The Toppling of Morsi is a Blow For Secularism

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” – Henry Ford

Clip_23The ouster of Mohamed Morsi as President of Egypt in a coup d’état by the military will reverberate not only across the political landscape of the ancient land but that of the entire Muslim world. Morsi, whilst viewed globally as a barely acceptable face of political Islam, represented but a segment of a wider movement in the Muslim world calling for the implementation of Shariah law by the State.

Numerous polls have shown overwhelming support amongst the global Muslim populace for making Shariah the official law of the land. The latest of such research is that of the Washington based Pew Research organisation entitled ‘The World’s Muslims; Religion, Politics and Society’ which was released on April 30, 2013. The poll found that in 25 of the countries surveyed the majority of Muslims supported Shariah being the law of the land. Notable findings were Iraq (91%), Malaysia (86%), Niger (86%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Bangladesh (82%), Egypt (74%), Jordan (71%) and Nigeria (71%). What is intriguing about these findings is not just the level of such support but the amount of diversity amongst the respondents gives pause for thought; whether one finds themselves in Africa, the Middle East, South or South East Asia, they would find a consistent political ambition amongst the people.

So why has Morsi been rejected in Egypt?

To the uninitiated a bearded man from a party, whose name drips with Islamic symbolism born in the nationalistic aftermath that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, which for many years adopted the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ would be the realisation of anyone who desires Shariah law.

On a superficial level the Morsi government failed to address the economic malaise faced by Egypt leading to mass discontent. Yet there is also a deeper answer hiding in plain sight; the Muslim Brotherhood had not only forsaken Islamic politics decades ago but became the champion of democratisation, predicated on secular thought, across the Muslim world. Its actions subsequent to the demise of Hosni Mubarak epitomise its wandering political compass, which have compounded Egypt’s woes.

Early on in the revolution it was quick to distance itself from championing the mass movement, which many interpreted as a sign that it was projecting a moderated stance to the global media lest Western states decided to intervene against it. This was designed as much for the consumption of world as it was for the military, the real power behind the Egyptian throne.

Appropriate noises were made about wanting a civil state rather than an Islamic one which led the Brotherhood being allowed to contest the elections as the Freedom and Justice Party. Many supporters ignored this call due to a mixture of viewing it as political subterfuge and holding the idea that an Islamic state could be achieved from within a secular democratic setup by gradual implementation of Islamic principles.

Once in power, rather than using this success at the ballot box as a mandate for political change, the Brotherhood ended up continuing many of the key policies and ideological direction of the Mubarak era.

Economically it was unable to address the issue of resource distribution, with the military and Mubarak era governments controlling up to 40% of the economy. As these elites moved wealth out of the country, the Egyptian Pound plummeted leading to a widening trade deficit as Egypt attempted to service its energy and food imports using a weakened currency.

Out of ideas, Morsi turned to the IMF for interest based loans.

All of these policies were born of the crucible of economic liberalism, with no Islamic economic policies such as the introduction of a bi-metallic backed currency, the abolition of natural resource monopolies or the shifting of the tax burden from income and consumption to capital and produce in sight.

In terms of foreign policy the army ensured that Egypt continued to support the goals of its benefactor, America, rather than reflect public sentiment in Egypt. This lead to the reaffirmation of the Camp David accords, blocking the tunnels to Gaza and mostly silence on the issue of the Syrian revolution. This ran counter to the expected dropping of national borders to unify with other Muslim countries to create a wider Islamic union and the removal of Western supported dictators in the Arab world by supplying political/military support to other revolutions in the region.

Despite unending compromise on practically every major issue to placate Western states abroad and secularists at home, the Brotherhood was still ejected from power.

This will leave many supporters of not just the Brotherhood directly but the politics of gradualism and participation in a democratic process with much to think about. If democracy cannot tolerate the will of the people if it happens to be Islamic, then is it truly just a mechanism for representing popular opinion or is it a system unable to function without the values of secular liberalism being implemented? Is it really the political equivalent of Henry Ford’s choice of colour?

The ramifications of the answer to this question would be important not just to the fate of Egyptian politics but to that of the entire Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood has inspired many movements in the Muslim world which have espoused political participation in democracy rather than an attempt at radical change to establish an Islamic State. If the Brotherhood can be tossed aside, despite decades of work and masses of support on its home turf, how can such a system hold any hope for meaningful change?

Lessons learned from Egypt would suggest that any real change requires the backing of the armed forces rather than a conflict with them or a simple change of face on the political front. Further, it would seem that regardless of how much political Islam compromises it would never be perceived as sufficient by secular segments of society, so why try at all?

