Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Constitutionalism.
Egypt, it hardly needs saying, is in the throes of the greatest power struggle to hit the country since the 1950s. It is unnecessary to repeat a description of the sufferings of its people, or the detailed reporting of the courageous revolt against the Mubarak regime. The growing importance of Egypt’s liberal constitutionalists, not least for the Western powers exercising their influence on the outcome of the crisis, is not universally welcomed. Some regard this turn as a way of preserving Cairo’s alignment with American interests. A transitional government led by such as Muhamed ElBaradei, will concentrate on legal change, while leaving the country’s neo-liberal economic policies intact. As the economic distress, which fuelled the protests, comes from that source, this is a matter of great concern.
One issue however is dividing much more fundamentally those who wish, from the left, to support a democratic transition, and encourage the development of socialist movements in the land. That is the nature of Egypt’s most numerous opposition force, Islamism, and its strongest expression, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Socialist Worker and Counterfire rightly place the MB within the camp of resistance. They appear however to have gone stage further. For the SWP it may be a “contradictory” party, with reactionary positions, but crucially, it is “anti-imperialist”. Counterfire simply places them within the National Coalition for Change, the “militant movement” that should enagage in “permanent revolution”. An even more ‘cordial’ description of them, by John Wight, is given here. They incline to an objective alliance between the Egyptian left (and by extension, all who want to express solidarity with efforts to topple the Raïs), or at the very least, common action, with this Islamist party. This is to conflate support for the democratic rights of the MB together with active co-operation. It is not the pragmatic recognition that to establish new Egyptian political institutions, “The Muslim Brotherhood will play a serious part in any new politics” – as the Guardian Editorial of the 5th of February states. Instead it has echoes of the Third Worldist view that there is a need to create a common ‘anti-imperialist’ front against Mubarak, the puppet of the Americans. No doubt Counterfire and the SWP and their Egyptian surrogates intend to outflank the MB, which has, as the Guardian states, has become “less a radical organisation than a conservative one..”.
These views have been challenged. The AWL’s Solidarity warns of the dangers of “Islamic counter-revolution”. Clive Bradley notes, “Though the Islamist movements have played little part in the upheavals, the fact that they have political cadres and organisation already in place gives them scope to shape outcomes.” He states that the MB’s aim is a “religious state” (2.2.2011). In the Weekly Worker Eddie Ford says, “the mass movement is not some attempted power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood or some other such Islamist group. Indeed, all the evidence points to the MB being to a large extent left behind by events – it is certainly unable to exert control or leadership over the uprising, doubtlessly to its frustration.” (2.3.2011)
Yassamine Mathar in the same journal observes, “in addition to holding conservative views on issues such as women’s rights, the MB is anti-communist and has been hostile to independent working class popular organizations.” Illustrating the wider influence that Islamism has had in the country, also describes how even the Egyptian left-of-centre, in the Arab Socialist Party, the and the Young Egypt Party, believe in ruling people’s lives by the Sharia. The Social Justice Party stands for something called a “socialist Islamic economic System.” Whatever the differences between these writers, encouraging the MB or any form of Islamism is not on their political agenda.
There is a good deal of evidence that Egyptian Islamism is a threat to a range of democratic and social rights. From its establishment (1928) the Muslim Brotherhood has been marked by the influence of profoundly illiberal and anti-socialist figures. The MB’s loathing of Jews, Communists, Freemasons (secularists) and ‘Crusaders’ has resembled in many respects the European extreme-right – though they somewhat obviously differed about the last target). Their founding leader, Al-Banna, was opposed to ‘Western’ democratic institutions and political pluralism; he advocated a pious ‘organic’ society in which God and his revealed Message in the Qu’ran were sovereign.
The MB’s opposition to British colonialism, and its missionary, indoctrinating and charitable activities in the 1930s, helped build a party with enduring influence. This has remained despite serve repression by the Egyptian state, which began with Nasser. In 1952 his Free Officers included them in government until a falling-out over the terms of British withdrawal in 1954 led to a crackdown. In 1971 Sadat released MB prisoners, encouraged them to organise in universities against the left and Nasserite groups and, by 1975 allowed full reign to their social and religious activities. Sadat’s assassination in 1981, by a MB splinter, the Jihad, led to a return to repression. Under Mubarak’s rule there have been periods of accommodation to the MB, and sweeping clampdowns on all forms of Islamism. The entry of the 17 Brotherhood MPs into Parliament in 200 was followed by arrests of activists.
