Deposing Morsi Won’t End the Chronic Rejection of Secularism in Egypt

What the late P.J. Vatikiotis left for Egypt delusionists of all ilks, past and present, to learn:

The [1923] constitution itself proclaimed Islam as the official religion of the state, inevitably undermining its other provisions relating to the rights of citizens such as freedom of worship or belief, speech, and so forth…Until a secular formula of identity and social cohesiveness is found that is acceptable, the religious or traditional one will dominate the social order. And to this extent the question of religion and state will remain unresolved. But that will require a commitment on the part of the leadership to remove religion from the public realm altogether and relegate it to the realm of private belief. However, as long as it insists on identifying itself with the theoretical unity of the umma, the Islamic community, it will always suffer the consequences of the fusion, real or assumed, between sanctity and power

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The late, brilliant political scientist, P.J. Vatikiotis (d. 1997),  educated at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and author of many important analyses of Egyptian socio-political history, opened his seminal  1981 study, “Religion and State,” with these words:

“Religion and State” is not a new preoccupation in the study of Egyptian or any other society where the faith of Islam predominates.

Vatikiotis adds that this “difficult and largely unresolved problem”—present since the 7th century advent of Islam—derived from, and continued to manifest, in Egypt, the

…curious “marriage” between a universal religious truth or message and an otherwise very parochial community that held it and fought for it or in its name 

Three decades later, despite widespread euphoria regarding the mass movement which prompted a military coup deposing Egypt’s first popularly-elected President, Muhammad Morsi, and his coterie of Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, the ancient-cum-modern conundrum elucidated by Vatikiotis, remains tragically unresolved within this Muslim-dominant society. Vatikiotis’ sobering and remarkably compendious 1981 analysis also explodes the instantly manufactured (and popularized) canard that Morsi’s ouster somehow “discredited and marginalized Islamism”—a chimerical Western construct invented to avoid dealing forthrightly with mainstream, traditionalist Islam, and its votaries in Egypt, and beyond.

Moreover, across the political, ideological, and cultural spectrum a broad consensus has emerged that Egypt’s dire economic status—exacerbated demonstrably under Morsi’s brief, inept stewardship—was the overriding motivation for the removal of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President, and his administration. Millers and bakers in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat-importing nation, recently warned imported international wheat stocks  had “sunk to levels that could reduce the availability of the flour they need to produce bread of an acceptable quality.” One-quarter of Egyptians live below the poverty limit of $1.65 a day, with millions dependent on bread loaves that sell for a state-regulated price of less than 1 U.S. cent per loaf—held constant since 1989, and one-seventh of actual present costs. Egypt’s currency crisis has hindered the Supply Ministry’s ability to make timely payments to the millers, and in April, Morsi failed to secure grain, and a loan from Russia (one of Egypt’s main suppliers of grain) worsening the already dire economic crisis. Egypt’s persistent economic woes have resulted in widespread malnutrition, stunting the growth of 40% of its population, and afflicting the impoverished nation with added healthcare and educational costs, as well as decreased human productivity.

Friday, 7/5/13, alone, in the aftermath of the coup which toppled Morsi, internecine clashes between pro-Morsi  and anti-Morsi Egyptian Muslim groups (along with predatory Muslim violence targeting Coptic Christians), killed 46 people, and wounded 1404, according to a local (Al-Hayat) television report. Understandably, such chaotic violence has inspired prevalent sentiments akin to those expressed by Cairene Headwaiter Attef Abdelghalil. Interviewed by Der Spiegel following the coup, Abdelghalil acknowledged that he and most of the staff at perhaps Cairo’s best known teahouse, Café el-Fishawy, had voted  for the Muslim Brotherhood due to their perceived honesty and reliability, after 30-years of kleptocratic rule under Mubarak. Now, in the wake of the economic failure wrought by Muslim Brotherhood governance under Morsi, Abdelghalil has no confidence in the “anti-Morsi opposition,” either—or “democracy” itself.

The army should not be in a rush to give up power. Democracy isn’t important at the moment. Only the economy matters. Currently, all we have is chaos. It has to end.

Abdelghalil concluded by arguing that new elections be delayed for 3-years. But Egypt’s interim military caretaker rulers, and their appointed minions, will likely orchestrate a considerably more rapid timetable for drafting a revised Constitution, and holding new Parliamentary and Presidential elections. There seems to be little appetite within the military to govern directly given management errors which occurred during the transitional military rule following Mubarak’s sacking in 2011, till Morsi’s election in 2012. Transitional military rule then was punctuated by abusive custody of civilians, their trial in military courts, worsening crime, and economic stagnation, resulting in public ire directed at the governing generals.

Regardless of the length of transitional military rule, the hopes of some indeterminate—but clearly small—minority of anti-Morsi Egyptians who might favor truly secular rule, remain a pipe dream. General el-Sissi himself, who is overseeing Egypt’s post-Morsi transition, reflects a predominant anti-secular mindset which persists among the Egyptian populace despite the brief, inept experiment in more overtly theocratic Muslim Brotherhood “statecraft.” Robert Springborg, a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, recognized for his published expertise on the Egyptian military, notes el-Sissi is a pious Muslim, whose wife is believed to don the full-body covering niqab. According to Springborg, “Islamic ideology penetrates Sisi’s thinking about political and security matters.” Springborg adds, pointedly, that el-Sissi’s devout traditionalist Muslim Weltanschauung—his global “framework,” is the Sharia-supremacist “project.” The Egyptian general hasn’t abandoned that endeavor, nor does he wish to see it “destroyed” due to Brotherhood mishandling. El-Sissi, Springborg writes, clings tenaciously to the

…idea that Islam should be a very important consideration in Egyptian national security policy, but this is not the way it’s done…Sissi probably feels to some extent betrayed by Mursi and the Brothers who have mishandled things so badly.