The coming months and years could see the biggest drop in adoption democracy amongst the proponents of Shariah law across the Muslim world. Ironically, this would have been precipitated by a coup backed by secularists and implicitly by Western powers to rid one country of any influence of political Islam.

Muhammad Asim

mamuhammadasim@gmail.com

Twitter: @AsimWriter

Arab Spring turns into military take over in Egypt

Two years after the Arab Spring held the world captive, Egypt again finds itself immersed in turmoil as Egyptians took to the streets on June 30th in a movement to remove Islamist Brotherhood leader Dr. Mohamed Morsi (Morsy according to some sources) from his post as president of the country. The movement was backed by Egypt’s National Army, which issued a statement on July 3rd, 2013 ousting Morsi and claiming that the leadership of the Islamic Brotherhood does not truly represent the interests of the people. Further demands include improvements to economic conditions to help alleviate poverty.

Cairo, a bustling city of over 20 million residents, rarely sees a quiet moment.

Since June 30, however, the city has been teeming with protests and occasional violence. The last time the city saw this much action was during the Arab Spring of 2011, which resulted in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak after a thirty year term. After Mubarak’s removal, Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Islamic Brotherhood Party, was elected as president, and was the first Egyptian president to win a Democratic election.

Upon my arrival on June 27th, it was obvious that Cairo was facing severe shortages of hard infrastructure. Roads were in disrepair, trash was rampant, buildings seemed to be falling apart, and many people were walking along the highway rather than taking public or private transportation. Along the way, I witnessed the victims of a vehicle accident lying on the side of the road, as onlookers stood around, presumably (and hopefully) waiting for emergency medical transportation. The traffic from Cairo International Airport was terrible – a 30 km drive through the city took well over an hour to complete.

The economic situation since the revolution and Mubarak’s subsequent arrest has had severe impacts on the daily lives of Egyptians. Crime has been on the rise, and people fear theft and muggings, especially in the larger cities. People are more likely to stay at home at night, and most women disappear from the streets after dark. Petrol stations frequently face shortages or shut down all together.

One of the most shocking aspects of Cairo was the long queues for petrol — often extending for blocks. The lines at the gas stations were such that drivers (all men) were waiting outside their vehicles, chatting, drinking, and even fighting. These lines could last anywhere from an hour or two to TWO DAYS to fill up a tank. We first took for this to indicate poor gasoline controls, removal of government subsidies on petrol, or perhaps shortage. However, we later learned that the people of Cairo were proactively filling up their tanks to prepare for the protest, just in case an angry government reigned in supply.

On June 30th, the protests-turned-revolution began across Egypt. I happened to be in Luxor, a city on the Nile River about 500 km south of Cairo. We managed to get stuck in the middle of the protests in a taxi as we were carted from Karnak to Luxor Temples. Although it appeared to be just a heavy dose of traffic, we quickly noticed a motorcycle carrying two young men, one of whom was carrying a three foot long rusty metal pipe. We giggled a bit over why on Earth this boy thought it necessary to bring the pipe to a ‘peaceful’ protest — or perhaps he just happened to have it with him?

After the death of a 21 year old American student who was attacked while taking photos and video of the protests in Alexandria, the United States, British, and other governments discouraged against all but essential travel to Egypt for their citizens, in anticipation of potential violence.

Talking with tour guides and taxi drivers, we began to get a better picture of the situation in Egypt. Ayman Abdo, a young tour guide (and anti-Morsi protester) in Luxor, claimed that “tourists are not like before” and that while many sites can reach 90\% capacity year round, now it feels closer to 20-25\%. Many tour guides are college educated, and impressively speak at least two languages. During times of high tourism, they are well paid, but since 2011, the industry has seen a dramatic decline, causing them to search for other sources of income.

Clip_199Morsi’s Islamic Brotherhood party quietly takes an anti-tourism stance, because in their view of Islam, they should not be welcoming to foreigners. Tourism development has slowed considerably since Morsi came to power. For example, the new Egyptian Museum being built by the Pyramids at Giza has continued construction but at a slower pace. Morsi’s policies, coupled with international fears following 2011′s revolution, have caused this decrease in tourism; civilians are quick to blame the Islamic Brotherhood for the decline.

The poverty in Egypt is shocking. Egypt was on par with many South Asian countries in terms of poverty and lack of development. The Egyptian people rely heavily on the Nile as a source of water, and have had to dam it in order to provide water to their 82 million people. Access to clean water is still not guaranteed. Trash litters the streets and sidewalks while many people sit around idle, drinking tea at street side stands or smoking sheesha.

