Egypt is in the grip of another in a series of what appear to be unending crises threatening the viability of a transition to a democratic order. This current crisis is the result of the interaction of three factors: the first is the inability of the constituent assembly to reach a consensus on provisions in the constitution dealing with the role of Islam in the state and the extent of individual freedoms. That this should have been a stumbling block could hardly have come as a surprise to anyone with an inkling of knowledge of Egyptian political history over the last 75 years. The second is the looming threat that the Supreme Constitutional Court could dissolve the Constituent Assembly on the grounds that because it was appointed by a parliament which was itself dissolved, it lacks valid legal authority to perform its work. The third is the omnipresent threat of imminent economic collapse if the Egyptian state cannot reconstitute itself in a reasonably timely fashion, something that must have been a precipitating factor in President Morsi’s sweeping decrees of last week.Read More
A facebook friend posted an article today which provided polling data in support of the conclusion that Egyptians overwhelmingly believe that continued protests are damaging Egypt’s future prospects by the shocking margin of 84% (against) to 13% (in favor). I don’t doubt the accuracy of these numbers; I just doubt their normative significance as a guide for future political action. I then engaged in a lengthy discussion with a couple of friends on this point, and another facebook friend suggested I post this on my blog to give it wider distribution. So, here it goes:Read More
For a terrific analysis of the results of the Tunisian election, read Malika Zeghal of Harvard and Khadija Mohsen-Finan of Université de Paris VIII. I think the most interesting aspect of their analysis is that the two parties who made the strongest showing after the Nahda, the Takattul and the Congress for the Republic, had each refused to engage in demonizing the Nahda. The two authors conclude that, above all else, the Tunisian electorate voted for centrist parties that demonstrated independence from the dictatorship. I hope that the success of the Tunisians will inspire the Egyptians to complete their transition successfully as well.Read More
It has now been a little more than a week since my return from Tunisia. And, like the views set forth in this column, I too find the question of France, and Tunisia’s relationship with France, to be an ominous cloud on the horizon, obscuring what I hope is Tunisia’s inevitable march toward democracy.Read More
Bobby Ghosh at Time has a blog entry today disparaging the democratic skills of Egypti’s liberals and suggesting that, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has a much better understanding of how democracy actually works. There is little to disagree with in Ghosh’s post except that he perhaps understates the inability of the “secular” or “liberal” forces in Egypt to compete effectively in a democratic system. The reason for this failing, I think, has little to do with the the inherent unattractiveness of liberal ideas in Egypt as much as it does with the class divisioins that are rife in Egypt, and that lead many of the liberal elite to believe — although they will never say so explicitly — that they are entitled to rule because they are the “best” of Egyptian society, the “awlad al-nas,” so to speak. Parties that are actually popular are dismissed as demagogues or as exploiting the ignorance of the Egyptian masses. Indeed, one prominent Egyptian liberal, a justice on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, no less, suggested that the votes of illiterate Egyptians should be weighted 1/2 of those of educated Egyptians.Read More
Yesterday I attended a forum sponsored jointly by “Muntada Ibn Rushd,” roughly “The Averroes Society,” and the Iranian Cultural Center, the title of which was “The Cultural Consequences of the Arab Revolutions.” Clearly, there was a disagreement as to what “Cultural” meant between the speakers and the audience, many of whom thought culture was narrowly limited to the arts. Fortunately for me, however, the speakers and I were on the same page, namely, the Arab revolutions, and the future of political culture in the Arab world. The speakers were, Abu Yarub al-Marzouqi, a Tunisian philosopher, who recently published a philosophical commentary on the Quran, Maryam Azzouz, a youth political activist, Radwan Masmoudi, a Tunisian-American director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, headquartered in Washington, DC, Amal Balkhairi, a youth activist in one of the Tunisian political parties whose name escapes me but claims the political “center,” and last but not least, a representative of the Iranian government, Muhsin ‘Iraqi. ’Iraqi is a religious scholar who studied in the Hawza at Qum. The clip of the event that I have included is limited to some of Balkhairi’s remarks.Read More
One important difference, it appears to me, between the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, is the relatively greater incidence in Tunisia of public fora that bring together spokespersons from various political and ideological movements in the country simultaneously. The sense I got from my days in Egypt, however, was that the warring-ideological groups tend to speak to the press rather than to each other, much less in the context of a shared public forum. In Tunisia, by contrast, there are several civil society organizations that sponsor fora to promote public debate and dialogue on the various choices facing the country, and while I have not seen any evidence that different groups have moved substantially from their core positions, I think the fact that they can sit together on the same panel and share, discuss and debate their country’s future augurs well for the success of their transitions.
I attend one such forum yesterday at a public institution called “Dar al-Thaqafa Ibn Rashiq,” (The Ibn Rashiq Cultural Centre, Ibn Rashiq being a famous medieval literary figure) that was sponsored by a civic organization with the name “Muntada Ibn Rushd.” There are other such organizations, including one called “Muntada al-Jahiz.” While relatively few such organizations were permitted during the Ben Ali regime, apparently scores have been opened since the end of the Revolution, a fact that has helped raise public awareness of the various issues facing Tunisians in the context of the transition. If anyone knows of equivalent efforts of Egypt, I would appreciate being corrected on this point, but at least from the perspective of an institutional framework for establishing a collective public sphere, the Tunisians appear way ahead of the Egyptians.Read More
It would be an understatement to say that westerners remain concerned about the role of Islam in democratizing Arab states. Some, however, have suggested that secular democracy need not mean a complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere, but instead permit its participation against a background of institutions that serve to moderate the risk of a “tyranny of the majority.” I agree that this is the most that can be reasonably obtained under present conditions in a country like Egypt.
In my opinion, modernist Islamic thought — the ideological basis of moderate Islamism –has been concerned primarily with equality before the law, establishing accountability of the government to the people, and eliminating arbitrary decision-making so as to better pursue the public good. They are attracted to democracy because they see democratic institutions as the best means to establish these ends. Unfortunately, Islamic modernism (nor secular modernism in the post-Ottoman world, for that matter) has not been gravely concerned with pluralism as such.Read More