A public gesture consistent with these still prevailing Sharia supremacist sentiments was the demand by Al Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, during a televised national address, for release of “prisoners of conscience”—his characterization of several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, placed under arrest. Clearly, however, the most valid—and irrefragable—evidence of Egypt’s overwhelming, vox populi Sharia supremacist views derives from the published findings of independent polls based on face-to-face interviews with large, population-based samples of Egyptians. These data reveal that 74% of Egyptian Muslims supported making Sharia the official state law of their society; 70% favored Sharia-based mandatory (“hadd”) punishments “like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery”; 80% supported the hadd punishment of stoning for adultery; 88% favored the hadd punishment of execution for “apostasy,” while 67% desired to re-create the transnational Caliphate—whose goal is the universal application of Sharia via bellicose jihad conquests. Lastly, at present, as opposed to a merely “aspirational” goal of Sharia supremacim, female genital mutilation (FGM) is sanctioned by the predominant Shafiite school of Islamic law in Egypt, leading to current rates of this misogynistc barbarity among Egyptian women of 95%.

Vatikiotis lucidly chronicled Egypt’s 150-year experience (through 1981) of failed experiments with secularization imposed by forceful despots, beginning in the 1820s with Muhammad Ali (and including his equally “vigorous” grandson, Khedive Ismail). The process reached its apogee with the adoption of a constitutional parliamentary system in 1923. However, as Vatikiotis observes, the “very small group” attempting to impose this “borrowed secularism” never tried to resolve the contradiction between their adopted foreign ideology and “the native religious tradition.” Worse still, a more fundamental defect in the process emerged, which, unresolved ever since, continues to plague Egyptian society, engendering sectarian violence against the non-Muslim minority Christian (primarily Coptic) population, and bloody internecine conflicts between members of Egypt’s dominant Muslim majority.

Neither authority nor the source of law, despite all the state-promulgated and decreed legislation, was clearly divorced from its ultimate divine source and sanction. The constitution itself proclaimed Islam as the official religion of the state, inevitably undermining its other provisions relating to the rights of citizens such as freedom of worship or belief, speech, and so forth. Thus, such a provision was fundamentally contrary to the conception of a secular state because under the constitution the latter still sought and recognized a legitimacy based on divine sanction. The transcendent reference for authority and political power remained partly divine and not purely secular. The uniformity of individual citizen rights therefore remained unattainable.…[T]he more fundamental problem of the relation between religion and state remained unresolved. It was put in abeyance only to return to plague the Egyptian body politic. A concept of citizenship based on a clearly secular idea of identity for the individual and the society did not materialize, and the alienation of both from the state persisted.

Vatikiotis added, rather presciently 30-years ago, considering the dissolution of Egypt’s recently approved Constitution (a more overtly Sharia supremacist document than its now “halcyon” 1923 antecedent), which accompanied President Morsi’s removal from power:

The absence of a constitution or its precarious state is a measure of the difficulties. As long as Egypt has no political order that is clearly based on a secular consensus, it will remain afflicted by religious and communal antagonisms. Depending on the ability of the state to satisfy the economic and other needs of its public, these antagonisms, though usually muted or subterranean, will surface periodically. Until a secular formula of identity and social cohesiveness is found that is acceptable, the religious or traditional one will dominate the social order. And to this extent the question of religion and state will remain unresolved. But that will require a commitment on the part of the leadership to remove religion from the public realm altogether and relegate it to the realm of private belief. However, as long as it insists on identifying itself with the theoretical unity of the umma, the Islamic community, it will always suffer the consequences of the fusion, real or assumed, between sanctity and power…[T]he Egyptian state, more than any of its [Arab Muslim] neighbors, has over the last 150 years tried to control, loosen, manipulate, and exploit the relation between religion and politics. But it has done that at the expense of a clear, unequivocal option for a secular polity.

A native Arabic-speaking Middle Easterner, educated in Egypt, and sympathetic to the country’s chronic predicament, Vatikiotis nevertheless proffered a concluding unapologetic argument about the roots of Egypt’s inability to emerge as a freedom-embracing, tolerant, pluralistic society. Uninformed delusionists of all ilks—including, notably, former President George W. Bush, as gauged by these remarks, recorded July 2, 2013—would be wise to heed Vatikiotis’ words:

It may be of course, that a secular political order is the peculiar, nay singular, product of a particular political culture, the ethical, philosophical, and moral basis which lay in ancient Greek science and rationalism and Roman law and humanism, rediscovered and developed further by the Renaissance, and the institutional basis of which lay in European feudalism in the Middle Ages. Yet its final consecration occurred with a specific philosophical and institutional commitment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. None of these foundations seems to exist in Muslim societies, including the Egyptian. Their antecedents rejected classical rationalism and humanism, and their more recent precursors simply superimposed a veneer of secularism on the state in an emulative way.

 


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