Islam

Islamist Extremism Is Not Driving Egypt's Presidential Election

How Egyptians are trying to divide power between the country's problematic players

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There is no predestination in human affairs, so it is impossible to predict what a post-Arab Spring Egypt will ultimately look like. It might well degenerate into a totalitarian theocracy more odious than the secular autocracy that the Egyptian people overthrew, as some neoconservative worrywarts warn. But the run-up to the presidential elections this week suggests that Egyptians are desperately looking for a system of checks and balances to keep authoritarians of every stripe at bay.

This itself is reason to be cautiously optimistic about Egypt's future.

Commentators like Samuel Tadros of the neoconservative Hudson Institute have been saying "I told you so" ever since the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extreme Islamist Salafi cousins together won 65 percent of the seats in parliament last December. Egyptian liberals, who had actually led the rebellion against the Mubarak dictatorship, by contrast won only 15 percent.

As far as Tadros and his ideological bedfellows are concerned, this offers proof positive that elections and democracy won't lead to an enlightened liberalism that protects the rights of women and minorities (after all, 80 percent of Egyptians allegedly support capital punishment for apostasy). Rather, they'll simply legitimize a reactionary and retrograde form of sharia-based government that is hostile to Western values.

But if such fears were well-founded, then Islamist hardliners would not only be ahead in Egypt's presidential race, they'd be trumpeting their Islamist credentials from rooftops. The exact opposite, however, is happening. Both the front-runners—Aboul Fotouh, an Islamic liberal, and Amr Moussa, an outright secularist—are bending over backwards to distance themselves from extremist ideologies. The more extreme Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is running a distant third or fourth.

Fotouh, whom the Muslim Brotherhood kicked out of its fold last year, is a genuinely interesting guy. He has managed to win the support of folks as diverse as Wael Ghonim, the young, liberal Google executive credited with spearheading the Tahrir Square uprising, and the Salafis, the ultraconservative Muslims—despite declaring that he'd prefer a good Christian to a bad Muslim as president. Like every other candidate, he supports the provision in the Egyptian constitution that recognizes sharia as the ultimate source of law. But his interpretation of sharia, interestingly enough, requires rulers to implement the freely expressed will of the people.

Fotouh's moderate views are diluting the secularist credentials of Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League whose Achilles' heel is that he is a remnant of the despised Mubarak regime. Moussa is trying to distract from his checkered past by drawing attention to Fotouh's previous alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the first presidential debate ever in the Arab world last week, Moussa depicted Fotouh as a stealth candidate who, once elected, would spring his hardline Islamism on Egypt, something Fotouh hotly denied. But the fact that Moussa hopes to win political points by outing Fotouh as an Islamist rather than trying to "out-Islam" him suggests that the Arab Street ain't exactly pining for the Ayatollah.

So why would the Egyptian public that gave Islamists a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections six months ago now be turning to Islamically challenged candidates? And why would the Salafis choose to back Fotouh over Morsi, their spiritual bro? The reason may be that Egyptians—even Salafis—don't blindly apply a religious litmus test to their candidates. If anything, having felt the boot of a dictatorship on their neck for over half a century, they fear an autocratic regime far more than they crave an Islamic one.

Egyptians initially were attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood not because it is a Muslim outfit, but because it is a Muslim outfit that shares their experience of persecution and would therefore be less likely to persecute them. What's more, the Brotherhood has a track record of resisting Egypt's military-backed rulers, and was regarded as the only actor capable of standing up to the military that has been consolidating its chokehold on the government and the economy. (The military controls anywhere between 5 and 45 percent of Egypt's industry, including water-bottling plants!)

However, the Muslim Brotherhood has proven a huge disappointment after its decisive parliamentary victory, displaying a disturbing power-hungry streak. It packed a panel tasked with writing the next constitution with its own followers. It has used its legislative powers not in the national interest, but for naked cronyism. It has lost major street cred by contesting the presidential elections after having pledged not to. Even worse, there are widespread suspicions that rather than standing up to the military, it's cozying up to it. Hence, the prospect of the Brotherhood controlling both the executive and legislative branches is terrifying ordinary Egyptians.

