Islam and Politics after the Uprisings: Problems of Governance

[This is the seventh in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. It sets the stage for the other papers the presentations and discussions of which will be summarized in the remainder of this series. The official proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Islam and Politics after the Uprisings: Problems of Governance”

Prof. Peter Mandaville, George Mason University

How can we talk about post-Islamism when the Islamists appear to have won? I will argue that we are still in the time of post-Islamism and the elections are evidence of that fact. We can ask about the democratic vs. authoritarian nature of such governments and their effectiveness. We are still in the early stages of transition. Only Egypt has completed the constitutional process. It is tempting to say it is too early to evaluate Islamists in power, but we can offer some tentative observations. These groups have embraced the procedural aspects of elections, but they have not yet embraced political pluralism let alone liberalism.

The crisis before us today seems to be a result of the failure of the establishment of political pluralism, an inability to provide a space for different groups to get together to negotiate how to move forward. From a position of denying they sought the presidency or a majority in the parliament we now see the FJP trying to consolidate its power. The FJP sees the judiciary as political appointees left over from the previous regime. However, much of Mursi’s and the FJP’s behavior can be seen as a product of Egypt’s broken political system. Other than the sukûk bond law, it is difficult to identify particularly Islamic legislation that the FJP has pursued. With the prominence of social (as opposed to political) Salafis, women and minorities need more protection today. It is still possible to see the outlines of an Islamist strategy. Those who thought they could detect Islamism with their Islamism radar were mistaken on two counts. In the first place the MB has always been a gradualist movement in its methodology. Also, they are savvy politicians and they knew that if they came forward with an explicit Islamic manifesto they would lose the buy-in they needed from the broader society.

When Mursi apologized for certain mistakes, I think he has the constitution in mind. Let’s dive into the constitution. In article 2 we find principles of sharia are the source of the legislation, but this is precisely the same wording as the 1971 constitution. But what are the principles of sharia? Art. 219 explains what these principles are. Here is language that will sound strange to any not schooled in usûl al fiqh.  The awkwardness of phrasing betrays its multiple authorship, rolling together Salafi, Ikhwani, and Azhari language. Salafis are assured there will no heterodox or Shia interpretations, Azharis will find it bears the hallmark of the plural school tradition, and Ikhwanis will see that it gives definition to the principles, all without specifically articulating the principles.

This brings us to article 4 that specifically requires consultation with al-Azhar. In the past, the Azhari approach pervaded the constitutional court because it was a state controlled institution. It would be awkward for someone to get an opinion from al-Azhar and then modify it. What I see is a deferral of the question of the role of religion in state. Politics will decide how this eventually works. Islamists, old hands at confrontationalist politics, are neophytes in governance. Further, some of their most pragmatic members have left or been driven out. They seem confused and frustrated. Their best hope to deal with the economic crisis is an IMF bailout that no one wants to be associated with, at least before the elections.

Of course they are trying to accrue political power. That’s what politicians do. But when you are writing of a constitution you bear the extra burden of making the process as inclusive as possible, running the country as if you won 100% of the vote when you actually won less than half. According to polls only 30% of Egyptians think their country is on the right track, precisely where they were on the eve of Mubarak’s ouster. Ultimately what people will care about is whether things are getting done. They need to see results.

I see two paradigms of post-Islamism in the literature. It was first used by Asif Bayat to describe pragmatic politics under Rafsanjani in Iran. More recently he has used it in an aspirational sense as the aspiration of young people in the Muslim world. I respect his ability to foresee the uprisings, but I don’t find this use of the term very useful. For Olivier Roy, Islam as an ideology has lost its distinctiveness in the process of making itself palatable to a mass audience.  I position myself in relation to and against these. I don’t see it as a label to be applied to movements and to people but rather as a characterization of what Islamism is anymore. For me it is a broad overarching signifier the Gulen movement and even the global rise of salafism.

Q. Islamic principles are in the hearts of the Egyptian people. Why can’t there be an Egyptian democracy? How do you account for the hardness of the oppositions?

Mandaville. I am less interested in whether one is for Sharia than what does it mean to you? That is what I see as the sticky spot moving forward. There are a good many opposition groups who are acting like bad losers. But just as the MB have legitimate fears that there are remnants of the opposition lurking to ambush them, the opposition has legitimate concerns that there are plans to permanently exclude them. I fear that something might happen this weekend to reset the country back in the hands of SCAF. [Prof. Mandaville was speaking on June 28, 2013 and his fear was born out.—Ed.] I think it is a political struggle by people who think they are ideological.

Q. The US has an interest in the success of these transitions. Nationalism failed, military rule failed. A transitional period is necessary for them to learn how democracy works. Educational programs are needed.

