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Egypt - A Test of Democratic Rhetoric

by Soumaya Ghannoushi  (December 2005)

In the recent Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamic movement in the Arab world, has succeeded in winning approximately one third of the votes, even though the organisation, which continues to be banned in Egypt, had confined itself to contesting 144 out of the 454 parliamentary seats to avoid aggravating the government.

This result came in spite of the widespread violations that have marred the elections, ranging from the arrests of hundreds of Brotherhood activists, to the police blocking polling stations and shooting tear gas, and thugs wielding machetes, knives and guns to terrorise voters, while the police stood by.

The Egyptian case is the rule not the exception. Wherever relatively free and credible elections have been held in the region, mainstream Islamism has emerged as the principal player.

This has been the case in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Turkey. Even in Algeria, where the army staged a coup d'etat against the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992, soon after, other Islamic parties came to occupy the seats the ousted FIS had held in parliament.

From Egypt to Syria, Iraq to Turkey, Algeria to Tunisia, the lesson has been the same: Deeply entrenched socio-political phenomena cannot be uprooted by force and coercion.

Mainstream Islamism is a fundamental and firmly-rooted factor in Arab and Islamic political life. It can be neither ignored nor cancelled.

Whether we like it or not, mainstream Islamism is an integral component of any equation of democratic transition in the region.

The claim that political Islam is in its last throes, which has gained currency in academic, political and media circles since it was first put forward by Olivier Roy in the 1990s, looks today more implausible than ever.

The problem with the failure of political Islam thesis is that it reduces the Islamic scene to its radical expressions, with no heed of the diversity of its modes of interpretation, political agendas, and order of priorities.

The trouble with Roy is that he turns his attention to the narrow violent fringes and turns a blind eye to the mainstream and its internal dynamism.

The tendency to lump the great Islamist mosaic under the vague and obscure heading of Islamic fundamentalism leaves us in a conceptual vacuum, unable to decipher its complexity and make sense of its many variations. Islamism, just like Socialism is not a uniform entity. It characterises an intensely colourful socio-political phenomenon with different strategies and discourses.

This enormously diverse movement ranges from the liberal to the conservative, from the modern to the traditional, from the moderate to the radical, from the democratic to the theocratic and from the peaceful to the violent.

What is common to these different trends is that they all derive their source of legitimacy from Islam, just as the Latin American anarchist guerrillas, the Social Democrats, Marxists, and Third way Blairites base theirs on Socialism. To view this broad canvass through the lens of Bin Laden or al-Zarqawi is nothing short of absurd.

It is equally immature to assume that the different manifestations of Islamism are all engaged in an open battle with modernity.

Mainstream Islamism may in fact be described as a complex response to the challenges and deficiencies of modernity. It represents a synthesis between Islam's historical and symbolic resources and the expressions of modernity.

It is as Islamic in its language and origins, as it is modern in its methods and instruments. Its social bases are largely drawn from the urban educated sectors of society, with a strong presence in the unions of students, teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers.

The seeds of this phenomenon may be traced back to the dawn of the nineteenth century with the Islamic reform movement of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his disciples Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Rida.

These reformers may be credited with transmitting Islam's symbolic capital from the traditional sectors of Muslim society to its modern institutions and adapting it the requirements of modern times.

This is not to say that the discourse of Islamists is entirely coherent, or that their historical experience is without its pitfalls. It is to recognise Islamism as a dynamic complex phenomenon, expressive of, and responsive to, the dilemmas and crises of a modern Islamic world struggling to regain its equilibrium after the painful bolts of colonialism and political fragmentation.

Whatever we may think of Islamism, whether we like it or not, we cannot change the reality on the ground. Islamists are the dominant force in much of the Muslim world.

The campaigns of repression waged against them by the regionís dictatorships with the backing of their American and European allies have proved quite unable to halt their growth or stop the pace of Islamisation in Muslim society.

The broad trend in the Islamic political map today is one of incorporating the mechanisms of democracy, such as peaceful power alternation, power checks and balances and the separation of powers, within an Islamic framework.

Democracy is, indeed, neither a dogma, nor a doctrine. It denotes a collection of procedures and institutions which have the potential to function within different cultural contexts and various value- systems.

To break the Islamic political terrain into opposite trenches of enlightened secular democrats and fundamentalist remnants of medieval times is both simplistic and misleading.

The so-called fundamentalist threat has been, and continues to be, used as a means of obstructing real democratic transition in the region. Only if it generates the desired result is the ballot box to be accepted, only as a seal of a pre-determined outcome.

Those who fill the air with hymns to freedom and democracy are strangely silent today, unstirred by the scenes of police barrages encircling polling stations and machete wielding government thugs chasing voters away.

In a letter addressed to the American State Secretary in response to the Department spokesman's denial of any knowledge of violence or irregularities in the Egyptian election.

Human Rights Watch said, such statements "make a mockery of the policies you and President Bush have articulated on numerous occasions this year regarding the importance of respect for democratic freedoms in the Middle East generally and in Egypt in particular" (2 Dec 2005).

The grand slogans of democracy and good governance in the Middle East are being tested today on the Egyptian soil.

What continues to be missing in the region, it seems, are not the forces of democracy, or the culture of democracy, but the international will to allow democratic change to take place. What we need is to bridge the gap between a sweet rhetoric and a gruesome, bitter reality.

- Soumaya Ghannoushi (11 December 2005)

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

- from Aljazeera.Net

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revised 27 December 2005