Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Democrats? A Response

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
January 23, 2013

Supporter of Egyptian President Morsi carries a poster and chants slogans in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).


My friend who goes by the twitter handle @CynicalIslamist responded to my post about the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic credentials.  It’s a thoughtful and articulate response.  Enjoy!

You say the hope for a democratic transition has dissipated. Time for a reality check: We’ve come pretty damn far in the past two years, with an admittedly low bar.

After sixty years of authoritarian rule, in two years we freely elected a bicameral legislature, a president, and held a referendum on the first constitution actually drafted by a panel chosen by the elected representatives of the people, a first in our history. With the president’s August 2012 decrees, the military appears to have taken a back seat to an elected, civilian president, a process we all assumed would take years (yes, it will take many more years to completely break up their complex web of interests, but elected legislatures are the first step in limiting their influence). We have already had elections in which the outcome was not pre-determined, nor could it be altered ex post, and God willing, we will have them regularly.

Empirically, that’s progress.

But somehow all this has “dissipated,” footnotes lost in the broader narrative of repression, corruption, and persecution of political dissidents, apparently.

To address some of your specific allegations: Regarding the judiciary, irrespective of whether or not the courts are packed with Mubarak loyalists, let us not forget that activist judges had made questionable rulings (i.e., dissolving the first Constituent Assembly on the bizarre grounds that you cannot simultaneously be an elector and stand for the office being elected), were making no secret of their enmity for the elected representatives of the people (viz. Tahani El-Gebali’s repeated comments on the Islamists),  and had taken serious steps in the direction of derailing an already fraught transition (dissolving the first freely elected parliament in Egypt).

You want threats to democracy? How about a court dissolving the elected legislature, placing all power in the hands of a secretive council of unelected, brutal, and corrupt generals appointed by the previous regime?

You cite media restrictions. To the best of my knowledge, in the bulk of the cases, it is not Morsi’s team who’ve gone after these people, but individuals (as pointed out in a recent letter to the Washington Post by Morsi’s spokesman). Listening to much of the criticism in the Western media, you wouldn’t think that we’re currently witnessing what is likely the freest era in the history of Egyptian media. While secularists scream about restrictions on the media, Islamists are also running afoul of our laws, Islamic channels have been suspended, and Islamic talk show hosts penalized. Judging by our cable channels, Egypt has about a dozen Fox News networks, but pretty much no CNNs. Tune into one of the various talk shows whose anchors are reportedly paid millions of pounds because of all the ad revenue they pull in, and you’ll likely find either the anchor or a panel of guests mocking or attacking the president, his party, or just indulging in some good old-fashioned hate speech about Islamists. Accuracy is never a concern. Every conceivable kind of lie and vile misinformation has been bandied about on the airwaves, often with no consequences to the purveyors of this propaganda. The same applies to the “independent” press, independent usually meaning “opposed to the Islamists.” Pick up al-Masry al-Youm or Shorouk on any given day and check out how much of it just hatchet jobs against the president, the government, the FJP, the Brotherhood, or anyone with a beard.

Two years into our democracy, we’re still trying to find out where to draw the line on a number of contentious issues, in a manner that takes into account our history and culture. It goes without saying that with Islamists in office, there is little appetite for the line of reasoning that would suggest that the only way to go about that is to adopt Western standards (which themselves vary from country to country). Some countries prohibit Holocaust denial, others hate speech. Some EU countries prohibit disparagement of the president; others have statutes prohibiting insults against the Catholic Church. We have a constitutional text prohibiting insulting prophets. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have the right to criticize the president, I’m just asserting our right to decide where to put our own lines, rather than have other nations’ values foisted on us, with all their cultural and historical baggage. We’ll decide. It won’t be easy, and we will constantly run the risk of positioning ourselves too close to the edge of that slippery slope. But did anyone imagine this would be easy? In the meantime, it would help if people did not buy into the spurious allegations of a media apparatus and civil society inextricably linked with the political opposition, and who are incapable of speaking objectively about Islamists, so deep is their enmity towards them.

