Monday, June 25, 2012

Egypt’s Revolution or the Brotherhood’s Evolution?

 A lot will be said and written about the historic drama currently unfolding in Egypt. Many of us spent Sunday afternoon glued to our television sets, mesmerized not only by the breathtaking events themselves, but also by what they meant for the political evolution of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Many thoughts were no doubt racing in the heads of millions as they watched President-elect Morsi deliver his acceptance speech last night. Three major ones were floating in mine:

1- The new leader of Egypt is not only different from all others who preceded him, but also from the stereotype of leaders normally produced by revolutions, Islamic or otherwise. Opting to read from a handheld stack of papers instead of a teleprompter, and paying no attention to lighting and body language, made him look even less presidential than his campaign portraits suggested. He was no Fidel Castro or Ayatollah Khomeini either. In short, we didn’t see much charisma yesterday. But is this a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. Going forward, it could mean that without charismatic appeal he would be forced to work harder to earn the support of the Egyptian people. It may sound odd coming from someone as distant from political Islam as I am, but I must say that I saw some refreshing honesty in his natural awkwardness.

2- The second thing that impressed me while listening to the bearded University of Southern California graduate was the rather remarkable and welcome absence in his speech of the ubiquitous list of enemies and demons that is usually cited by a new regime as it puts a tight grip on a country’s steering wheel. This trick had been used often and well in the past in order: (a) to justify heavy-handedness against voices of opposition and dissent, which can then be portrayed as the voices of distraction and treason; and (b) to avoid any accountability for failure to meet people’s expectations and also to cover-up mismanagement and corruption by a shroud of (largely) fictitious battles and alleged foreign predators. The task before President Morsi and the new government is huge. The fact that he made himself accountable may not be considered politically smart by some political pundits, but in my view the Egyptian public today is not easily fooled by the ways of past regimes and past leaders. Mr. Morsi’s straightforwardness may or not serve him well but holding him accountable (as he says he wants to be) is certainly good for Egypt.

3- For the leader of an Islamic Party delivering his first speech as the new leader of Egypt - after decades of being pressured under the heavy hand (and often the boots ) of the regime - to embrace so closely much of the modern universal principles of democracy, liberty, tolerance, diversity and co-existence says quite a lot. It is consistent with what many of us believe is a natural and inevitable evolution in what is referred to as “political Islam“. In fact, I view the historic transition we are witnessing in much of the Arab world as a dual transition.

The first is a transition towards democratic governance. This has already happened in much of the rest of the world over the past half century. It was inevitable that this would eventually reach Egypt and the Arab world, as personal and social development and especially access to media and information exploded in recent years. The ability of leaders and regimes to continue to shepherd people as cattle, fool them by empty rhetoric, or rob them from their money was eroding rapidly by the unstoppable advent of technology. It is high time for democratic evolution in Arab lands.

But the second transition is, in my view, equally profound. It is the evolution of political Islam as it is allowed to breathe normally after decades of pressure and distortion from a tight lid kept on it (and on everything else for that matter) by dictatorial regimes. A lid considered convenient not only to stymie dissent and opposition by Islamic parties but also to scare many in the region and beyond from a “common threat”, namely, Islamic extremism.

Admittedly, there are many who are skeptical about this latter evolution. They consider that the new rhetoric of Islamic parties (including Morsi’s) is intentionally deceptive, and that soon we will see the “real face” of the brotherhood and of political Islam, and it will not be a pretty sight. Maybe so. We shall see. But that will not in itself decide the future of Egypt. I firmly believe that Egypt will not be subjugated again to accept dictatorial governments under any banner, including an Islamic one. The Egyptian people will not acquiesce to that.

There is no turning back. The collective mind of Egyptians has become conscious and will not be robbed of its will again. It is Political Islam which will undergo an adaptive evolution. Sure there will be fringe elements which may veer towards even more extremism and away from the principles and values of the mainstream. Such elements exist in all societies, even the most enlightened and democratic ones. But it is the mainstream that matters much more. And I read in Morsi’s speech the same positive evolutionary signs coming out from many mainstream Islamic parties and authorities over the past year, in Egypt and elsewhere. These are good signs. Good for them, first and foremost. Because if they don’t adapt to the values and principles and goals of the large majority of Muslims (and non Muslims)  these parties will shrink and even perish, much like endangered species which fail to adapt. Democratic governance in Muslim societies will win. Whether Islamic parties do or not, is much less important.

Mohamad Chatah

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