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Hussein Ibish

Counter Islamists with citizenship

There can be little doubt that the victory in the Egyptian presidential election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, represents the greatest single victory in the history of the Islamist movements in the Arab world. So, how should non-Islamist Arabs—including secularists, leftists, nationalists, traditional or mystical Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, or simply the rational—react to this dramatic development?
 
First, don't overstate the problem.
 
The powers of the presidency are significantly constrained by numerous formal and informal factors. The non-Islamist vote proved much stronger in the presidential election than it did in the earlier parliamentary one. A significant percentage of those who voted for Morsi no doubt did so because they perceived his rival, Ahmad Shafik, to be a representative of the former dictatorship. So the constituency that propelled Morsi into office is not a solidly reliable Muslim Brotherhood one. There's no reason to conclude that Egypt is doomed to a future dominated by Islamists.
 
Second, don't understate the problem.
 
The Muslim Brotherhood has proven, time and again, that it is, at the moment, the most powerful and effective political party in the country, at least in terms of rallying voters and summoning huge crowds. The Brotherhood may not be on the brink of completely taking over authority in Egypt, but it's difficult not to see the military and the courts acting in what amounts to a defensive rearguard action against its creeping power. While Egypt isn't doomed to an Islamist future, if other political forces continue to prove ineffective and, especially, if the Brotherhood can disingenuously continue to conflate its agenda with that of building democracy in the country, Egypt might be stuck with one anyway.
 
Third, don't drink the Kool-Aid about Islamists being democrats.
 
One need only consult statements by Morsi during the first round of the presidential elections a few weeks ago to be reminded how reactionary and extreme the Brotherhood's social attitudes and political agenda really are. Add that to decades of unchanging Muslim Brotherhood ideology that reflect profoundly undemocratic, misogynistic, homophobic, chauvinistic, paranoid and intolerant attitudes. To view this party and its ideology as anything other than a profound threat to all non-Islamists, if it should ever come to uncontested power, is unforgivably naïve. After a period of genuine constitutionalism, Arab Muslim equivalents of Europe's Christian Democratic parties, or even Turkey's constitutional Islamist AKP, will probably eventually emerge. But they will look completely different from today's Muslim Brotherhood.
 
Fourth, focus on constitutional structures and constraints on government.
 
It's impossible to build Arab democracies without including peaceful Islamist parties, no matter how reactionary and intolerant their attitudes might be. It is an inherent conundrum of representative systems that they must be able to include illiberal, undemocratic elements in what are otherwise liberal, democratic orders. Naturally, there is always the chance that these illiberal, undemocratic parties might actually gain a measure of power. Constitutions, therefore, must constrain the powers of government and ensure ironclad, inviolable protection for the rights of individuals, minorities and women. These protections must be defended by military forces that defend the Constitution, but don't meddle in electoral politics. And they must be amendable, but extremely difficult to change.
 
Fifth, begin seriously organizing positive alternative narratives and movements.
 
Non-Islamist forces in the Arab world under the current circumstances have a marked tendency to focus all their energies on explaining what's wrong with the Islamists, rather than expounding their own vision. And they tend to be unorganized and disunited.
 
The recent elections in Tunisia demonstrated both of those characteristics perfectly. Non-Islamist parties won a majority in parliament, but were divided into so many smaller groups that the Islamist Al-Nahda party emerged as the strongest block. And in both Tunisia and Egypt, non-Islamist candidates spent far too much effort trying to scare voters about their Islamist rivals rather than presenting a proactive vision of tolerance, inclusion, competency, jobs, social justice and so forth.
 
Moreover, it's time for these forces to develop a positive narrative about the virtues, rights and responsibilities of citizenship inherent to each and every individual through his or her status as a citizen. Such a narrative, which should be at the heart of a region-wide movement, is the best antidote to a sectarian religious-identity cult. Far too much discourse in the Arab world surrenders to Islamists the rhetoric, traditions, civilizational heritage and symbols of Islam. But the Islamists do not and cannot define Islam. And they certainly cannot define an enormously heterogeneous Arab world. A vision of citizenship, on the other hand, can and must.
 
The result in Egypt will certainly embolden and inspire Islamists across the region. Non-Islamists need to begin urgently and diligently developing a narrative of citizenship and inclusion that can present a powerfully appealing alternative to the Islamist vision.

  • moiragallaga

    Just have a comment on number four. I do agree on the value and necessity of constitutional structures and constraints on government. Likewise, the Armed Forces should at all times safeguard the constitution and institutional safeguards. However, care must be taken as there have been instances where the Armed Forces have used this duty to safeguard the constitution as an excuse to take over themselves. It is a slippery slope to traverse, but it needs to be done all the same.

    April 17, 2013

  • Marisa

    Great! You've consolidated all the thoughts I've been having into an intelligent, rational, articulate article. I truly hope this is read by a huge number of people all over the world.

    June 28, 2012

  • S 2

    Excellent. Excellent. Thank you Hussein Ibish.

    June 27, 2012

  • What planet this guy on?!

    Be good to start with a definition of a word used 20 times in the article. What is one of these things, an "Islamist"?

    June 27, 2012