Nobody who has read seriously about the Brotherhood can fail to be impressed by the complexity of its internal political and ideological life. But a general feature stands out above all others. That the MB could be a home for the Guide of modern hard-line Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, indicates that the Brothers’ embrace extended at one period to the currents, now wholly separate and hostile, known as Jihadism, and other, less violent but still rigorist groupings that derive from a ‘pure’ Salafist tradition.
At present many commentators appear convinced that the MB is moving towards becoming a Constitutionalist Islamist party, on the model of Turkey’s AKA. In Egypt after Mubarak (2008) Bruce Rutherford describes how in the mid-1990s a group of younger members issued pamphlets, under the name of Ma’mun al-Hudeibi, which endorsed women’s full political and legal equality, and tolerance towards the Christian Copts. By the 2005 Parliamentary campaign, in which they were allowed to participate, their agenda included a commitment to restraining state power, improvements in the rule of law (emphasising judicial independence), and protection of basic civil and political rights. Nevertheless the dominant strain in the Brotherhood’s thinking has been, and remains, the view that the Sharia is central to their politics, “this is accomplished through the deliberation of elected Parliament that functions as the modern-day counterpart to the ‘people who loose and bind; in classical thought”(Page 180)
Imperfect Liberalism: The State as Moral Agent.
To Rutherford the MB is “imperfectly liberal”. This is an understatement. Religious tolerance is extended to Christians and (?) Jews, but not to any other faith. As with other kinds of Islamism, (notably in Iran), the Baha’is are beyond any covenant of protection. The country’s; most senior political leaders have to be Muslim, and women have no role at the highest level of the state. The American political scientist discusses the theorists of Islamic Constitutionalism, from Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tariq al-Bishri, Kamal Abu al-Majd and Muhammed Salim al-‘Awwa. He compares them and concludes that, “The Brotherhood clearly accepts the theorists’ argument that a strong and invasive state is necessary for building pious individuals and a pious community. However, it also accepts the principle that this state must be monitored and constrained in order to ensure that it plays its transformative role effectively.” (Page 171)
In effect the Brotherhood intends to use the Egyptian state apparatus to pursue what Hicham ben Abdallah and El Alaoui have called the “Salsification” of society (Les intellectuals Arabs entre Etats et intégrisme. Le Monde Dilomatique. August 2010). These writers paint of a picture of cultural spaces in Arab Muslim countries becoming increasingly structured by a strict interpretation of Islamic norms. The MB would like to see this process accelerated. They would Islamicise political and social life, through persuasion backed by legal means – and sanctions. It is a project that accepts pluralism, but only within an Islamic framework. One can be sure that many ‘Western’ traits not sanctioned by the Sharia, will not find a place in an Egypt ruled by the Brotherhood. Lea-way to dress as one wants, to enjoy full freedom of speech (including anything perceived to be anti-Islamic), free culture, everyday liberties such as the right to drink what one wishes, vanish. Islamic norms will be imposed on sexual activity, criminalising ‘abnormal’ behaviour. If the Christian minority may be licensed to enjoy some of these freedoms (on dress codes, eating and drinking), one can be certain that Muslims will not. Patriarchal Muslim Family Law (already adopted under Egypt’s hybrid Islam-Western legal system) will be tightened. The result, if this programme is carried through, will have something of Calvin’s Geneva about it, and become a Sunnite version of Tehran.
The Muslim Brotherhood will play an essential role in the creation, if this comes about, of an Egyptian democracy. But to accept their rights is not to ally with them. The modernised, Constitutional Islamism they represent is not fundamentally democratic, it is bounded by the limits of the Divine Message. One can see the importance this plays in the MB’s priorities by their absence from the workers’ struggles that have been waged against the economic projects of the Mubarak regime, aimed at furthering the liberalisation of the economy. This is equally the case for the liberal opposition, which indeed has pushed for an even more aggressive turn to the privatised market-state. Those liberals, who originate from the Judges’ Club, and those MB members committed to a democratic framework, are temporary partners with the left, on the great issue of Egyptian revolutionary reform. Any convergence, as Yassamine Mathar argues, is temporary. They are not allies on the substance of a social republic, which is both open to all, and secular, and the bearer of the rights of the people and workers against the sovereignty of god and the market. Worse, such collaboration in Egypt stands in the way of the international labour and socialist movement, whose interests are opposed to Islamism in all its forms