One way or another, the revolution has left us with more open politics. The amendments made to the electoral laws and the laws on the exercise of political rights in 2011 did not go as far as some people wanted, but there is no denying that they were a major step in the right direction, and helped open up politics significantly. This is evidenced by the continuing proliferation of political parties, the almost daily protests and strikes, the fact that we held—I cannot stress this enough—FREE elections for the first time in 60 years. (This is not a big deal for you?) The Brotherhood is merely better placed than most to benefit from open politics, because, by God, they paid their dues and worked for it.

While I expected it to happen, your blog post distressed me as it seemed to indicate the start of revisionist readings of events a mere few weeks after they occurred. You say: “The decree has since been modified (under significant public pressure) or overtaken, but the whole episode suggests that the Brothers have not internalized their discourse about reform and democracy.” What short memories we have! Let us not forget that Morsi’s original decree contained a deadline for those powers. In a bid to mollify the protesters, he shortened that timeline considerably (to their chagrin, as it meant the process for adopting a constitution would be accelerated). But now we speak as though he planned to declare himself dictator for life, were it not for the brave efforts of secular protesters taking to the streets.

The Brothers cannot win with that kind of logic, those self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposition will assert “The Brothers planned to do this and that!” Then when the Brothers are voted out of office without ever having done all those nasty things, the opposition will claim “It’s only because we had them scared!” Convenient. I understand, but have no sympathy for, the overwhelming need of so many to buy into the cliché that no one ever willingly relinquishes extraordinary power. Morsi did just that. Sorry to burst the hate-bubble. To turn around and pretend like he only relinquished it because he was forced to is just twisting the facts.

He took undemocratic steps to secure a constituent assembly that produced a constitution that limited his powers. Read that again, please, and ponder the implications.

You point out that democracies vary in important ways. I say that if we are very fortunate, perhaps you’ll need to add a new variant to the list, based on the Egyptian experience. It won’t, by any means, be ‘Democracy’ with a capital ‘D’, as in liberal democracy.  It will likely lean heavily in the direction of majoritarianism. It may well reflect the fact that the majority of electors are Muslim, and that a significant proportion thereof feel that Islam has a part to play in how our state and society are shaped and administered (though much will depend on the makeup of parliament and court rulings). And that’s ok, because it’s up to us as a nation to decide where to place the limits, and how to set up the framework. Call it what you will, but that’s empirically still a more representative and democratic order than at any time in our history.


Cynical Islamist


Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by kdavies

    2 points: “free” elections? the 15,000 complaints about the electoral process were summarily dismissed
    regarding the media: the “independent” channels regularly bring Salafis, Muslim Brothers and representatives of the opposition together in one talk show. The so-called Islamist channels are a flood of unchallenged, unexplored accusations.

  • Posted by ervinde

    You seem to think that a choice between liberal (or whatever you call it) and majoritarian democracy is one of design – clash of ideas that gets resolved based on preferences of of elites and/or local population. Not so, experiences of established democracies shows that liberal democracy is an evolutional outcome. Systems evolve to preserve institutional and social stability.

    Let me put it this was – majoritarian democracy will inevitably lead to a perception of discrimination and “tyranny of the majority” among the electoral losers. That perception may be wrong, but right or wrong has no role in this case – people will act based on their perceptions. Which means that minority has no interest in the existing institutions, thus will do their best to undermine them.

    Hence, institutional evolution comes into play. Liberal democracy as an outcome that ensures that both sides of the debate have a vested interest in stability and prosperity of the system. Not a triumph of beautiful (liberal or islamist) ideas, it’s necessity that dictates the outcome.

  • Posted by soul.rbl


    Before getting to my secular/liberal/(twisted) views, here’s what I like about this piece: For a change, a professed “Islamist” has managed to get me reading an entire, coherently assembled article – albeit that I disagree with much of it. In fact, I read it several times just to reconnect the statements with their respective (or respectively ignored) events over the past year.

