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Egypt: Caught between the military and democracy

Does the Egyptian coup mark the return of the "curse of the Arab army"? Most of the post-colonial Arab leaders in the non-monarchical countries came from the army - Gamal Nasser, the first president of Egypt; Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, also in Egypt; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; Muammar Gadhafi in Libya; and Zein El Abidin in Tunisia. Will the Egyptian coup be the end of the one-year rendezvous with democracy or is it the beginning of a new phase of the Arab Spring in Egypt? Only time will tell.

Since revolutions do not die but continue in new forms - as inspirations for the establishment of new state apparatus both in both authoritarian or libertarian forms - the saga of the Arab Spring in Egypt will continue to unfold.

Coups and political changes do not happen out of the blue; there are many local, regional and international players and factors in the background, which do not appear in the ideological divide that can appear at street level. Thus the often-referred-to divide between secular and religious-oriented Muslims is not as black and white as is commonly understood. Divisions among Muslims, be they sectarian or socio-political, are basically politico-religious and not religio-political in nature. Generally there are four types of political orientation in the contemporary Muslim world: 1) political groups who use Islam as a political ideology either for tribal, ethnic or socialist/democratic programmes; 2) apolitical Muslims for whom Islam is essentially a religious practice; 3) practicing Muslims who adopt secular and liberal orientations, who support separation between the religious and political roles of Islam; and 4) "cultural Muslims" who do not adhere to or practice Islam as a matter of religious belief, and have instead adopted rightist, leftist or atheistic points of reference.

On the other hand, Islam as a religion is identified differently in many cultural-lingustic zones of the diverse Muslim world. In the Middle East - the religion's heartland - Islam is primarily a theological identity vis-a-vis other religions of the region, namely Judaism and Christianity. This is similar to Hinduism in India or Buddhism in Southeast Asia. During recent visits to Egypt and Morocco, I, being ethnically Indian but speaking Arabic, was often asked, "Are you Muslim?" I have been asked the same question in southern Thailand, for there, to be Muslim means to be ethnically Malay, and they do not speak Arabic. On the other hand, during the sub-Saharan part of the same visit to Africa - which took me to mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar - such a question did not arise, for there are millions of Muslim Africans who speak Swahlii and are of a multi-racial background.

Islam takes on different identities around the world. In Africa, it is a fraternal identity. In South Asia it takes on a communal identity vis-a-vis the Hindu communal identity; many works on Indian history do not discuss centuries of Islamic presence in India, where Islam is viewed as an outside religion, just like Christianity, even though India is a composite Hindu-Muslim-Christian culture. In Southeast Asia, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism-Taoism and Christianity assume ethnic identities. In the West, Islam, Christianity and Judaism operate as racial-cultural identities and theological differences.

Thus the Muslim world is not monolithic in sectarian and political terms. Politically, the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live under different political setups such as the theocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia; the theocratic republic in Iran; tribal monarchies of the gulf; Arab Shia-dominated Iraq; Baathist Alawite Shia-dominated Syria; tribal-political cultures in Afghanistan; the strongmen of post-communist Central Asia; and the various democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Tunisia. Meanwhile, significant Muslim communities in Thailand, India, the US, Europe and regions of Africa are integral parts of the different forms of democracies there. In the end, in spite of Islamic political rhetoric, Muslim politics in all countries is geared to the national interests of each of them, rather than international jihadist Islam, which gets greater media attention.

Two years ago, authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were overthrown on issues of economic hardship and political freedom. The military is now back in Egypt. Post-Arab Spring political tremors from Egypt will soon spread to other parts of the Arab and Muslim world. Recent significant political events in the Muslim world include the defeat of the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition alliance in Malaysia - in spite of winning a majority of the popular vote; the demand for change through a reformist government in Iran; Indonesian politicians telling President Yudhyono that a large parliamentary majority does not entitle leaders to disregard constitutional rights and freedoms, and will not prolong their stay in power; and, for the same reason, the "occupy Istanbul" movement against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

All these events show that the common perception of a Muslim exceptionalism to democracy does not hold. Muslim democracy comes in a variety of forms. Similarly, expecting the Muslim world to strictly apply complete separation between religion and politics is not possible. Rather, the approach should be seeking a balance between religion and politics. The return of religion to the public sphere at the global level has led Jurgen Habermas to call for recognition of the role of religion in the public sphere. We live in post-secular times, no matter the state of denial. The current violence in Egypt illustrates the outcome of such expectations.

The critical issue in Egypt is more about governance and deliverance of the political and economic aspirations of the revolution rather than an ideological contest between secular and religious forces. One commentator said it well: "Egypt has a dilemma: its politics is dominated by democrats who are not liberals, and liberals who are not democrats." The fact of the matter is that no Egyptian political party can fix the massive long-term problems of Egypt in a single year. In my recent visit to Egypt, I witnessed long lines of cars at petrol stations, inflation, poverty and economic hardship. I learnt that the Egyptian lower classes can afford a non-vegetarian meal only once a week; even eggs are expensive.

The 2011 Arab Spring is a mass movement against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East; it is engaged in by different political groups - secular, liberal, Muslim and Coptic Christian minority - all united on the political and economic agenda of overthrowing authoritarianism and establishing democracy across the Arab world. It is much disliked by the long-time rulers of the region.

The post-Arab Spring crisis in Egypt indicates democratic failure on the part of all political groups in Egypt, not only those who were united in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak but are now throwing out their own revolution.

The achievement of the political and economic goals of the Arab Spring are hampered by the absence of an Arab common market or economic community similar to Asean or the European Union, or transcontinental economic cooperation efforts such as Apec, Afta or Asem. Thus it is not easy to end the decades of economic hardship of the masses, whose condition has worsened while the elites continue to prosper individually.



Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, the College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

A second, concluding part to this article will appear in tomorrow's edition.




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