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Islam and Politics ( 29 Dec 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Egypt’s New Constitution: The End Of Egyptian Liberalism in The Age of Wahhabism, Salafism


By Sohail Arshad, New Age Islam

30 Dec 2012

It is intriguing and at the same time disappointing that the Egyptians who had put up a formidable fight against the modern day pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, fighting and laying down lives for the cause of democracy and freedom, demonstrated unexplainable indifference when the time to choose or reject the draft constitution to give final shape to their destiny arrived. Only 33 per cent of the population exercised their votes that too on such an important referendum that could determine their future, raising questions on the legitimacy of the outcome. Out of the people voted, about 66 per cent said they wanted the country to have Sharia law as its guiding force. It means a considerable section (at least 35 per cent) wanted a secular constitution. It is important to note that majority in Cairo, the capital of Egypt opposed the Sharia based constitution.

 It may, therefore, be concluded that only the urban educated class was interested in the political process of change in the country and the majority living in small towns and villages remained uninterested or aloof from the process or did not bother about it. The benumbing effect of the 30 years of the oppressive and suppressive dictatorial rule of Hosni Mubarak had to had its effect on the collective psyche and behaviour of the Egyptians.

The 33 per cent turnout in the referendum also demonstrates the fact that Muslims the world over are an emotional and violent entity. They are an easy prey to violent demonstrations on emotional issues but whenever they are expected to take far reaching legal steps and programmes, their zeal diminishes. This is exactly what has happened in case of the referendum. The Arab Spring gave them the opportunity to let loose their pent up feelings of frustration and anger and it gave them the feeling of catharsis gathering at Tehrir Square and shouting their heart out in a country where they were prohibited to assemble even in threes and fours. Once their angers and frustrations were vented out, they retreated to their shells because taking part in pragmatic and long term political and social goals is not in the genes of the Muslims.

The stamp of approval on the Shariah based constitution marks the rise of the Islamists in the country. However, the rise of Islamists in Egypt is a very recent phenomenon which was first witnessed around 1995 when the Gama’ah Islamiyya, an extremist outfit staged violent attacks against the Hosni Mubarak government. Though they were suppressed and silenced by the Mubarak government for the time being, it gave the indication of things to come. The Gama’ah Islamiyyah resurged during the revolution against the Mubarak regime as they fought the security forces of the government.

The consolidation of Islamist forces in Egypt through the Shariah based constitution, may mark the end of Egyptian liberalism and pluralism of which Abbas Mahmud Al Aqqad, Lutfi al Sayyid, Taha Husayn, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and others were the exponents during the period between the two wars.

Through their publications and writings, Aqqad and Lutfi al Sayyid promoted liberal thought advocating a democracy based on equality, cultural pluralism and protection of minorities.

Aqqad said, “Freedom is the ultimate virtue of mankind”; “Democracy is the only political system of modern man and modern society”; “Therefore, Egypt must be committed to freedom and democracy.”  He also said that the merits of a liberal democracy were rooted in: individual freedoms and civil liberties, constitutionalism, a parliamentary and multiparty system, the separation of powers, equality for all citizens, cultural pluralism, and the unquestionable legitimacy of political opposition.

His democratic thoughts gave ample space to the minorities as he said,”A liberal democratic government was to mediate between the wills of individuals and the collective interests of society through elections, representation, and majority-based decision-making that protects the minority.” 

The recent changes in the Egyptian polity have been engineered by the urban middle class who is ambitious and is educated. In fact, the entire Arab Spring was led by middle class youth and not the elite as this section has always remained loyal to the dictatorship. Along with them, the Islamists who had been forced to remain dormant in the dictatorial period, exploited the anger of the masses to turn their religio-political dreams into reality. Since the revolution was not led by the elite, it was bound to be hijacked by the fringe groups that were waiting for an opportune moment to assume centre-stage. That seems to be reason why majority of the population chose to remain indoors on the day of the referendum. On the failure of the elite to provide any leadership to the new movement, Dr. Rifaat Lakkousha says, “It is the elite that did not free its culture of the mistaken understanding of the Pharaonic era in Egyptian history, which maintains that Egypt as of the onset of history had been governed by the will of the despotic Pharaoh, and that every Egyptian is essentially a small despot, which entails the impossibility of turning towards liberalism.”

