As tensions rise in Egypt, it may seem premature to argue the nature of a revolution that is very much in flux. This writer believes, however, that whatever happens, the Mubarak Era is over. In the words of political scientist, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, “If the societies we live in constrain us in the same way as gravity, there is still room for us to look beyond the horizon. A Muslim’s faith is the shuttle he mounts to escape the confines of narrow realism.”
As events unfold like a collapsing dam in North Africa and the Middle East, the questions flow. What is the nature of the revolution in Egypt? By extension, what do changes taking place in the Muslim world mean? What do they mean for the US? What does this mean for the West? Are we witnessing an Islamic Revolution? Is this Iran in 1979 all over again? Is Obama the new Carter? Should we be afraid?
The underlying reasons behind US hesitation in supporting the Egyptian protestors goes back to fear of the unknown; in this case, fear of what Arab democracy might mean. Back in 2002, Obama opposed free and fair elections in the occupied territories as long as Hamas, an Islamist political party calling for the destruction of Israel, was on the ballot. Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza.
The Egyptian transition presents the US and other Western governments with a similar but far more significant quandary. The nightmare scenario involves free and fair elections in Egypt that put a “radical” Islamist government into power. This government then enacts foreign policy decisions hostile to US (and Israeli) interests and hence serves to “destabilize the region.” The US and Israel lose a key ally in the region, ushering in a new period of unrest.
Forestalling this scenario, commentators are arguing that this is not an Islamic Revolution. I argue that it is, or rather, it could be, for four reasons.
1. Political Islam is alive and well in Egypt.
The lack of Islamic symbolism in the streets is being misread. Yes, there are no cries of “Allahu Akbar” in the crowds of Tahrir Square, but what does that mean? Commentators make much of the fact that protests were organized by the “Facebook Generation.” Although correct, they ignore the fact that any Egyptian belonging to the “Facebook Generation” is likely to be “elite” in terms of the wider Egyptian demographics. You are not likely to be on Twitter if you earn under $2 per day, as most people in Egypt do. Despite what we’re seeing in Tahrir Square, the Facebook Generation (including the April 6 Youth Movement) as a serious force for political organization is a dubious notion. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, while not being the poster-child of the Facebook Generation, almost certainly does have a wide following in the slums of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood is therefore the strongest autonomous force in Egypt today. While the Brotherhood started out as a social movement, they overcame their reluctance to participate in formal opposition politics in 2005. They joined the street demonstrations of the Kifaya movement, engaged in debate on political reform and successful contested parliamentary elections, winning 88 out of 444 seats (having only contested 150 constituencies). As one commentator noted, the Brotherhood took “extremely seriously” its decision to “…trade in its history as a social movement for a new identity as a serious political player.” (italics in original).
The Brotherhood, however, cannot be labeled as a “radical” Islamist party. Indeed, Islamic political rhetoric does not feature prominently in its current discourse, even though it is never too far away. The Brotherhood is, however, simultaneously the best-organized opposition party and an Islamic political party in a country of roughly 80 million Muslims. That cannot be dismissed.
2. The success or failure of the Iranian Revolution is not a commentary on Egypt.
The argument that this is not an Islamic revolution because Egypt in 2011 is unlike Iran in 1979 or that the Muslim Brotherhood lacks a Khomeini-like figure does not actually tell us anything about the nature of this particular revolution.
Less than a month ago the myth of Arab Authoritarianism was intact. For decades, scholars pondered the so called “puzzle” of “Arab exceptionalism” while scratching their heads as to why the authoritarian states in the Arab world have not embraced liberal democracy. That debate is now coming to an end.
In its place, new questions are being posed. What does all this mean? What trajectory and direction will politics take in the Muslim world? What role will Islam play in Egyptian politics? The fact is that no one knows and this is an entirely unprecedented situation. It is entirely possible that this may well be a different type of Islamic Revolution and we must take that possibility seriously, like it or not. The interventions we are witnessing have fundamentally changed “the coordinates of the situation.” In other words, the past is not a guide to the future and we cannot call on it to define this particular revolution.
3. We cannot know what new Islamic energies will be unleashed.
Until now, Islamic political philosophy has failed to answer the question of why Western-style democracies are more effective than rival political systems. It is entirely feasible that the current waves of change, triggered by Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, could unleash new waves of Islamic political thought.
We could see the emergence of an Islamic Rawls, revitalizing the entire field of Islamic political thought. New thinking on the role of Islam in the organization of a society can now be coupled with new forms of political experimentation. We cannot pretend to know what political Islam looks like anymore because it is evolving and changing by the moment.
This is the moment that new civil society organizations, including new universities and think tanks, sprouting up across the Gulf will prove their worth and all those young Gulf-citizens will truly earn their PhDs.
4. Muslims are tired of how politics has been defined by and in the West.
Perhaps the time has come to redefine what politics means?
Realpolitik, the Kissingerian-Nixonian view of international relations, has dominated US foreign policy for decades. It ensures that the US makes public proclamations about democracy and freedom, while in reality, democracy is subsumed and sacrificed every day to self-interest, be that oil or domestic support for Israel.
Realpolitik ideologues fear the unleashing of Arab democracy, because in the battle for resources, for alliances and for fraternity, they have largely sided against Muslims. Muslims, and Arabs in particular, have been conditioned by decades of realpolitik, by decades of Western support for their oppressors, by images from Afghanistan and Iraq, by constant betrayals, to mistrust the US and the West.
These masses are now demanding and gaining the political space to express themselves. They will hardly speak kindly of US and Western policy of the past fifty years. Yet they have a choice before them. The choice is to either pursue their interests through rival realpolitik ideological positions or to pursue justice through the evolution of international law.
The maturity of the Egyptian revolution points to a possible maturing of what it means to be “political.” For many Muslims, Islam does not mean conflict; it means submission, to truth and to peace. The unleashing of towering new political energies in the Muslim world present an opportunity for Muslims to hold fast to their highest ideals and for non-Muslims to support those ideals while transcending easy stereotypes and cheap fear-mongering. We should therefore pause in our reactions and ask ourselves; perhaps an Islamic revolution in Egypt is not de facto a bad thing.
Finally, I’m reminded of Karen Armstrong’s description of the historical mission Muslims are tasked with:
“In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossible to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again.”