Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Need to Speculate Anymore about Tunisia's Ennahda and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

We are all very grateful to Tunisia and Egypt's Islamists for swiftly--and with astonishing rigor--settling a decades' long debate about Islamism in the Middle East.

You would have thought, with a map long dotted by Islamist regimes of every breed, that there wouldn't be much to disagree about by now.  At a minimum, the Iranian (1978--), Sudanese (1989-), Afghani (1996), Turkish (2002) and Gazan (2006-) examples--not to mention the 80-year-old Saudi kingdom--have been extremely helpful guideposts to the intentions and methods of Islamism, however diverse the orientation of the parties that thrive in this rich ecosystem.

Indeed, the most instructive lesson of these patterns in Islamist-governance--be they monarchical, militaristic, clerical, Talbani, Sunni, Shiite, brotherly, parliamentary--stems from the one essential feature that unites them:  in every single case, with the exception of Turkey, they were unhindered by pluralistic political traditions and unchecked by countervailing state institutions; and in every single case  they dug deep an extremely oppressive mode of rule. That's not a matter for conjecture, that's a matter of fact. Notably, when, by 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had finally managed to defang Turkey's once fearsome secularist military and judiciary, his authoritarian inclinations asserted themselves, appreciably degrading the country's democratic credentials. In a candid moment, during a recent private meeting with regional and international businessmen, Erdogan likened Islamism's commitment to democracy to “catching a train. When you get to your station, you get off.”

And yet as heavily as the balance sheet weighs against political Islam, debate was still raging as Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood moved to assert their dominance in their two countries. There is a good reason for this--a no-brainer, actually.  Ideologies always come under stress when they descend from high theory into mundane practice. Trust life to mock the absolute certainties of the zealous. And trust  our religiously zealous ideologies to make a mess of things, trivializing the divine by shoving it everywhere in the muck of humanity and its factional politics where it most assuredly was never meant to belong.

Hence the advent of post-Islamism! Well before the Arab eruptions, discussion had been increasingly focused on post-Islamist trends, those necessarily emanating from the success of fundamentalist movements in ensconcing themselves in the state and/or society almost everywhere in the Middle East. The friction between the purity of dogma and the complexities of human problems had tested Islamism's promise, exposed its shortcomings and tarnished its appeal. Inexorably, it brought into serious doubt the wisdom of forcing religion to legislate politics.

Dissent within the camp--most potent from the once most ardent--began to challenge Islamism's knack for reactionary explanations of the word of God and his prophet and looked to long violated civic and human rights to redress the dangerous lopsidedness in the message. By way of a case study, there is none more telling than the Iranian one, but retreats register everywhere fundamentalism holds the levers of power.      

For a while now, Islamist intellectuals no less than rights activists have been pushing for more dynamic interpretations of Quranic texts and a more discreet role for religion in public life, one that recognizes and respects the presence of the Other and the vitality of pluralism to the health of, first and foremost, Islam itself.  The call, then, has been for a serious reform of Islamism, lest the people finally boot it out  entirely. As Akbar Ganji, an early follower of  Khomeini and subsequently one of Iran's most celebrated human rights defenders put it, "Ideologizing religion opens the way for a totalitarian system, and by its tendency toward violence, war-mongering, and restricting freedoms, it inevitably encourages secularism and apostasy..."

And so, when, in 2011, the Arab revolts rocked Tunisia and Egypt, the chatter naturally centered on the degree to which their Islamist parties had absorbed the lessons of their own history and those of their Middle Eastern cousins. More importantly, since the uprisings had energized long smothered polities, the main question became, Will Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood respect, even embrace, pluralism and citizenship as the basic precepts of the two emerging  democracies?

Well, we can stop the incessant speculation now. Let's not beat around the bush, throwing about the ifs, buts and maybes that are designed to make of  hope a compelling argument. The bottom line is this: precedence counts, actions count. Words don't, unless they are juxtaposed against actual deeds for authenticity.

So far, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood's tenures indicate that they are loyal bona fide members of the old club.  While the Ennahda government struggles to solve people's severe economic problems with recipes as hard to digest as Ben Ali's, Rachid Ghannoushi is caught on camera privately counseling Salafis to be patient, for their day in the sun will come. Meanwhile, NGO reports are methodically highlighting policies or omissions that are eroding various canons of democracy.

As for Egypt's MB, its performance on questions that are central to the health of the democratic process--from ill-disguised flouting of non-Islamist propositions in the assembly charged with drafting the new constitution to President Mohammad Mursi's latest bid for extraordinary powers--has been at once clumsy and blunt, giving ample ammunition to its detractors while leaving its apologists looking like chumps. In this vein, the input (or rather output) of former senior MB members, such as Shawkat al Kherbawi, about the group's tactics, power struggles and ultimate aims has been especially educational. What's more, it does not look like the Brothers will be able to point to any quick economic wins anytime soon to quiet raging hearts.

That neither Ennahda nor the MB have yet routed Tunisia and Egypt's democratic forces should not be put down to lack of intent. There's plenty that the two players could have done to reassure society at large of their genuine commitment to diversity and civic values, especially since neither party walked away from the polls with sweeping mandates. Issandar el Amrani's commentary in the National on President Mursi's latest move nails it:

Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse.

Perhaps the most illuminating finding since the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is not how well Islamist organizations have evolved but how visibly intolerant civil society has become of their antics. This is not to underestimate their tenacity or skills. They may well be succeeding in weakening institutional resistance to them--in this area, they have always been at their most talented. However, it remains to be seen if post-Islamist realities have taken deep enough root, as advocates claim, and if the countercurrents are strong enough to temper Ennahda and the MB's ambitions and significantly clip their wings.

Judging by the push back we are witnessing as I write, Tunisians and Egyptians are signaling that no one--least of the Islamists--has the benefit of their doubt. And how right they are!