Post-Revolutionary Islamism and the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt

[This is the third in a series of my notes on the 2013 International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

Post-Revolutionary Islamism and the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt
Islamism & Constitutionalism in Egypt: Before and After the Constitution

Abadir M. Ibrahim, candidate for J.S.D. at St. Thomas University

All states are made up of people who require for survival cooperation & coercion (police, military, courts, prisons, administrative structures), persuasion (divinity, sharia, democracy), and reward (war booty, slaves, land, bread, McWorld and TV) that make it better to live together than separately. We can compare states by analyzing their institutions (executive, judicial, legislative, administrative), agents/actors (elites, pol parties, pressure groups, masses/public), or environmental/structural factors (culture, religion, economy, int’l factors, resources).

What is democracy? Not Greek democracy, proletarian democracy, Khomeini’s ujamaa, no-party democracy, revolutionary democracy. Maximalists—most American Muslim scholars, as well as the Occupy movement, are in this camp—would say the US has yet to democratize. Minimalist definitions will call a state in which important decisions or decision makers are selected freely and fairly by the majority of adults.  This requires freedom of expression, etc.

Why the call for democracy in Islam? Why is it everyone wants to be a democrat? Khaled Abou El Fadl asks: Why not? Ghannouchi argues that the Qur’an doesn’t mention political ideology, but it mentions secular polities, like Yusuf and the Ethiopian King Najash over whom the Prophet prayed Janaza. [insert material from paper]

The politics of Egypt, rather than the text of the constitution, will demonstrate whether a democracy has been established. The text of Article 5 uses the term sovereignty of the people, which is distinctly democratic, but Article 2 says principles of Islamic sharia are the principle sources of legislation; yet in Article 4 al-Azhar is given a monopoly on the interpretation of sharia.

I have great concerns about human rights because it uses many words to say nothing. I used the phrase natural rights. Article 81 says, “rights are limited by ‘principles of state and society.’” Every time it talks about rights it talks about duties, as in the Cairo declaration of human rights, but no one clarifies what the duties are. International Human Rights law is given a very low status.

The drafting exhibits ineptitude and weakness. Freedom of religion and opinion is guaranteed by article 5 but insult or abuse of religious messengers or prophets prohibited by art insulting or contempt toward any human being is prohibited by article 31. Distinction of the people of the book is problematic. Do we need to protect the one hundred Jews in Egypt? What about the Shia, Bahai, etc.? Their existence is ignored. What of women’s rights? Article 10 is a quintessential example of how Islam can contribute, but there are many problems and the end product is a moderated majoritarianism.


Q: What about civil society and human rights? The notion of republic was corrupted in North Africa. The main western idea is human rights. Western modernity produced Nazism and Stalism. Elections are not sufficient. Even Saddam Hussein had an election that he won with 99.9% of the vote. Farabi dismissed democracy, as did Aristotle and Plato. It is the limits of government that we should learn from the West. It is a different point. The Egyptian government did not give as much power to religious elites as the Iranian did. Bashar Assad will be more qualified than his successor, but he has exceeded his time limit.

Ibrahim: I was thinking of the Indian constitution. Trained as a positivist lawyer I will agree that he US and Egyptian constitutions are not that positivist. Dubious jurisprudence is not clarified anywhere in the literature. Rights and duties discourse addresses not reciprocal rights but some other, in this case unspecified duties. It is true that the US constitution doesn’t recognize international law, but that is bad.

Ahmad: Democracy is not morally superior. As Thoreau observed, “[T]he practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.”

Q: The Egyptian constitution is written by people who don’t really understand what democracy is about, but they do want accountability and empowerment (political participation). Democracy is not about documents. The notion of rights among religious people is not clear. The constitution should be to limit the power of the state, not of the people.

Q: The issue of rights and responsibilities was raised by Ben Nabi.

Ibrahim: Give one example of a duty.

Ahmad: Paying taxes.

Q: Tunisia is trying to have a consensus constitution. A constitution must aim at uniting a diverse society.

Q: Mubarrak claimed 99.99% support. He once challenged a humorist how can he make jokes about his regime when he has 99.99% of the support. “Believe me sir, I am not the source of that particular joke.” Which is the least evil constitution?

Ibrahim: Shurah is an example of “extended release” meaning in the Qur’an. Tariq Ramadan has done the best work on why democracy is the best system for the implementation of Islamic society, i.e., to promote good and discourage evil. I don’t think there is a single constitution that is the least evil.

Q: We speak of the Arab spring as if it’s over. Mao said a revolution is never a tea party. The Ikhwan have had the longest experience to exercise social power in society, but is the Ikhwan today the same as that under Hasan al-Banna and his successors? Probably not.  They were working towards an Islamic state to begin with and a pan-Islamic state like that envisioned by al-Afghani, but times have changed and values have evolved.  Islam and democracy can coexist but they are not the same thing.

Q: Unfortunately we have no access to the hundreds of hours of debate that went into the constitution that may give us a better understanding.

Q: I view democracy as a form of reasoning. I see democracy without democrats that is behind the ambiguities in the Egyptian constitution.

Ahmad: Taxes are not the flip side of a human right. It may surprise you to hear me say it, but I would prefer constitutions empower the state and limit the people, because where they are silent the power belongs to the people. What constitution would you start with?

Ibrahim: Just to answer that question will require more knowledge than I have at this moment. Even the Ethiopian constitution can be used as a starting point and I would not impose the American constitution on Ethiopia. The constitutional debate may explain a lot but it doesn’t excuse them. There are things that should have been put in the preamble.

Q: I think we are seeing not the end of history but the end of politics. We are seeing the end of capitalism because of its internal contradictions. There is no space to which the market can expand. Can we dare think of a post-capitalist future or shall we keep speaking about democracy.

Q: You sound like a positivist while the critical school is about questioning the foundations. If you are from the academy you suffer from a blind acceptance of the capitalist world view. I understand you are an absolute critic but that criticism could have been better distributed.

Q: Article 10 of the Egyptian constitution is something American feminists have been begging for.

Ibrahim: I prefer to discuss comparative studies not methodology. If my work is orientalist it is only as orientalist as Egypt, the MB, or the Egyptian constitution.  I use a positivist realist methodology because I think the Egyptian situation demands that. Critical studies was raised only because some critiques of the work were raised from that perspective.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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