What’s Next for Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency Saturday, sees itself as a corrective to modern Egyptian life
Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the organization’s roots reach back ever further. The Muslim Brotherhood is the blossom of the Muslim reform movement, touched off by Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt. There are two core ideas shared by all of the early Egypt-based Muslim reformers. The first was that contact with the West (specifically military conflict) had shown the Muslim world to be weak. The second was that Muslim revival would not come by imitating the West, but rather by shedding the non-Islamic practices that had accreted over the last hundreds of years and restoring Islam to the true path as set down by the prophet Muhammad. Because Western science and military technology had proven superior on the field of battle, it was permissible to use that knowledge but not the West’s secular values—lest Muslims face a spiritual crisis similar to that of modern Christendom.
The obvious blind spot of thinkers like al-Banna is that they never understood that it is precisely those secular values—like freedom of thought and speech—that made the West dominant. Optimists might point out that by participating in an electoral process the Muslim Brotherhood has also, even if unwittingly, endorsed Western values. However, the reality is that elections themselves are simply processes. As we have seen throughout the years—from Hitler’s victory at the polls to Hamas’ in Gaza in 2005—elections give no indication of whether or not a ruler will govern in accordance with democratic values.
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of how a Muslim Brotherhood presidency might affect Egyptian women, or the Coptic Christian minority, or press freedom—matters that, in fairness, did not much concern Mubarak either. What we know about Egypt’s Islamist movement is that it has been forged on the anvil of conflict, not just in its contention with the West (from Napoleon’s conquest through the British occupation to the founding of Israel), but also in its struggle against Egyptian society.
The Brotherhood, as the culmination of the Muslim reform movement, is the embodied critique of modern Muslim communities. The lands of Islam were inferior to the West because of how Muslims practiced Islam. The problem then is not that this well-oiled political machine has never actually governed a country or managed an economy, or that its practical political theory is derived from a 7th-century desert utopia ruled by the prophet of Islam. The real issue is that the Brotherhood perceives itself as a corrective—not simply to the Mubarak regime, but to the way ordinary Egyptians have conducted their affairs for the last half millennium or so. This is the Brotherhood’s ideological core, which may well spell disaster not only for the rights of women and minorities, but also for millions of other Egyptians.
Morsi has said that he is the president for all Egyptians. The question is how, particularly in the middle of an international economic meltdown, he can reconcile more than 80 million Egyptians to the Brotherhood’s rule. What has made the organization attractive for all these years is not its vision, its policies, whatever those turn out to be, but rather resistance, negation, a dynamism built on the foundations of conflict. Morsi will likely have little choice in the matter: To manage an Egypt perpetually on the verge of chaos, he will have to project internal conflict outward. In due time, Egypt will make war either on itself, or on Israel.
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