What Is the Future of Islamic Reform Movements?

[This is the ninth 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 constitutes my impressions of the presentations and discussion. 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.]

“What Is the Future of Islamic Reform Movements?”

Nathan Brown, George Washington University

My focus must be narrow because my expertise is in the Arab world, especially those on the model of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I think this is a critical moment in the transformation of these movements, and by moment, I mean these few days [on and around June 30, 2013]. The movements are discovering that, in a moment of what looks like extreme triumph, events are controlling them when they thought they would control events. The focus of these movements is reform, in their own eyes and in fact. For this reason these movements have never seen politics as the primary, let alone only, avenue for their efforts.

The Arab regimes took a wary eye towards any movement that might have political impact. At best they would allow them to pursue certain activities, even political activities, as long as they did not take their political activities too seriously. What was the best path for the movements to respond? As the environment became slightly less harsh, they decided to move into whatever avenues were opened to them: student government, election as independents, etc., out of which a pattern developed, the consequences of which we now face. They were able to establish a broad presence on the ground so that once politics turned electoral they were well-placed for action. There was a cat and mouse game in which the Islamists would calculate what is the best they could do without threatening the regimes. In the 70’s and 80’s the regimes had no grand design, but acting ad hoc, gave the Islamists an opportunity to actually win an election, as in Algeria; but they learned that if they win, they will pay a high price. When I asked the Jordanian Brotherhood how many seats will you contest? He did not give a number but said only, “We will not repeat the disaster of Hamas.”

In 2011 we had a very different environment. Both obstacles seemed to have dropped. Domestic opportunities suddenly arose, and the reaction of international actors, especially the US, was not alliance to the MB, but an absence of opposition. The MB heard the US saying they would not object if the MB would agree to observe Egypt’s international obligations, especially the treaty with Israel.  But the MB made a gigantic, although understandable (given the forces arrayed against them), mistake in 2011. Through a series of short term decisions it decided to contest more seats that originally intended and the presidency as well. They were ill-suited to that task. They did not have the political skill set for the transformation from a repressed opposition to the leader of a majority government. They did not know how to talk to the opposition or the fence-setters. Further they underwent no period of experience in local government. The third problem was that events went very fast. The best time to talk to these movements is a year after the election. These are movements that reflect and learn; but when they happen as fast as they did in Egypt, there is no opportunity to learn. There is nothing that goes wrong in the country today that is not blamed on Muhammad Mursi. The movement and Mursi himself are acting like a deer caught in the headlights. I think that, as with Hamas, abrupt political success has changed their emphases in a way that is harming them.

Discussant: Abdullah al-Arian, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (Qatar)

It is hard enough to understand what’s happening now, let alone the future. I think there has been an emphasis in looking at Islamist movements through their ideology and its connection to traditional Islamic thought rather than by looking at practical politics and immediate realities. What defines these movements is not tradition and ideology, but their departures from them in their actual policies. They try to justify their actions in ideology, but there is an evolution taking place.  Remember that they used to consider political parties as completely abhorrent. There is no sense in which any party in Egypt can effectively succeed the ousted regime. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been unable to understand and reform the structural impediments in the military, the judiciary, and the media. This is not to say they do not believe in democracy–that is the one thing we know they believe in–but they do not know what to do. They shy away from the challenges they do not understand and end up mired in debates over questions that are irrelevant and unhelpful, like the role of Islam in a future Islamic state. Ghanouchi has tried to avoid these traps, if not completely effectively, more so than the MB. The claim that Mursi is totally in the control of the Guidance Council is an exaggeration. Binaries like those between technocrats and ideologues are floating around. Where are the Islamist technocrats? How can this be remedied? The obstacle is a limited understanding of what constitutes Islam? We see Wasat, other new parties, and the youth movement promising to follow that path.

Q. The army has given the politicians  8 hours to solve the problem or they will impose their own solution. How will the opposition react?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: The disaster of Hamas was an accident. George Washington, too, opposed political parties, but has there ever been a no-party democracy?

Q. My understanding of the bureaucracy is that it is a kind patrimonial system. Is that dismantled?

Brown: A week ago the military said they had one week, so if they say 48 hours that’s an extension. There are elements in the opposition openly trying to provoke military intervention, but the opposition is very diverse and I think some groups will not accept it. In democracy you need some kind of civilian oversight and the Egyptian military has made it clear that it sees itself as an independent actor. There are ways out, such as a government of national unity; or, the President can call a binding referendum, but he would need to formulate a referendum acceptable to the opposition, and the two sides are too far apart. The opposition thinks the president is already dead and the MB thinks it won the election and there is a violent (witness the attack on their HQ) attempt to overthrow them.

Some members of top leadership knew by December that they were going to win, but they had no discussions as to what to do about it. They put their foot to the accelerator and threw away the steering wheel.