Buildings are left unfinished, with the metal construction rods sticking out of the roofs. Presumably the owners do this so as to avoid further hassle in case they decided to build higher in the future, however this leaves Egypt with an ‘unfinished’ and dilapidated feel.

The touts in Egypt were extremely aggressive. Our first run in with them was outside Abu Simbel temples, where we were required to ‘run the gamut’, so to speak, by walking through a shopping area before arriving back at our bus. The harassment almost got to an unbearable level, with multiple touts following a single tourist at one time, all promising ‘good deals for you, my friend’ and ‘best price’ while naming outrageous numbers for the regular made-in-China fare you find in the tourist routes.

Another curiosity was the culture of ‘baksheesh,’ or tipping. We had been warned through reading travel guides that tipping was required in almost every aspect in Egyptian culture. However, I found this to be completely false. Baksheesh appears to only be part of Egyptian-tourist culture.

Egyptians expect to be tipped for just about everything. A cleaner at one of the temples offered to take a photo and then asked for baksheesh. Touts will follow you around temples and other sites; say a few sentences of history or point out a piece of art and then demand money. Not only is it frustrating to be provided what are widely considered ‘free’ services at a cost, but this frustration is further compounded by a national shortage of small bills.

At a 1-7 exchange rate to the American dollar at the time of writing, the lack of small paper money and coins creates huge issues, not only for locals but for well-meaning tourists who are torn between not tipping at all and tipping large amounts. While ₤E100 may be appropriate for tipping tour guides, one will quickly run out of money after tipping the same amount to taxi drivers, baggage boys, bathroom attendants, etc. At one point we tipped ₤E200 to a taxi driver for a fare 1/4 of that price because we had no smaller bills.

A shortage of change means that locals have a harder time selling to tourists. All the small bills we came across were old and ripped, indicating their overuse. After a boy named Mohammed tugged at my heartstrings and convinced me to buy a ‘handmade’ bracelet I didn’t want, he promptly ran off with an extra ₤E10, claiming “gift, gift!” I was quickly mobbed by his friends demanding money, claiming that he had used their money as change. We eventually resorted to using American cash for tipping and making purchases, as this was widely accepted.

Every tour guide emphasized how much they loved Americans. American tourists are friendly, tip well, and are happy to spend money. However, it seemed that the American government couldn’t win at either side of the equation. Morsi supporters didn’t like that Obama had yet to comment on the situation, and that the US government had yet to call the military’s intervention a coup. Anti-Morsi protesters claim that the Obama administration is funding terrorism by supporting Morsi and his Islamic Brotherhood regime. According to one Cairo tour guide, Morsi pardoned several state prisoners connected with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.

While the political problems in Egypt will take much time to sort out, there is a lot of work that can be undertaken in the near future to improve the social and economic situation of Egyptians. Obviously, the first step is to stop the violence. The bloodshed and violent sexual attacks on women are unwarranted and unnecessary. Foreign governments need to hold Egypt’s government and military accountable for their actions. Firing on unarmed citizens is not a model of democracy that should be upheld and it should never be condoned, even in the midst of a revolution.

Despite protestors using a poor economy as one of their rallying points against Mubarak, violence by civilians or military only serves to worsen Egypt’s economic situation, and thereby impact the quality of life of Egyptians. Foreign currency reserves have dropped dramatically in response to the first revolution ousting Mubarak, as well as decreased tourism revenue and collapse in foreign direct investment.

The Central Bank of Egypt needs to address the small currency shortage – either by exchanging larger bills for smaller ones at nationwide banks, or printing and replacing small bills. Small day-to-day transactions are made increasingly difficult if one doesn’t have money. As far as international investment, only political stability will increase investor’s confidence in the market.

It is also the duty of the interim leaders to ensure that Egypt’s judiciary and government sponsored services are carried out as usual. Without proper enforcement of justice, criminals will continue to run rampant. Hundreds of women have reported assault, and the nature of the violent sexual assaults on women in Tahrir is horrendous, with many women requiring surgery. In a recent post in the Guardian, Mona Eltahawy argues that Egypt is in need of a revolution against sexual violence, as many sexual crimes in Egypt are never prosecuted or even acknowledged.

Egypt is facing an uphill battle, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. Poverty, infrastructure, fiscal policy, pollution, and women’s rights are all areas needing a great deal of reform and attention. The greatest challenge facing Egypt’s next generation of leaders is to implement a lasting form of Democracy– one that extends justice to all citizens.

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