26 November 2012

Almost two years after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is still an epicenter of protest and violence. It’s an epicenter of protest and violence because Egypt is again ruled by a man who has declared himself dictator. The country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, announced that “constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”

He’s already being called the new Pharaoh. It makes no difference that he was elected. Democracy isn’t just about getting elected. A democratic election is not a one-time plebiscite on who the next tyrant is going to be. Democracy requires individual and minority rights and the separation of powers. Winners cannot oppress losers, nor do losers get to wage war on the winners.

Some of us are more surprised than others by this development, but the Muslim Brotherhood was never a democratic political movement. It’s not even a close call. You don’t have to be a cheerleader for Hosni Mubarak to recognize its inherent authoritarianism.

Egypt expert Eric Trager explains in The New Republic how the organization weeds out moderates by design.

It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”

Throughout this process, rising Muslim Brothers are continually vetted for their embrace of the Brotherhood’s ideology, commitment to its cause, and—most importantly—willingness to follow orders from the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. As a result, Muslim Brothers come to see themselves as foot soldiers in service of the organization’s theocratic credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Meanwhile, those dissenting with the organization’s aims or tactics are eliminated at various stages during the five-to-eight-year vetting period.

Last year in Cairo I met a couple of young activist recruits who washed out. They weren’t fired, exactly. One just up and quit because he could no longer stand the paranoid and authoritarian politics of its leaders, and the other was pressured out by what Americans call a hostile work environment.

“Hamas is more liberal,” Mohamed Adel told me, “and more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is.” He had left just weeks before I met him at the journalist syndicate. “The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member . . . or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.”

Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, another young activist, was an editor at the Brotherhood’s Web site. Party officials treated him horribly and it became obvious, from his insider’s view, that the leaders would lord it over Egypt with a military regime or a police state if given the chance. “The Brotherhood as it exists now,” he told me, “wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.”

Egypt’s political culture is authoritarian and always has been. The Muslim Brotherhood is a logical and perhaps inevitable product of a pre-existing problem bigger than itself and older than its religion.

I’ve met Egyptian liberals. They exist, but they’re a minority. Moderates are a larger minority, but genuine liberals belong to an even smaller minority and they know it. They feel it keenly, and are therefore far gloomier about Egypt’s prospects than Westerners were when the so-called Arab Spring started almost two years ago.

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don’t accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don’t accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that’s not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Egypt’s deeply embedded illiberalism isn’t exactly a secret. It’s the country’s most obvious political characteristic, one that imposes itself on the observant almost at once. Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh explained it to me this way the first time I visited Cairo seven years ago: “Most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood…My biggest fear is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

But sure, the Brothers threw the word “democracy” around when they were on their way up, especially when gullible foreign journalists were in town. They got a big kick out of portraying themselves as religiously conservative democrats, as though they were the Egyptian equivalents of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. But their slogan is and always has been “Islam is the solution.” They’re only moderate compared with the totalitarian Salafists.

Morsi promises that his dictatorial powers are temporary. Feel free to believe that if you find it credible. Hey, it might even be true. Weird things happen in the Middle East all the time. The army could remove him tomorrow. Other regime components might tell him to get stuffed, making him more Hugo Chavez than Fidel Castro. The “street” might throw the country into ungovernable chaos. Morsi might even feel enough pressure from abroad that he dials it down. But whatever happens later, he just proclaimed himself dictator. If he isn’t stopped, that’s exactly what he will be.


Photo Credit: Aladlwlmosawah