All of this suggests that Egyptians are engaged in a complicated and delicate balancing act, using the Islamists to check the military and vice versa. They are intuitively acting on Lord Acton's maxim that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and are using the upcoming elections to divide power among the country's major—though problematic—political players.

Whether they'll ultimately succeed, Allah only knows. But if they fail and pave the way for something odious like a theocracy or a military dictatorship, it'll be despite—not because of—their true desires. Trying to understand their entire struggle from the narrow standpoint of whether they want sharia law both cheapens and oversimplifies the epic events unfolding on the ground.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist for The Daily, where this column originally appeared.

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  1. I get the idea from this that a lot of people there use “sharia” kind of the same way a lot of people use the word “rights” here. They have no idea what they mean by it, but it’s comforting to them.

    1. My sense is that even the most liberal Muslim has to mouth words supporting Sharia, much like even the most liberal politicians here in the United States cannot be open atheists.

      1. My sense is that even the most liberal Muslim has to mouth words supporting Sharia, much like even the most liberal politicians here in the United States cannot be open atheists.

        I wasn’t aware that the U.S. Constitution had a section mandating the death penalty for apostasy.

        1. Well now I don’t ever think I said that it did. I was making an analogy, and like all analogies, it generally gets rougher on certain parts.

          Anyway, there is no question that Muslim countries are far from classical liberal paradises. I never said that they were. I don’t understand what everyone thinks is going to be accomplished by saying “ISLAM SUXX0RS” five different ways.

          1. I don’t understand what everyone thinks is going to be accomplished by saying “ISLAM SUXX0RS” five different ways.

            Well, if someone keeps hitting their head with a hammer and then they wonder why they have constant headaches, you might want to mention the ‘hitting your head with a hammer’ thing.

            1. If modern Egyptian illiberalism and backwardness were solely or primarily due to hitting one’s head against Islam that would be a useful analogy. Laws against apostasy, which have not included death in Egypt, aren’t the reason they have lived under a military regime for a better part of a century. Popular shitheads like Ataturk in TUrkey, Nasser and his army in Egypt, etc were not ruling in the name of Islam or at least not traditional versions of it. Nor were the western rulers earlier. And even those who invoked it, like Sadat who reimposed Sharia law, often did it symbolically or as a sop to a faction. Religion comes and goes everywhere, mostly going these days, but vampire states are universal temptations of all ideologies (including secularist fanaticisms) with religion just one excuse for tyranny, and not always an effective one.

              1. Looks like the “No True Muslim” Express is on time.

    2. Especially in Egypt, where there are 3 different types of Sharia that Sunnis follow, not to mention Shias.

  2. Shikha, can you provide some citations or links for all the statements and assertions that you make?

    1. According to a new survey from pew:

      “Egyptians also want Islam to play a major role in society, and most (60 to 92%) believe the Quran should shape the country’s laws, although a growing minority expresses reservations about the increasing influence of Islam in politics?.

      “When asked which country is the better model for the role of religion in government, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, 61% say the latter?.”

  3. Shikha, here’s an example of a citation:

    9/11 ‘truther’ leading Egyptian presidential race

    This helps your readers examine your assertion that Abolfotoh is a “moderate”.

    1. Fair point. Links included.

  4. What really should be talked about is the question of why Americans should care who rules Egypt ? Yes I know that America treats a lot of these countries as little more than client states for America, perhaps if there was less interference with in middle east it would not matter and affect America as much as now.

    1. *eyeroll*

      Because the Arab Spring matters in a long-ball-look-at-history kind of way? Because they are a trading partner? Because we do have a troubled history with the Middle East?

      Just because I agree with you that we should interfere in the affairs of Southwest Asia a whole lot less doesn’t mean that embracing ignorance is the answer.

      1. So then what’s your answer if Egypt ends up with the “wrong” people in charge?

        1. I think I already said I supported noninterference. NotSure said “why should America care”, which is a far sight from “what should America do about it?” I am sure that the answer from both of us on that note is the same.

        2. The US-led “international community” should stay away from Egypt, Libya, etc. and fight the urge to “spread democracy”. If these people want to live by Sharia and even commit genocide against Copts – so be it. At least until the moment when a single Egyptian suicide bomber goes off in Western capitals. If that happens, Egypt should be invaded.

