The world has to give democracy in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the patience it deserves
By Ashok Malik
THIS PAST week, rapturous crowds reappeared at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Unlike 18 months ago, these were not undifferentiated throngs crying for freedom from an omnipotent, omnipresent strongman. These were political partisans, celebrating the victory of their candidate in an election that distinguished them from their compatriots, including many who had been with them in the heady weeks of the Arab Spring.
In becoming the first Muslim Brotherhood member to be elected as Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), has more than just reached a political milestone. He has also become the subject of a polarising debate among West Asia specialists. Once the euphoria is over, will the Arab world get the governments faraway analysts want it to get? Morsi’s election follows the victory of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Morocco. It has led to scepticism that the Arab Spring is inevitably giving way to an Islamist Winter.
Such political climatology is seductive but also decidedly uncertain. Morsi is not the prototypical “Mad Mullah” or some Ayatollah Khomeini figure in black robes. He makes public appearances in western suits, has children who are American citizens, and got his doctorate in engineering as well as taught at California universities. Yet he represents a socio-political organisation that has promoted a violent, regressive manifestation of faith, that wants to impose strict personal laws in Egypt, and members of which see universal jihad as a desirable goal.
Such a sweeping agenda is easy to express in the abstract, when oppositional politics is the only motivation of a party that fashions itself as a protest movement — and when the obligations and responsibilities of government seem far away. Once the proverbial breadlines begin to get longer and the economic problems that plagued deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak begin to intensify, the Brotherhood will face an existential dilemma. Does it continue with its professed millenarianism, or does it settle into the mundane business of governance?
In Egypt, the questions will confront Morsi and his colleagues fairly quickly. One in eight jobs is connected to the tourism industry. In the tumult of the Arab Spring, tourist numbers fell sharply. Now there are concerns about the sort of puritanical ethic — particularly restrictions on beach attire and consumption of alcohol — some in the FJP want to impose on tourists. In effect, this could kill tourism and, despite Egypt’s wondrous ancient sites and spectacular seafront, send the economy plunging.
Elements in the Egyptian establishment are mindful of this. It is reasonable to expect that factions within the FJP, as well as outside the Brotherhood’s formal political auxiliaries, will lobby and work for a more pragmatic approach to not just the tourism conundrum but governance in general. The departure of Mubarak is akin to the collapse of the Communist regime in Moscow in 1991. It has opened up spaces in the polity, created new avenues for debate, discourse, discordance and deal making, influence and intervention. Some of these may be unpleasant; others may prove a countervailing force. The world has to give democracy in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, the patience it deserves.
Not everyone is that cautiously optimistic. The forces most troubled by the end of the longstanding status quo in Egypt and the Maghreb make for a strange, often paradoxical coalition. In West Asia, the two most troubled governments are those of Saudi Arabia, which fears an uprising against its royals, and Israel, which finds it ominous that the verdict in Egypt is applauded by Hamas.
Whatever it may say now, the US was a reluctant entrant to the Arab Spring framework, hoping in the early months that it would just go away. Barack Obama, for all his liberal internationalism, took a conservative line as the State Department waited for the storm to abate. Conversely, the democratic surge actually validated a fundamental neo-con argument. Propounded by former Trotskyites, this held that a dramatic, plebiscitary intervention in West Asian politics would be salutary even if it caused medium-term churning. In the end, will the crusty realism of Tel Aviv and Riyadh prove right or the Wilsonian idealism of the neo-cons? In truth, we don’t know. What we do know is democracy is a leavening agent. It has been elsewhere; may it be so in Egypt.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka