Is There an Egyptian Nation?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In the latest round of Egypt’s current crisis — once again pitting Islamists against non-Islamists — demonstrators gathered at the presidential palace in Cairo to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s stunning decision to claim authoritarian, albeit temporary powers and his subsequent moves to rush through a controversial constitution. In a grim reminder of the country’s precarious state, police clashed with protesters and fired tear gas — only this time, it was to protect a legitimately elected president, not a dictator of 30 years.

But this isn’t really about Morsi and his surprise decree — though to be sure, parts of the decree employ language straight out of Orwell and seem almost designed to provoke and polarize. But neither the decree nor the draft constitution is quite as bad as Morsi’s opponents insisted. The opposition’s sometimes bizarre comparisons to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, the 1933 Enabling Act, and the French Revolution suggest a legitimate fury (and an intriguing fascination with fascism), but make little sense as historic analogies.

Morsi could have read his Friday shopping list on national television, and it might have made little difference. The decree, after all, was only the latest in what Morsi’s opponents see as a long list of abuses. Egypt’s “original” revolutionaries are one such group that blast the Brotherhood’s compromises small and large with the old state bureaucracy, lamenting how their revolution was sacrificed on the altar of expediency and gradualism. And it is true that the Brotherhood-appointed leaders of the Ministry of the Interior, the military, and the intelligence apparatus include men who were complicit in some of the worst human rights abuses of the Hosni Mubarak era — and have gone unpunished to this day.

But these mostly younger revolutionaries, whose critiques have been admirably consistent, are a small minority. The rest of the opposition is an odd assortment of liberals, socialists, old regime nostalgists, and ordinary, angry Egyptians, each whom have their own disparate grievances and objectives. The liberals and leftists in the equation, led by figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and Amr Moussa, have little in common with each other — besides a fear that their country is being taken over, and taken away, by Islamists. While they may be “liberal,” in the sense of opposing state interference in private morality, their attachment to democracy is mercurial at best. Many of them welcomed the dissolution of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament, called on the military to intervene and “safeguard” the civil state, and even cast their presidential ballot for Ahmed Shafiq, Morsi’s opponent and Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Liberals’ problem with Morsi’s decree is not so much its authoritarian overtones, but that its authoritarianism is (or could be) in the service of an ideology — Islamism — that they view as an existential threat to Egypt. While Morsi has been extremely polarizing in power, the Muslim Brotherhood insists, so far correctly, that it has not actually overseen the imposition of any “Islamic” laws on the population.

But the Brotherhood too is missing the point here. Liberals, and so many others, fear Morsi and the Brotherhood not for what it has done, but for what it might do. Such fears, based on worst-case projections well into the future, are difficult to engage and impossible to disprove. To assuage them, trust is required — and the heart of the problem is that there is little to go around Egypt these days.

Islamist distrust of the other side, justified or not, is what led Morsi to issue his Nov. 22 decree, people close to him insist. The Brotherhood saw an existential threat on the horizon: Looming in the near future were court rulings that would dissolve both the Constituent Assembly and the upper house of parliament. Brotherhood and FJP officials told me that they knew from sympathetic judges that rulings revoking Morsi’s Aug. 12 decree, which established civilian control of the military, and even possibly annulling the presidential election law, were in the cards. Another prominent Brotherhood member, who has privately been critical of Morsi’s presidency, went so far as to suggest to me that, if the president didn’t act preemptively now, the closing of Brotherhood offices could be next in a new campaign of repression, followed by the dissolution of the group itself.

At the same time, the Brotherhood was well aware just how bad Morsi’s decree looked. As one senior FJP official admitted: “Yes, the decree isn’t democratic and it’s not what you would expect after a revolution,” but he claimed there was simply no other choice. The message was clear: The Brotherhood is in an existential fight and, as a result, the normal rules of politics would be suspended. One Brotherhood member I spoke to likened it to “shock therapy that runs the risk of leaving the patient dead.”

In short, the Brotherhood sees its opponents — whether liberals, the judiciary, elements of the military and state bureaucracy — as fundamentally anti-democratic. Among other things, it points to the failure of someone as prominent as Mohamed ElBaradei — a “liberal dictator” in the words of one Brotherhood official — to stand up against the judiciary’s dissolution of parliament, and blasts his recent warnings that the military may need to intervene “to restore law and order.”

The irony of non-Islamists’ antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood is that the current version of the organization happens to be the moderate, reconstructed version. For all its considerable faults, the Brotherhood of today is not the Brotherhood of the early 1980s, when calls for tatbiq al-sharia (“application of Islamic law”) were its core demand. This was not just rhetorical: As the Islamic revival intensified, the formal effort to synchronize Egyptian law with sharia won the support of Egypt’s most powerful men, such as Sufi Abu Talib, the speaker of parliament and a close associate of President Anwar Sadat. By 1982, Abu Talib’s committees had painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of draft legislation (which were for the most part never implemented), including 513 articles on tort reform, 443 on the maritime code, and 635 articles on criminal punishments.

Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood was more a sharia lobby than a political party, with a seemingly obsessive focus on Islamic law. The 1987 electoral program of the “Islamic alliance” — a coalition of the Brotherhood and two smaller parties — allowed little room for dissent on such a fundamental matter: “Implementation of sharia is a religious obligation and a necessity for the nation. This is not something that is up for discussion; it is incumbent upon every Muslim to fulfill God’s commandments by governing by his law.” The push for sharia would be, the program says, “a massive national undertaking that will require experts to devise how to apply Islamic law in a variety of realms.”

The Brotherhood took steps to smooth over the hard edges of its political program during the next two decades, culminating in its 2005 electoral platform — the centerpiece of the group’s effort to rebrand itself and offer a vision for political and institutional reform. Democracy, rather than sharia, was the new call-to-arms. Much of the program focused on how to establish a workable system of check and balances and ensure the independence of local government from the central executive. Interestingly, one of the program’s longest sections is on “financial and administrative decentralization,” where the Brotherhood calls for “transferring powers and the authorities of the ministries to the governorates,” including the ability to impose and collect taxes. Indeed, if there is a dominant theme that runs throughout the 2005 platform, it is the notion that the executive branch has too much power, which it abuses at will. (It makes for dispiriting reading in light of today’s top-heavy constitution, which enshrines a too powerful presidency.)

After the revolution, the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), made a major flip-flop — they are now apparently believers in a strong president, at the expense of parliament and local government. But they still seem to genuinely think that they are democrats, and their rhetoric, perhaps today more than ever, is replete with references to electoral legitimacy and the will of popular majorities. As for the constitution, they insist it is a moderate, consensus-driven document. From the Brotherhood’s perspective, the constitution’s Islamic content is minimal: In a stark contrast to the 1980s, the Brotherhood actually pushed back against Salafi demands that the “rulings” rather than the “principles” of Islamic law be the primary source of legislation.

Liberals would tell an almost completely different story, and their disagreements are based on process as much as substance. Recently, at the Brookings Doha Center, we held our third “Transitions Dialogue,” where we brought together Islamists and liberal representatives along with U.S. officials to seek out areas of consensus. Depending how you looked at it, the participants were either very far apart or surprisingly close together. It was hard to tell, since they seemed to have different interpretations of reality and often couldn’t even agree on what they disagreed on. Some of the differences were on procedure — including the decision to appoint 50 Islamists and 50 non-Islamists to the Constituent Assembly, which one human rights activist called the “birth defect” of the process.

From the very beginning, liberals have complained of an assembly “dominated” by Islamists, where each camp became entrenched in its position and voted as a bloc. And they were right: Islamists set the assembly’s agenda and led and oversaw the constitution-drafting process. Brotherhood and Salafi representatives, however, felt that the 50/50 agreement was, in fact, a major concession on their part. If the assembly was elected, rather than appointed, Islamists pointed out that they would likely have taken at least 70 percent of the seats. As for content, they were only calling for the “principles” of sharia, rather than its “rulings,” as the Salafis had wanted, to be the main source of legislation. The constitution has a few Islamically flavored articles, but for the most part it is a mediocre — and somewhat boring — document, based as it was on the similarly mediocre 1971 constitution. This, too, Islamists treat as a concession to their opponents, arguing they could have had stronger Islamic clauses but instead compromised with liberals — angering many Salafis in the process.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that Brotherhood and Salafi representatives viewed the very presence of “liberals” on the assembly as a gesture of goodwill and magnanimity. The Brotherhood’s disdain for liberals is nothing new and is, at least in part, a product of the Mubarak years, when many liberals tolerated the Mubarak regime as the lesser of two evils. But it runs deeper than that: Islamists generally don’t see liberals as having any natural constituency in Egypt. Moreover, they represent an ideology that is foreign to Egypt and, worse, morally subversive. To the extent that Egyptians ever support “liberals,” it’s only because they don’t want to vote for the Brotherhood, not because they’re liberal or even know what “liberalism” means. In my interviews with Brotherhood leaders both before and after the revolution, I usually got the sense that, despite occasionally trying, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to take liberals seriously. They were almost always more concerned about those on their right flank, the Salafis.

Lack of respect aside, when you look at what each side says they believe, there seems to be room for consensus. After all, the major liberal parties say they support a role for sharia in public life (Egypt’s most “liberal” party has been known to campaign with banners saying “The Quran is Our Constitution”), while the Muslim Brotherhood says all the right things, calling for a “civil state.” Even the Nour Party, the political arm of the largest Salafi organization, says that “the state should be far from the theocratic model.”

But these groups are acting more moderate than they actually are. Liberals are trying to be more responsive to the popular mood, which is both conservative and religious. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood and Salafis are eager to portray themselves as “responsible” actors, particularly in the eyes of Western governments, whose support is necessary for Egypt’s economic recovery. But such ostensibly conciliatory gestures have also led each group to believe that the others are acting insincerely. It is understandable that liberals, being the weaker party, fear that the Brotherhood will use its increasing powers to undermine and exclude them. But the Brotherhood, too, fears its opponents are out to destroy it, using any tools at their disposal to reverse the group’s electoral victories.

As Brookings Institution scholar Khaled Elgindy astutely observed, “a persecution complex is the backbone of authoritarianism.” He may be right, but that doesn’t make the Brotherhood’s persecution complex any less real. The memory of 1954 looms large, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Brotherhood, rounded up its members en masse, and executed many of its leaders. More recently, the Algerian tragedy of 1991 — where the staunchly secular military aborted an election Islamists were poised to win, plunging the country into civil war — remains a defining moment in the Islamist narrative.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, another Algeria is always around the corner. Winning one election after another is no guarantee of political survival, just like it wasn’t in 1991. For the Brotherhood, the dissolution of parliament last June offered yet more evidence that the liberal opposition and international community would not stand up for democracy when it was Islamists who suffered.

These betrayals — and each side has their own long list — are now etched in memory, making reasoned dialogue a challenging task. To be sure, the mistrust is amplified by a terribly mismanaged transition, but it also draws from something real and deep, if often unstated. Behind all the accusations and the seemingly minor procedural objections lies something more basic: Egyptians simply may not agree on the fundamental attributes of the modern nation state. Should the state be ideologically neutral, or should it be an enforcer of morality, intent on creating virtuous families and virtuous individuals? Egyptians, and most of the Arab world for that matter, haven’t really had this conversation until now.

In the short term, there can and will be at least some consensus. The Brotherhood is constrained not only by an increasingly vocal opposition, but also by external actors. The economy is teetering on the brink and stabilization will only come through the economic support of the United States and Europe. There is only so far Morsi and the Brotherhood can go — for now. Their focus is on stability, security, and the economy, not on applying Islamic law or creating the mythical Islamic state.

That said, Islamists are Islamists for a reason. They have a distinct ideological project, even if they themselves struggle to articulate what it actually entails. The Brotherhood has already been developing something called the “Nahda Project,” a sort of dream for Islamist would-be technocrats. While some of the project’s ideas on institutional reform, economic development, and urban renewal are impressive, they shouldn’t be taken as the end point of what Islamists are trying to do.

Islamists have a core constituency that, naturally, wants to see sharia implemented. Democracy does not necessarily moderate such ambitions: According to most polls, the Egyptian public wants to see more Islam and Islamic law in their politics, not less. And then there are the Salafis, the second-largest electoral bloc in the country, who are likely to do whatever they can to drag the Brotherhood — and everyone else, if possible — further to the right.

A manufactured consensus may, in fact, be easier to forge now, in this early stage of Egypt’s democratic transition. “Islamists” and “non-Islamists” may hate each other, but, on substance, the gap isn’t currently as large as it might be. In the longer run, however, the consensus that so many seem to be searching and hoping for may not actually exist.