Saturday 5 February 2011

After Mubarak: Assessing the 'Islam Factor' in Egypt

In times of uncertainty 'imagination is more important than knowledge', Albert Einstein once said. Imagination is exactly what both political policy makers and pundits appear to lack when asked about their projections for Egypt's future. Pragmatists and advocates of maintaining some sort of a status quo, which will not shake the current power configurations within Egypt and in the Middle East too much,  can only see another military strong man taking over. The other -- and, to their taste, unpalatable -- alternative is an Islamist take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood, the subsequent foundation of an Islamic state, and the introduction of Sharia law....

This view seems particularly prevalent in American political circles, where, in a recent interview, former presidential candidate Senator John McCain demonstrated how entrenched the opinions and positions of the policy-making elite are. When asked if he could envisage the Muslim Brotherhood becoming a partner in negotiating a new political order for Egypt, McCain  categorically rejected that possibility, stating that the Muslim Brotherhood supports terrorism (questionable), has connections with Hamas (not untrue), and will introduce Sharia Law (not at all clear what that means), which is, according to McCain, per definition undemocratic. Confronted with the question that area specialists regard the Muslim Brotherhood as representing a broad spectrum of political views and not a monolithic bloc, and that politicians associated with organization can command the support of about one fifth of the electorate, he said that he still refuses to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood and that he does not give a hoot about expert opinions or votes cast for an organization he does not like. Such lack of appreciation of the  complexities of the political playing fields in non-Western cultures is only too often encountered in political power circles in Washington, London, and elsewhere. Now, given its high degree of organization and after decades of patiently infiltrating professional organizations and other parts of civil society, the Muslim Brotherhood simple cannot be ignored or sidelined.

As for the pro-democracy protesters currently holed up on Tahrir Square: In spite of the posturing of its spokespersons (more likely self-appointed than able to demonstrate a sizeable constituency) as unadulterated secularists, it is difficult to gauge what exactly is their common ground -- apart from ousting Mubarak. The big unknown is how much critical mass the alternative political ambitions harboured by the urban middle classes who are now in Tahrir Square will be able to muster and bring together.

So what are the alternatives to unabashed Islamist and secular agendas? For an indication of where to look, it is interesting to note that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan was included in the list of four world leaders President Obama consulted by telephone before making his statement on 1 February. Taking Turkey into consideration makes not only sense because it is the most populous Muslim country in the Mediterranean and Middle East region, there are other reasons too.

Like Egypt, Turkey has a military with a high political profile. Since the 1920s it has presented itself as the defender of the constitution and frequently intervened in the political process when developments took a direction its leadership did not like. Unlike Egypt, Turkey has allowed experiments with Islamist politics and reconnoitered the boundaries of the tolerable and acceptable. That is why, in 1997, the army decided to oust the coalition government led by the Islamist Welfare Party in a 'velvet coup'. Subsequently part of its constituency reinvented itself as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won the 2002 elections and has managed to stay in power through a policy focusing on economic development, democratic reforms, and religiously-inspired social conservatism rather than an active agenda of implementing what are regarded as the conventional elements of Islamism

AKP policy is reminiscent of Turkey’s Motherland Party, led by Turgut Özal in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the wake of the 1980 coup, this technocrat formulated what came to be known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (TIS), tacitly condoned and at times more explicitly acknowledged by the military strong man at the time, General Kenan Evran (see also the post of 8 May 2010). Its combination of a liberal economic course combined with social conservatism -- expanded by the AKP with bolder democratic reforms -- has shown itself to be remarkably resilient. It is a delicate balance to strike, but, by all appearances, it seems to go down well with large segments of Turkish society. While the core of AKP support lies with an enterpreneurial class mainly based in the towns of Anatolia, its majority betrays a broader constituency of urban middle classes of whom it is by no means certain they would remain loyal if more religiously-coloured policies are introduced, such as curtailing the consumption of alcohol (cf also post of 31 July 2010). 

Outside of the immediate political realm, the AKP's success also relies on the influence of the Gülen Movement. This amorphous phenomenon with no apparent hierarchical structure has managed to penetrate Turkish society with an aggregate of media conglomerates, think tanks, and -- most importantly – a network of schools and universities. Also beyond its cohort of mostly volunteer activists, it is appreciated for the excellent education it provides, its charity efforts and initiatives in the domain of community cohesion, both inside Turkey and abroad.

Some, and they include prominent political scientists, would argue that Turkey is an  exceptional case. I beg to differ. Because very similar developments have taken place in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation-state in the world and a country that is culturally very different from Turkey and which has its own political history. Yet, there are some striking parallels. Although Indonesia’s constitution is not as staunchly secular as Turkey’s, political Islam has been kept at arm’s length by avoiding any explicit reference to Islam in the constitution, while its military apparatus too has always assumed an active political role. Since independence in 1945, successive regimes have frustrated the attempts of Islamist parties to make Islamic law applicable to its Muslim citizens. At the same time, the military regime led by General Soeharto, which ruled the country with iron fist for thirty years, was accommodative to the development of what has alternately been called civil, cultural or cosmopolitan Islam.

This was largely developed through two of the world’s largest Muslim mass organizations,  one representing Islamic modernists (the Muhammadiyah), the other the more traditionalist Muslims (Nahdlatul Ulama or NU, for short). Both were founded during colonial times and each claims to have more than 30 million followers (thereby dwarving the Muslim Brotherhood in numerical terms). After the fall of Soeharto in 1998, both the NU and Muhammadiyah rallied behind political parties supportive of the country's democratization process, while more radical Islamist parties only gained a small percentage of the votes, or did not make the electoral threshold at all. Although some concessions were made through the devolution of power to provincial authorities, which were then used locally to introduce elements of Islamic law in Islamist strongholds, the central government remains committed to internal democratization and economic development. On the international stage, the incumbent president, retired general Susono Bambang Yudhoyono, has positioned Indonesia as a bridge country connecting the Muslim world to rest of Asia and the world at large.

If this is possible in two sizeable and culturally such diverse Muslim countries as Turkey and Indonesia, it becomes more difficult to maintain that these are merely coincidental exceptions. Of course, Egypt’s history is different; Muslim organizations have not had the maneuvering space they were given in Turkey or Indonesia. Therefore, the big question to be answered is: has or can the Muslim Brotherhood transform itself into a civil society force instead of positioning itself as political party with an overt Islamist agenda? The outcome of the present political crisis in Egypt has not just massive impact on power configurations in the Middle East but also for the tectonic shifts which will take place in the world order in the coming decade. Jakarta and Ankara are already jockying for position, what will Cairo do?

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