By Irfan Husain
AS I follow the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, I am reminded of a conversation I had with the Algerian ambassador to the United States. This was in Washington way back in 1991, but is very relevant to events in Egypt now.
Then, the Islamic Salvation Army — or FIS, the French acronym — was poised to win the election. Fearing this outcome, the ruling National Liberation Front — or FLN — cancelled the next round of voting. FIS and its supporters were outraged, and thus began a decade of murderous civil war that caused between 50,000 and 250, 000 deaths. Although exact figures may never emerge, both sides committed many terrible atrocities.
I met the Algerian envoy just after the election was called off, and asked him if his government feared a violent backlash. He was very sure the ruling party and army would be able to control the situation. Clearly, he was either poorly informed, or was being diplomatic with a foreigner.
My fear is that a similar scenario might emerge in Egypt. Already, ferocious clashes between supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, and his opponents, as well as the security forces, have claimed dozens of casualties. Understandably, the Muslim Brotherhood is outraged that its elected nominee has been ousted in a coup only a year after his election. Already, over 300 senior party members have been arrested.
For this anger to turn into a long campaign of protests and violence is only a short step. We should not forget that the Brotherhood is used to repression. Ever since the party was formed in 1928, it has been a largely underground force, with hundreds of members arrested, tortured and executed. As a result of this long persecution, it was the only organised opposition party to seize the opportunity offered by the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
In one sense, the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square against the increasingly unpopular Morsi mirrored the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Both represent the fault line in many Muslim countries between conservative citizens and their secular brethren. The former believe their countries should be governed by a strict Islamic code, and vote for religious parties who promise just that.
But those with a secular worldview reject this vision, and want to transform their societies into modern states where religion is restricted to mosques and homes, and not allowed to intrude into the public sphere. This clash of opposing ideologies is at the heart of the struggle in Egypt, and may well play out in other Muslim countries with varying degrees of intensity.
This is not to suggest that only Islamists voted for Morsi: in the second round, many secular Egyptians cast their ballots for him to help defeat his rival, a Mubarak-era candidate. They also believed his promise that he would be a ‘president for all Egyptians’. In the event, he bulldozed through a divisive Islamic constitution that confirmed the worst fears among secular Egyptians.
Even though Morsi has widely been viewed as an ineffective pawn of the Brotherhood, the fact is that he was hindered by the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The economy suffered as tourism — Egypt’s big foreign-exchange earner — was badly hit by the unrest that has shaken the country for two years. Finally, Morsi ploughed large amounts into subsidies to a nation hit hard by inflation.
In short, there are ample reasons for people to go into the streets, demanding Morsi’s removal from office. And here, there are many parallels to Pakistan: over the duration of the last PPP-led government, I must have received hundreds of emails from people demanding Zardari’s exit. Many said they preferred military rule to this kind of democracy.
I counselled patience, and said that we ought to let the democratic process take its course, otherwise we would remain locked into the unending cycle of civilian governments followed by martial law. And fortunately, neither the military nor the opposition in Pakistan took advantage of the shambolic performance of the last government to topple it.
Sadly, this course was not followed in Egypt, with unforeseeable consequences. In the West, the reaction has been one of quiet satisfaction. I’m sure champagne bottles were uncorked in Tel Aviv. The reality is that while many in Europe and the United States talk about democratic reform in the Middle East, the subtext is that they would prefer to see secular, pro-West governments in charge. And if these governments are headed by generals, so be it.
Thus, when the elections in Algeria were cancelled, the move was welcomed in Washington, London and Paris. Nobody wanted to see an Islamist government in power in Algiers. One reason is the fear that once such a regime is installed, it will never let go of power. Iran is a prime example of this: after the ayatollahs seized power, they have only permitted a tightly controlled democratic process. Candidates are carefully screened, and the Supreme Leader, an unelected religious leader, wields ultimate authority.
Here, then, is the conundrum: do religious parties have the right to transform the constitutional basis of a state if they are elected to office for a limited period? Or should they seek compromise and consensus that reflects the differences in society? And if they become unpopular and risk losing the next election, should they cling to power to ensure the continuation of the religious structure they have created?
There would be a strong temptation to hang on, based on the justification that rigging the elections would keep godless parties out of power. All these concerns reflect the deep anxiety about the real commitment religious parties and groups have towards democracy.
On the other hand, Islamic parties, viewing Morsi’s fate, will be justified in asserting that democracy is not the path to power, and that violent means should be followed. After all, if street demonstrations can topple elected Islamic governments, why bother to be part of the process?
The Egyptian army, with its extensive corporate interests and sense of entitlement, was probably glad of a pretext to return to centre stage. Even though it has installed a judge to be the interim president, nobody is fooled by the façade. Egyptians should be careful what they wish for: many in Pakistan welcomed the army and believed their promise of early elections.