Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Egyptian Constitutional Struggle

by Elliott Abrams
January 10, 2013

The struggle over Egypt’s new constitution is elucidated in a penetrating new analysis by Samuel Tadros entitled “What Is A Constitution Anyway?”

It is published by the Hudson Institute as part of its “Current Trends in Islamist Ideology” series and can be found here. Tadros is a Research Fellow at Hudson’s Center for Religious Freedom, and was a founder of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth.

Here are some highlights. On the background:

The astonishing success of the revolution in bringing down the Mubarak regime has left political forces scrambling to take credit for the revolution and sole ownership of its narrative. Non-Islamists, who can claim few political successes if any over the past two years, have become nostalgic for the eighteen days of protest in Tahrir Square which set-off the revolution. Given their lack of anything to celebrate since the uprisings, non-Islamists are adamant on being the sole owners of the revolution. It was the non-Islamists, they claim, who sparked the revolution and who led its battles. In a sense, life itself began for them on January 25, 2011 when a new Egypt was born in Tahrir Square. At a time when the Muslim Brotherhood remained in the shadows hesitant to join the anti-regime protests, when Salafi Shaykhs were rejecting the popular calls for disorder, it was the non-Islamists who were on the front lines and who fought for every yard and inch of the street.

For Islamists, however, the revolution represents the culmination of a much longer historical struggle. Some trace the struggle back to 1954, when the Brotherhood believed itself close to taking power but was then ruthlessly crushed and forced underground by Nasser. Others trace it to an older battle between Islam and secularism that began in the nineteenth century and which Muslims have fought ever since against foreign missionaries, colonialism and Westernization. After languishing for years in Mubarak’s prisons, newly released members of jihadist groups asserted that it was their struggles that were the precursors to the 2011 revolution.

The struggle now between Islamists and non-Islamists over ownership of the revolution is only one part of the story, however. Before the constitutional referendum and the present-day impasse and street clashes between the supporters and detractors of President Morsi, the battle over the constitution and over Egypt’s future was fought not only along Islamist vs. non-Islamist lines, but among the Islamists themselves. Indeed, within the Islamist camp, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis were involved in a battle over what Islamism both meant and necessitated in post-revolutionary Egypt and how this should be expressed in the language of the country’s new constitution.

Then, on the Salafi-MB deal:

At the last minute, an open clash between the Brotherhood and Salafis was averted.  Instead, the two pillars of the Islamist movement managed to temporarily solve their disagreements and form a common front against non-Islamists. The secret behind the sudden change was, of course, President Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration on November 22, 2012. With non-Islamists withdrawing from the constituent assembly, and with the Constitutional Court scheduled to issue a ruling soon on the constitutionality of the assembly’s formation as well as the expected verdict on the unconstitutionality of parliament’s upper chamber and its dissolution, Morsi struck first. By now entirely convinced that a web of deep conspiracy was being spun around him, Morsi immunized the assembly and the upper chamber from any court verdict. While the president certainly must’ve expected a reaction from non-Islamists, the scope and power of their reaction combined with that of the judiciary far exceeded his expectations. Faced with such stiff opposition, the Brotherhood now knows it cannot fight on two fronts against both Salafis and non-Islamists. Desperately needing Salafi support, the Brotherhood reached out to Borhamy [Yasser Borhamy, a member of the constituent assembly and one of the leaders of the Salafi Call, the mother organization of the Nour Party] and an agreement was soon struck.

Tadros discusses the new constitutional provisions in detail, describing how they have compromised protections for minorities such as Christians, and for women, and opened the door to rule by religious authorities rather than under civil law. Then he turns to the political outcome:

The new constitution, which was immediately put for a referendum, represents an almost complete Salafi victory….In the end, the agreement between the Brotherhood and Salafis was beneficial to both sides. In return for getting most if not all of what they wanted in the constitution, Salafis were happy to provide the Brotherhood with the street support and political defense that they needed. Borhamy led the charge accusing the Islamists’ opponents of being an unholy alliance of liberals, the Church and the remnants of the Mubarak regime who were bent on igniting chaos in the country….While the fall of the Mubarak regime and its security apparatus has provided the Brotherhood with unprecedented opportunities to acquire power and begin implementing their vision, it has also unleashed an extraordinary challenge in the form of Salafism. Unlike the non-Islamists whom the Brotherhood have previously handled with caution but now routinely dismiss as an insignificant minority, the Salafis present a direct challenge to the Brotherhood both because of their raw numbers and street power and because of their unique ability to claim ownership of the Islamist cause and identity. The Salafi monster is thus unlike anything that the Brotherhood has ever dealt with in the past.  It also comes at a time of considerable ideological incoherence within the Brotherhood, which has failed to produce any original intellectual contribution since Said Qutb. Thus far, the Brotherhood has been able to throw the monster a bone or two every once in a while, but this may not be sustainable over the long run.

The article is in many ways deeply disturbing, and well worth reading.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by A.T. Halmay

    To survive, the non-Islamists must resist in every conceivable way including the tactics used by Islamists; assassinations, abductions, i.e. terrorism. They must promote strife between the two nasty factions. The only other two options they have are to become slaves or to leave the country.

  • Posted by diana

    There is one thing that I never understood from the USA gov., and maybe Mr. Abrams can explain:
    Why is it that we have been giving SEVERAL BILLION dollars aid to Egypt for a long period of time and such aid was not tied to lower the level of hatred and incitement against the USA and Israel that spews from the elementary school to Al Azhar University?
    Thanks.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    It’s a fair question. I guess the answer is that our aid was tied to things we valued more at the time: the peace treay with Israel and then the maintenance of that treaty, Mubarak’s role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations when we were encouraging those, Mubarak’s help in our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan (overflight rights and use of the Canal). In that sense the immediate crowded out what may prove to be the more important in the long run. It’s also true that we got less bang for the buck for our aid in public opinion than many other donor countries. This is partly because most of it was military aid, and partly because we did projects that were useful–like tthe sewer system–while others did projects meant to attract public gratitude, like a new football stadium.

  • Posted by diana

    Well, I hope that due to the utter failure of the program somebody in the State Dept. or Foreign Office or whatever carries any influence thinks on long term and puts pressure to reform the Egyptian educational system.
    Since I am quite cynical about the issue I could fantasize that we gave them lots of money to buy American armaments, that kept the money in American banks and the rest and was also in the name of individuals belonging to the Egyptian military who kept their money safely tucked away in USA banks/dollars.
    Any response to this fantasy of mine?
    Thanks

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