    Most impressively, the article contained no scripture or prophetic quotes. Very refreshing and much appreciated. (How I wish the same could be said of our current government)

    Now my critique. Let me address some of the points in the article directly before moving on to the bigger picture.

    1. Empirical progress? Debatable. Sure we’ve been touched by the kind hand of democracy and inked our finger tips when asked, but isn’t that simply a means to an end? Representation means squat if at every juncture we are asked to have a say on matters that are either half-cooked or polar opposites. The presidential candidates: a pro-Mubarak and a ‘back-up’ Islamist. Is that the best we could do? The constitution panel: elected, yet dominated by Islamists and the tensions were heightened to the point that most/all leftists abandoned the committee (after which, about a third of the articles were amended and voted on by 85 members despite the panel requiring 100 votes).

    The president did pull back some of the military’s power – or did he? Unofficial pardons for Mubarak’s military brass and the placement of an Islamist-sympathiser say little to that effect while issuing decrees in tumultuous post-revolution climates means and does little.

    2. Forces conspiring to derail the transition? Isn’t that what any (every) politician in trouble resorts to in time of need? Need I remind you of Mubarak’s near-last words as president? A court dissolving an elected legislature is something that happens when reviews and studies reveal discrepancies in the legal proceedings. Unless you are privy to court documents, there is little to be opposed to as both judges and independent legal experts were in agreement. Besides, do you remember the number of, frankly, embarrassing incidents that arose from the dissolved parliament or are you not a fan of sitcoms? In retrospect, it was all too soon and no one was ready, leaving us with an unqualified, unrepresentative body engaged in incoherent time-wasting blabber.

    PS. Since when does animosity towards one person, Tahani El-Gebali, determine a restructuring of the number of judges in the supreme court to ensure her seat becomes excess to requirements?

    3. Absolutely loved the passion behind your claim on ‘threats to democracy’ and a ‘secretive council.’ Can you not see the irony there? The parallels with Morsi’s actions in October/November are profound. This is a time when he first attempts to force the resignation of the general prosecutor and later issues his infamous ‘pharoanic’ (let’s be fair – it was only ‘dictatorial’) decree. So, when the head of the executive office wants to change up the judiciary – he gets the head of the constitutional committee (Gheriani – who effectively represented the highest order of legislature at that time) to communicate the news of his resignation. Conflicts of interest much?

    Then, as if that wasn’t enough, with a dissolved parliament still in play (meaning large chunks of their power are within the presidents office), he goes on to issue a decree freeing him from judicial oversight. Bold move. Pretty sure that move isn’t allowed on the democratic chessboard.

    4. The media. Oh, the media. I agree that ‘individuals’ were sending in the complaints – after all, I doubt any non-individual is capable of such an act. As for who these individuals are; you’re right, they’re not all Morsi’s team. Well, it depends on how big his team is in your view. Is a MB lawyer part of his team or are we limiting it to his immediate presidential staff. Then again, it was reported that lawyers from the executive office submitted some complaints. In my mind, that is very much his team.

    I don’t want us to get into a finger-pointing argument over who is more similar to Fox News. All I have to say is that when I watch TV there are three distinct groups of channels: The classical (now referred to as liberal) news/entertainment channels, the state-owned channels and the Islamist channels. While the state-owned channels tend to play it safe, the other two are very comfortable swinging wildly at each other. One notable difference between them however is that one group falls back on religion for every argument while the other tries, more often than not, to build an argument by referring to experts and facts. Oh, and let’s not forget the hate-speech that every non-Islamist is forced to endure from ‘your’ (ie. MB-supporting) sheikhs/scholars/preachers/MB members. (I really didn’t need to mention that last bit but it’s pretty obvious no?)

    PS. Beards are ever-present across all three groups of channels. On the other hand, non-bearded figures and women – not so much (get what I’m saying?). (Oddly enough – I’m currently bearded. Double Hmm.)

