school civics does one need to go before they understand the importance of civilian control of the military? Violence against protesters must cease, and security must come under clear civilian rule.
Both the MB and the military are naturally conservative and hierarchical. If Egypt is not careful they will end up with some version of Saudi Arabia – religious conservatism and authoritarian politics. The Central Security Forces have overreacted when trying to clear some protesters and incurred the wrath of many. The protesters have reason to be fearful. The military has been particularly recalcitrant and difficult mostly because they believe they have the support of the Egyptian people, but that support is waning. The military’s attempt to grab sweeping powers and maintain independence above the law is inconsistent with the Arab Spring. Still, the Egyptian “silent majority” may make it possible for the military to prevail. The protesters may have the strongest democratic impulses but their numbers are exaggerated by media coverage.
The MB clearly holds the upper hand and is easily the most influential political party. Their new Freedom and Justice party is well organized and financed and ready to reap gains stimulated by the brotherhood’s outreach and efficient organization. The MB can certainly be hierarchical and conservative but Islam is woven into the fabric of Egyptian society and no future state can ignore it. The brotherhood wants quick elections so that they can consolidate their strengths and begin to work on the nature and structure of the new constitution.
But the future of Egypt will not be represented by the military or the Central Security Forces and certainly not by a dominant controlling Muslim party. If the birth pangs of a new Egypt in Tahrir square are going to bring forth anything viable, than the protesters and the liberal political parties must have sufficient influence when writing a new constitution. The liberal parties want the military to delegate decision-making and to establish a temporary civilian government whose job it will be to put itself out of business; that is, the temporary civilian government will be charged with maintaining order and beginning the process of transitioning to the permanent government.
The structure of today’s elections is one problem. Many liberal voices will be drowned out by the rules of the elections. Groups representing women and minority rights have been pushed to the background and election officials in Egypt have denied the United Nations and other groups access to the election that could help guarantee fairness. The party list technique will mean that smaller groups such as Coptic Christians and liberals will be overwhelmed by larger groups such as the MB. Even smaller Islamic parties, which are often more liberal, will be silenced. Moreover the election reserves a certain number of seats for “workers and farmers” which means that even if smaller more liberal groups managed to win elections they could be sidelined because their seats are guaranteed to other constituencies. This is an election manipulation that has been used in the past to manipulate results.
American historians often point out that the period after the American Revolution is most important because that is when the infrastructure and foundation of America was established. Revolutions are quick, violent, and ideologically eruptive but the legislative processes that follow determine the true nature of the political culture. The same will be true in Egypt. Keep your eye on what is happening now.