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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45 Percent Is Still a Failing Grade

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
January 29, 2013

Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans and hit a poster of Morsi that reads "If he speaks, he always lies" with shoes at Tahrir Square in Cairo January 25, 2013. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).


Hani Sabra responds to Cynical Islamist’s response to me…

On January 16, Steven Cook wrote a blog post that asked, “Are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Democrats?” By the end of the piece, it’s clear that he believes the answer is no. A week later, an Egyptian man—and I’m going to go ahead and bet that it was a man—who goes by the moniker “Cynical Islamist,” responded to Cook’s piece in an attempt to pour cold water on the arguments.

Cynical Islamist makes some valid points about how Egypt has progressed since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but ultimately his arguments falls far short of proving that the Muslim Brothers are, in fact, democrats. Essentially, his thesis is this: Under the dictator Hosni Mubarak, politics was limited to very few Egyptians. Today, all Egyptians can vote in free elections. And the majority of those who do vote believe it is fair that the new constitution essentially designates one group, Muslim males, as “more equal” than the rest of the population. Therefore, his argument goes, if you oppose the idea of a “majoritarian” democracy where 45 percent of the population (Muslim males) is privileged, you’re an arrogant cultural imperialist. It’s a weak, defensive argument.

Cynical Islamist misreads what’s happening in Egypt today. He accuses non-Islamists of being motivated by hatred, but conveniently forgets that the same people who took to the streets and fought the Mubarak regime for imprisoning Islamist and non-Islamist opponents are now fighting the Islamists. Surely there is some hatred for Islamists, but when folks like Ibrahim Eissa or Mohammed ElBaradei or Hamdeen Sabahy or the thousands in the streets oppose the current government, it’s not because they hate Islamists, it’s because they want a democracy where every citizen is equal under the law.

It also strikes me as odd that Cynical Islamist writes that opposition journalists engage in

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.

One only has to visit Islamist websites to see the kind of sectarian hate directed at Christians to witness what passes for accuracy and information to Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi partisans. Train accident? Well, didn’t you know the driver is Christian. A building collapses? Of course the engineer who built it is Christian. Certainly opposition media has taken a harsh tone with Islamists, but in in a context where official, state media have engaged in sectarianism, fanning the flames is hardly responsible or prudent—and it makes it laughable for Islamists to try to claim the moral high ground.

One of the bigger mistakes that Cynical Islamist makes in defense of Egypt’s new leaders is to point to Europe’s supposed democratic deficiencies. He alleges that “some EU countries prohibit disparagement of the president; others have statutes prohibiting insults against the Catholic Church.” While some of these laws may indeed exist on the books, the cultural and political context in Europe makes them a dead letter, as do the broader universal rights that these countries explicitly recognize. I can’t think of a case in which an EU citizen has been jailed for “disparaging the president.” Neither can my old friends at the Committee to Protect Journalists. This may be a useful guide.

The trouble in Egypt is that basic protections aren’t being positively stated in the letter of the law, which creates room for the implementation of laws to violate individual rights. This is already happening. The chief prosecutor appointed by President Mohammed Morsi has been wasting his office’s resources on a number of frivolous investigations into media “insults.” This does not suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood government is inclined to recognize certain basic freedoms in the breach.

Islamists like Cynical Islamist regard a liberal democracy that positively enshrines basic freedoms and rights as a kind of cultural imperialism, a conspiracy by the (infidel!) “West” to impose its values on the Muslim world. But what they fail to realize is that a democracy doesn’t have to be “Muslim” to protect the interests of Muslims. A liberal democracy based on universal rights isn’t perfect, but it’s fundamentally preferable to Islamic democracy, Jewish democracy, or any other ethnically or religiously qualified democracy, for the simple fact that it affords the greatest degree of freedom to the greatest number of people in society. As a result, a democracy of this kind offers the best chance for the kind of political consensus that is sorely – and dangerously—lacking in Egypt today.

The Islamists have tried to justify their majoritarian and illiberal moves as necessary to achieve stability. However, what is happening today is the exact opposite of stability. Had Egypt’s constituent assembly crafted a liberal constitution—that is to say, a constitution crafted in consensus with forces representing secularists, non-Islamists, Christians, and women— Egypt’s Islamists would still be on track to win parliamentary elections, Egypt would be less polarized, and there would likely be much less violence and uncertainty in the streets.

In such a scenario Egyptian authorities would be able to focus on more pressing issues, like addressing the flailing economy. Also, a modicum of political consensus would allow authorities to address thorny issues like security sector reform. Instead, the Brotherhood – taking a narrow majoritarian track – invested all its political capital in laying the basis for an Islamic state and consolidating power while Egyptians are now killing each other over identity politics.

It may be that Egypt will emerge from the revolution freer and more democratic. But we certainly aren’t there yet. If we get there, it will be despite the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious obscurantists, and not, as Cynical Islamist argues, because of them.

Hani Sabra is a New York based political analyst. This piece represents his personal views only. Follow him on Twitter @hanisabra

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Cynical Leftist

    What percentage of the population of Egypt are what the liberals would refer to as “liberal”. And what percentage of the population are are not?

    And what interests does the CFR represent?
    Adam Shatz:
    “Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations has published a ‘contingency planning memorandum’ in favour of continued support to the regime, which, as he describes it, ‘has helped create a regional order that makes it relatively inexpensive for the United States to exercise its power’.

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