    5. I must ask, could you please elaborate on: “The Brotherhood is merely better placed than most to benefit from open politics, because, by God, they paid their dues and worked for it.” Specifically: “paid their dues” and “worked for it.” Do you mean historically or present (or both)?

    Because historically…

    One of the silliest debates in my opinion is whether they have played the role of the plotting villains or the victims of oppression. I find it silly because there is no reason they can’t be both – which in fact is closest to reality. MB-supporters who try cleansing the organization’s past by dismissing acts of violence (assassinations/acts of terror) as those of unrelated Islamist factions are sadly lying to themselves. Not in that they were acts of factions, but in that they were unrelated. Fact is, the MB was the first major Islamist movement in Egypt and when it strayed into darker behavioral patterns of violence, the founder himself felt uneasy. Over the years, some factions divided and became more independent in their fanaticism while other perpetrators of/believers in violence as a tool, remained. In my view, an organization in control of its agenda must be held at least somewhat accountable for the actions of its disciples when they go astray. Yet, to this date no remorse or condemnation has been shown or expressed by the MB towards past or more recent acts of violence by their followers or by the followers of other (now-independent) Islamist groups.

    On the other hand, yes many of them have been unfairly and ruthlessly oppressed and detained over many years. Naturally, the feelings of being victimised linger. As such, I can see that they have paid their dues historically and often paid for the sins of others and while I can certainly sympathise with the ordeals many have experienced, I certainly don’t see suffering as a qualification.

    As for the present…

    We’re discussing an inherently secretive organization that has utilized religion as their go-to solution for crowd-sourcing votes via mosques and preachers acting as their mouthpiece. So, again, where is this “paying of dues” and what is it that they have “worked for”?

    And must I get into defining ‘open politics’ and ‘free elections’? Do you honestly believe the political and electoral arenas are governed sufficiently. I’m not only referring to the irregularities, in fact that’s a minor point for me. For political landscape to be called open or free, there need to be regulatory requirements in place that candidates and parties must adhere to. These would include – at the very least – party funding documentation (with sources and amounts) in order to ensure there are no conflicts with state interests and stipulations that monitor voter manipulation and/or bribery (be it before or during the electoral process). So – where is this open and free politics you speak of?

    6. Are you seriously accusing an entire nation of falling victim to cognitive dissonance? At this scale!? No further comment on you ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ theory.

    7. Finally, regarding that line you enjoyed writing so much that you asked us to read twice… I’m absolutely stunned by your ability to frame events as you see (or would like to see) fit. It would be too draining for me to address all the things that are wrong that statement. So let’s just consider this premise: If a democratically elected president swears to a constitution then opts to void the most critical function of the judiciary branch (who he also swore to), then at that point, the president is no longer legitimate in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of the people.

    Moving on…

    I’m going to keep this short and, for a change, I won’t explain myself too much as it’s all there for us to see.

    The unity of our nation was beautiful and I miss it. It may have been mistreated in the past decade and was made susceptible to fracturing, but we were blessed with a revolution that mended many wounds. Then a party came to power and, almost instantaneously, broke us and built deep divides at every level of society. That to me is irresponsible, incomprehensible and completely unacceptable. And yes, someone is to blame. And yes, religious vitriol, leveraged by only a handful of parties, is to blame.

    Deception and lies are two repulsive traits. The current leadership (and its associates) have been by no means honest or direct with the nation. The number of blatant lies we have endured over the past 6 months is astounding and makes the public outcry for their removal extremely valid. Yet, they are unapologetic and steadfast in the very same vein.

    As a final note, I’m going to play nice and not even get into the developments on the ground as I can’t imagine you’re not ashamed and embarrassed with the situation. A situation that never should have been and was only made worse as a result of unqualified and incompetent leadership.

    Sincerely, your latest political nemesis,

    PS. The beauty of the law is its reliance on history when dishing out convictions. At present, Morsi and the MoI would be found guilty of the same exact crime as their predecessors (knowledge of police brutality/murder and not stopping it).

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