Q. The MB will never include anyone outside as an inferior. The only solution is for them to leave power. You need to include state security, NDP and the business community and to give up power. There are a handful of stupid people at the center of the MB who are harming the MB. Only if you can divide the MB into four different groups can you save them. FJP has always accepted neoliberalism, but I see it leading to a catastrophe. We produce nothing and there is a global economic crisis.

Q. What is the perspective of US policymakers towards the Arab spring. Do you think that a culture of trust analysis as discussed by Robert Putnam is a perspective for looking at Egypt.

Mandaville. Re: the characterization of Western interests, I agree there is a role for international community in these three areas, but the historical legacy of the US in providing democracy assistance to Egypt is a joke. The regime became very good at talking the talk and co-opted American efforts to promote democracy because they knew the US didn’t really want democracy. US democracy money is perceived as meddling to get states aligned to US interests (Israel, overflights, counter-terrorism, etc.). One of the saddest things I’ve seen is the US attempt to recreate that authoritarian bargain with Mursi. What is crucial to this transition is understanding that it takes place against a backdrop of changing power. Brazil, Indonesia, etc. are relevant. There have been successful transitions in Latin America. They may be better mentors than the US. I’d like to see a genuinely multilateral process.

I agree that the security apparatus is still there. In post-war Germany and post-war Iraq mistakes were made preventing anyone affiliated with the deposed regimes from inclusion. There are complexities that need to be determined to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Most discussions of post-Islamism are against a backdrop of a triumphant neoliberalism. I do not say there problems are rooted in Islam, but in the fact they are reproducing a neoliberal model that has problems for Islamic social justice. Having sat inside the policy machine, I did not see a room full of conspirators out to split Muslims, but people entrenched in an old pattern of behavior, genuinely interested in democracy but trapped by their own habits.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: Does “post-Islamist” refer to an era?  If so, where do you draw the dividing line? And if not, then what are you talking about?

Mandaville: I’m tempted to say yes, it is when not what is post-Islamism, related to the FIS fiasco in Algeria. But there is more and I think I need to do more theorizing.

Q. What important thing can Egypt learn from Indonesia?

Mandaville. I am so used to hearing people at the state department saying, Indonesia, that’s a nice Islam, if only we could transplant it into the Arab world. Indonesian Islam is a product of the unique history of Indonesia and can’t simply be transplanted. The aspects that I see as relevant regard technical issue like control of corruption in contexts that resemble the Egyptian situation. There are already NGOs working on civil society and democratization issues. There is also a similarity in the military’s involvement in the economy.

Q. We see fragmentation, both in MB and in Nour. How do you see the secularists as the religion loses its spirituality? What do the polls show about popular influence of the ulama? How would apply this to Syria, at least the early stages?

Q. Islamophoboia comes from Ikhwanophobia. If the Ikhwan succeed in Egypt, what is the US’s next step?

Mandaville: Do I agree with Olivier Roi that the military has reinvented itself? Up until the late 1980s I thought I understood what Islamists stood for and wanted. That is harder today when its vibrancy relies on its constituency in society understands the role of institutionalized politics. It could be the attenuation of that view that Islam in social life depends on involvement in politics, turning instead to everyday life. It suggests an astute reading of Foucault and LeFevre. Islamize life rather than use state to Islamize people.

Pew asks people should religious leaders have a role in politics and people agree but it is stated in the abstract, and doesn’t necessarily mean, as the Neocons would like that they want a state run by clerics. For most Muslims in the Muslim world Sharia means not cutting off hands and stoning adulterers but the personal status laws. Bob Heffner showed his own polling that in a certain country 70% wanted to stone adulterers. It was Indonesia. I think there is a methodology problem. They engage the respondents as Muslims asking do you support Sharia and then ask specifics about what they understand its correlates are good.

Q. Is the opposition defending the Western notion of democracy? Senegal and South Africa have also gone through successful transition.

Mandaville: I don’t think US policymakers have ever been averse to taking to Islamists, except in the Middle East. I mean it is not an ideological aversion to Islam or Islamism. The problem is those in the national security realm and the Islamophobic element in society reflected in the US Congress—esp. in the House. For them it was like the US doing business with terrorists, something they are willing to do elsewhere anyway.

Q. It was the head of the Iraqi Engineers Union who explained why socialism and nationalism had failed. To apply socialism you need socialists, to apply nationalism, you need nationalists, to apply Islam, you need Muslims, to apply democracy, you need democrats. We have none. If the majority is unable to rule how can a divided minority opposition rule? How do we produce democrats?

Mandaville: Your portrayal of the crux of the problem is accurate and important. If we had rules of the game, it would be easier; but it is precisely the rules of the game that are being contested. Mursi’s offer to amend the constitution is appropriate but I fear it comes too late. The momentum to June 30 has already built.

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






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