I won’t speak of the bureaucracy, but talk about the “deep state” in Egypt is misleading. The state is not so deep as it is wide, with strong bodies like the military and al-Azhar, that are part of the state but difficult to control. It acts not of grand design, but is still difficult to control and guide.

Al-Arian: I think a no-party system is theoretically possible. The military used the failure to allocate independent seats properly as an excuse to annul the results completely. I agree with Nathan’s answer about the bureaucracy. If you roll back the clock by inviting the military in, you have done irreparable harm to democratization, setting it back for fifty years. Remember that many powerful elements in the opposition, like remnants of the NDP, oppose democracy.

Brown: Are we going to see a return to the 1950s?

Q. For years there were stories that the MB was just waiting for an opportunity to take down the government and now the originators of those stories are the ones seeking to overthrow the government. Given the nature of the previous regime, who could have had the experience to take over government other than those in the previous regime? What is the role of al-Azhar in all this?

Q.  “One man one vote one time.” Before the 1990s the head of the family voted for the entire family. It was the Islamic movement that demanded one man vote, meaning votes for women.

Brown: Over and over during the past week, the Egyptian opposition has seen itself as democratic and with the majority on their side. The argument, “If I can live with George Bush for 8 years you can live with Mursi for three more,” had no resonance. Their response is, you’re an American so your pro-Ikhwan. There is a constitution but the opposition does not accept it. There is no single Egyptian people. Al-Azhar sees itself as speaking for Islam. They know that what they say is not binding, but they still think it is correct. The General Guide is practitioner of veterinary medicine and the president is an engineer. Only a very small minority want to see the MB repressed, most simply want them out of power. By giving an ultimatum, the military has already intervened; I don’t know how far they will go.

Q. I hope the MB would draw on their experience from the 50s and 60s.

Q. My personal experience from sub-Saharan Africa justifies the worry that letting the soldiers come in “temporarily” means they will stay for 50 years. The Egyptian state is the oldest state in the Muslim world, going back thousands of years. Why do they act like newly decolonized state?

Q. Because they were ruled by foreigners even from the time of the pharaohs. Q. Iran also goes back thousands of years.

Q. It is sad to see what is happening in Egypt. It was once part of the Persian Empire. We have good relations. After the Iranian Revolution we had the same chaos, but the clerics came to power. Khomeini wanted to give some space to the opposition groups, but we faced an armed group, the Mujahidin-e-Khal. Khomeini felt that building his own army was justified. The invasion by Iraq also contributed to this. These armed opponents and American machinations were used to justify the authoritarian turn. Some have concluded that we Easterners do not deserve democracy and soon we shall decide we need a new despot. Khomeini took a lesson from the 1906 revolution in which most of the clerics were involved but secularists took over. Khomeini was careful to prevent this, denouncing Mossadiq as a kâfir, which he was not. When we asked Khomeini why he had done this, he said it was to prevent him from becoming a “banner” or public hero. All fuquha have always said a tyrant is better than fitna, and I fear al-Azhar will come to the same conclusion.

Q. In Iran peaceful demonstrators were brutally suppressed four years ago. Mursi seems to be a bit more tolerant and that is good. In Iran democratization from below is taking place in spite of the Islamic movement. The election of Rowhani makes us proud. You may say he is part of the establishment, but what he is saying is very good. In Egypt I think democracy is also coming from below, although it may be murkier since the Iranians do not have Egyptian’s fascination with the Islamic movement.

Al-Arian: This mutual demonization in Egyptian society is very harmful. Takfîr has gotten attention, but the same thing is happening on the other side, where the Islamists are painted as some kind of foreign invasion. The least extreme thing is we’ll give them fair trials before we put them back in prison. Egyptians should know better than to lump all Islamic groups together as Ikhwan.

Q. Twenty million signatures for the opposition is a myth, since some people signed many times. Since the opposition refuses to meet with Mursi, what can he do? If the police will not keep the peace, what choice does the army have?

Q.  What about the Copts?

Q. What are Egyptians going through in their daily lives since the revolution? What simple, even band-aid, reforms could improve life?

Brown: This is an extremely difficult situation for any government. It should be clear that the Egyptian presidency is a job no one should want. I think the FJP made a strategic calculation a year ago that made sense then, but has come back to haunt them. They feared the remnants of the old regime (military, judiciary) rather than the popular opposition, which they dismissed as unruly youth unworthy of attention. They postponed decisions of governance. I don’t know what will happen next, but I think we should remember the historical perspective. Even if thrown out of power now, they are not going away and they need to do long-term strategic thinking.

Al-Arian: Some of the things for which Mursi is being blamed (flight of capital, deployment of police out of neighborhoods where they were needed) were done by elements of society who wanted to see him fall. During these 48 hours I think they will stand pat.

Brown: Coptic reaction ranges from nervousness to outright panic so those who have reacted at all lineup with the opposition.

Q. Is the army unified? Does it mean a new Mubarak?

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

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