He further observes, “One of the phenomena of the contemporary political history of Egypt shows that the major political events were not launched by the elite followed by the people, but by the people followed by the elite. This is why sometimes, some of the individuals of the elite fear the movement of the people, which can be a step ahead leading to the creation of a new elite replacing the existing one.”

The result was that the revolution went to the hands of the Islamists led by Mohamed Morsi with a despotic mindset which proves Dr Lakkousha’s assertion that ‘every Egyptian is essentially a small despot’.

The youth who had brought about the revolution had only wanted to bring about a larger revolution that would relieve them of all the economic, social and political baggages of the past but in the end found themselves burdened with another baggage of religious fanaticism, radicalism and a centre that promises to be no different from the pharaohs. Hence their disappointment and disillusionment.

Though the new constitution declares Egypt a democracy based on Islamic principles, it has many undefined clauses that would give the establishment leverage to lead Egypt towards chaos. It has made Al Azhar University, the centre of Sunni Islam, the authority on Islamic principles and will be consulted for shariah based guidance.

“The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger Sunni community”, that is by Sunnah wal Jama’ah and will lead Egypt on the paths of Wahhabite ideology of intolerance towards other sects of Islam and the minorities like Coptic Christians. Though the Christians have been given their religion the status of their Personal Law but since all the legislations will be based on Islamic Sunni principles, it might have some confrontational problems in future and due to their minority status they will be at the receiving end.

Salafists who are a major power block within the government, will blackmail the government on religious issues by adopting a harder stance than the ruling Muslim Brotherhood on religious and cultural issues to present themselves as greater upholders of Islam than the Brotherhood as happens in most Islamic societies including Pakistan thus producing a new breed of Islamic fanatics. Even Muslim Brotherhood plans to form their own militia which gives an indication of the shape the Egyptian political sphere is going to take. They already attacked the peaceful demonstrators protesting against the new constitution in front of the presidential palace and vow to kill those showing any opposition to the constitution or government.

While announcing Mohamed Morsi’s name as Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, the Egyptian cleric Safwat had expressed his hope that “Morsi would liberate Gaza, restore the Caliphate of the "United States of the Arabs" with Jerusalem as its capital, and that "our cry shall be: 'Millions of martyrs march towards Jerusalem.'"

Though the constitution has laid great stress on the promotion, development and encouragement of scientific research and the maintenance of the cultural heritage of Egypt, it seems that these programmes would be relegated to the corner and the religious adventurism will push the newly born democracy towards religious fanaticism with the aim of razing down the pyramids and the sphinx and all other cultural heritages of the country in the name of Islamic Puritanism and establishing a United Arab Islamic Caliphate with Jerusalem as its capital.

One particular aspect of the constitution is the stress on fostering of the Arab culture and the Arabisation of education, science and knowledge. This sentence in itself is ambiguousand self-contradictory as Arab is not known for their scientific thought, knowledge and education. All it is known for is the Islamic heritage, education and culture. What the editors of the draft constitution of Egypt had in their mind by saying ‘Arabisation of education and science’ owes explanation. The Egyptian scholar and liberal thinker Lutfi al Sayyid was one of the fiercest opponents of pan-Arabism, and insisted that ‘Egyptians are Egyptians and not Arabs’. He held the view that Egypt had an independent culture.

In short, the constitution of Egypt has many loopholes that will create many problems in future giving way to the establishment of a despotic Islamic state under a Wahhabi political Islamic ideology.

Sohail Arshad is a regular columnist for New