          A libertarian who want to impose his values on others (like democracy) is no libertarian at all. If I want to live under Sharia, I should be allowed to do so. People who don’t want to put up with Sharia should just leave.

      2. How exactly is wanting to keep out of affairs of another country equivalent to ignorance ??? Its a nice try, but the excuse is the same as the British used to justify staying in India, “the natives are ignorant only the British can keep India together”.

        You answer my question though, you have a troubled history because interferers such as you stuck their noses in middle eastern affairs in the first places, so you solution (ignorant in fact) is more interference.

        1. The British turned out to be right in the end. As the Indian-born Rudyard Kipling so eloquently put it:

          “Take up the White Man’s burden?
          And reap his old reward:
          The blame of those ye better
          The hate of those ye guard”

      3. I see what your trying to do there avoiding using the Orientalist term “Middle East”, but Egypt is in Africa.

    2. Well, there is this little thing called the Suez Canal, for starters.

    3. You are correct that Egypt is too trivial to be concerned about, as Randian inadvertently points out.

      As for taxpayer sponsored interference (same link as above):

      “Both types of American aid are viewed negatively by Egyptians. About six-in-ten (61%) say U.S. military aid has a harmful influence on Egypt, while just 11% believe its impact is positive, and 25% say it has no impact. Similarly, 61% consider U.S. economic aid harmful, while the remainder of the public is split between positive views (21%) and the belief that the aid has no impact (17%)?.”

  5. …perhaps if there was less interference with in middle east it would not matter and affect America as much as now.

    Now that’s just crazy talk. How are we supposed to ‘project power’ if we mind our own business?

  6. Moderate sharia law means a trial before execution for apostasy.

  7. …Egyptians are desperately looking for a system of checks and balances to keep authoritarians of every stripe at bay

    Good luck with that.

    The logical conclusion of any system of checks and balances that lacks an incentive to get rid of shitty rules is a totalitarian state.

    Just look at the United States.

    You can’t take a shit without some jackass deciding how much water you are allowed to use.

  8. EM.I have read the article carefully,I think it is a good article,I’d like you can post more artcile like this.

  9. the Muslim Brotherhood … shares their experience of persecution and would therefore be less likely to persecute them.

    But “kids who are abused are likely to become abusers themselves”. I confused.

  10. How come the neocons are worrywarts while all those Saddam appeasers back in 2003 were realists?

    1. Neocons are always the worrywarts; they exist surrounded by the acrid odor of fear-piss.

    2. Yeah, she’s repeating the exact same punch line that she used a few days ago, even though I already tried to correct her because her needle doesn’t even make any sense.

      If Egypt turned into a wildly successful enlightened liberal democracy, the neocons would naturally claim vindication; that it proves that their theory was correct all along.

      1. It’s the same article from a few days ago. Just re-posted here.

    3. Agreed. This is one area where Reason writers have no intellectual consistency.

  11. recognizes sharia as the ultimate source of law

    What a dangerous, retrograde idea. It be like if there was some movement in the US that tried to put up the 10 Commandments in every courtroom.

    1. Paging Ambrose Bierce …

      JOSS-STICKS, n. Small sticks burned by the Chinese in their pagan tomfoolery, in imitation of certain sacred rites of our holy religion.

  12. Dude really does make a whole lot of sense. WOw.

    http://www.Privacy-Software.tk

  13. The Muslim Brotherhood and its more extreme Islamist Salafi cousins together won 65 percent of the seats in parliament last December. Egyptian liberals, who had actually led the rebellion against the Mubarak dictatorship, by contrast won only 15 percent. … 80 percent of Egyptians allegedly support capital punishment for apostasy.

    But if such fears were well-founded, then Islamist hardliners would … be ahead in Egypt’s presidential race.

    That last point, if true, seems like only a slight positive in a sea of negative data points. Seriously, what are the prospects for liberal democracy in a country where it’s agreed that leaving the faith you’re born into is grounds for execution?

  14. So those running for president hide their Islamism and that is evidence that we need not overworry…but the fact that the acutal Islamists who got in parliament (after pretending disinterest in said Islamism) have been acting the fool as soon as they got there isn’t convincing evidence that people should worry about this?

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