In 2011, a series of protests in the Middle East swept the age-long authoritarian regimes and shocked the world. In a short period, the wave of protest first started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, and many more countries. The Arab Spring stimulated the rise of political Islamism in the Middle Eastern countries. However, Political Islamism takes in different shapes and forms.

The rest of the world is more familiar with the extreme jihadi militant group called Daesh (ISIS) that gained power during the Syrian Civil War and launched terrorist attacks against European countries. Because of Daesh, people are likely to associate Islamic political movements to jihadists and categorize countries governed by Islamic political parties “terrorist states.”

This essay aims to smash this stereotypical misconception of political Islamism. Indeed, there are jihadi movements such as the Salafists. However, there are also Islamic political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt that have been following the democratic game rule.

After the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak Regime, the Muslim Brotherhood took power in the national election. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became the first elected President of Egypt. However, after the victory, Morsi tried to concentrated power in his hands and declared himself above the law through the constitutional amendments. Only a year after the historic victory of the MB, the military steps in and overthrew the Morsi government. So far, the story of fits to the standard narration that Political Islamism is not compatible with Democracy; as the political Islamism came to power, it became a system of “one person, one vote, one time.” The popular elected political Islamist party would consolidate its power and transform into an authoritarian regime. However, the history of the Muslim Brotherhood provides an alternation story; the MB highly valued the democratic process since its foundation and played a vital role in forming the civil society and participating in the rigged parliamentary elections during the Mubarak regime. The problem of Political Islamism in Egypt is not is an “Islamic problem,” but a “political problem.” The lack of institutional establishments and the rule of law after the fall of dictatorship significantly contributed the chaos in Egypt.

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The Muslim Brotherhood has a long tradition of committing in the democratic process that can be dated back to its foundations. The Founder of MB, Hassan al-Banna, underlined the value of democracy by encouraging members of the Muslim Brotherhood to run in the election. He declared that running in elections is a religious duty. He stated that “the Muslim Brothers consider the constitutional system of government to the closest of the world’s systems of government to Islam, and they do not call for any other system.” In 2004, Muslim Brotherhood reaffirmed its commitment to democracy by declaring that the people are the source of authority. Under the Mubarak Regime, the state suppresses harshly on the civil society. Despite the oppression, Muslim Brotherhood has always been a significant part of the civil society in Egypt as a major welfare provider in Egypt. For example, the MB operates hospitals throughout Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood also actively participated in the Mubarak era rigged parliamentary elections, despite the candidates from MB could only run as independents. The Brotherhood’s General Guide from 1972 to 1986, Umar al-Tilmissani, once stated that participating in the election and entering the parliament “is an instrument for spreading our message.” Isam al-Iryam, the former director of MB’s political bureau, shares a similar opinion on the election. He claimed that elections, even rigged ones, are “A great workshop. A workshop for training thought and action, for decision-making and execution, for following up, for measuring efforts and individuals, for pumping new blood into the life of the Brotherhood, and for renewing its cells which require activation and resuscitation. A workshop for preparing agendas, studying problems and presenting solutions. A workshop for connecting with society, for explaining for ideal, stating our program, and attracting notice to the idea and not the organization. A workshop for dealing with the regime, the security service, judges, administrators, politicians, partisan and others. A workshop for innovation and creativity, for overcoming obstacles, surmounting barriers, and leaping over hurdles in the race for hearts and minds.” These quotes and examples show that unlike most claims, the Muslim Brotherhood has a long tradition of committing to the democratic process and their Islamic belief did not hinder the commitment.

A popular misconception of the 2012 election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood is that the election was a referendum on political Islamism. People elected MB parliament members and president Morsi because the Egyptian voters demanded Sharia. However, the Egyptians did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood for Sharia, and the Muslim Brotherhood did not enforce Sharia in the new constitution. The new Constitution drafted by MB claims to “embody the spirit of Sharia.” This claim is vague and almost meaningless. The Egyptian Constitution before the Arab Spring, a secular constitution viewed by scholars, also called itself “an embodiment of Sharia.” As a country with a predominantly Muslim population, it is impossible to not trace the legitimacy of the constitution from Islamic spirit. The Muslim Brotherhood also did not implement any real policy based on Sharia. For example, the MB supported private ownership and free trade. Therefore, unlike the conventional religion conservative movement that builds its support based on the rural, religious population, the Muslim Brotherhood successfully attracted supporters among the educated, middle-class urban residents of Cairo and Alexandria. If the support for Sharia was the most decisive reason for MB’s victory in the 2012 election, then the al-Nour party, an ultra-conservative and jihadi Salafist party that shows more enthusiastic support of Sharia over the MB should have grabbed the victory. Also, a year later, when el-Sisi and the military overthrew the Morsi government, the public support for MB was dangerously low. If Egyptians only supported MB for its position on Sharia, then they should have continued the support since the MB did not change their position on Sharia.

As the evidence illustrates, the Egyptians in 2012 did not vote for MB just for the religious reason. The key of MB’s victory voters is the well-organized party structure. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political branch of the Brotherhood, was the most organized and functional party in Egypt. The organization allowed the MB to establish the patron-client system and convey its political messages among the voters. During Mubarak era, the government was the most influential distributor of goods and services through various institutions at the local level. The government provided services and jobs to its supporters. The government also exercised firm control over mosques across Egypt and restrained the clergies from supporting the Brotherhood. After the fall of the Mubarak and the collapse of the government good distribution institutions, the MB filled in this vacuum of welfare distribution through its own social institutions and penetrated its influence among Mosques. The patron-client relationship monitored by the Muslim Brotherhood distributed goods, services and welfare in exchange for supports. The party organization and the patron-client networks also played a critical role in conveying and spreading its political messages and agenda. Majority of Egyptians identified themselves as socialists and favor wealth redistribution. After the corrupted Mubarak years, people also demanded social justice. The Muslim Brotherhood convinced the voters that its socialist agenda included wealth redistribution and upholding social justice, even though the Muslim Brotherhood actively support private property and free trade. Through its social institutions and mosque, MB created this misconception among voters and successfully marginalized the socialist party that more firmly supported wealth redistribution. The supreme organization of the Brotherhood successfully delivered goods and conveyed political messages to the masses through patron-client relationship led to the election victory of 2012.

After the election victories, Morsi and the Brotherhood, just like some scholars predicted, abused the democratic system and concentrated power in his hand. November 2012, Morsi amended the constitution unilaterally so that his word became “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity.” He also empowered himself to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” Although Morsi was forced to withdraw the amendments, these amendments are still an abrogation of democracy and made him a dictator just like Mubarak. Morsi’s supporters justified the amendments as a necessary way to protect the newly born democracy from the enemies, the leftovers of the Mubarak regimes in the judiciary, an excuse often employed by authoritarian regimes. Before jumping to the conclusion that political Islamism is not compatible with democracy, it is important to highlight that some non-Islamic leaders and parties also abused power in a similar style after electoral victories. The story of Venezuela shares similar narration with Egypt. After the victory in 1999, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called a public referendum to form a Constitution Assembly and rewrite the constitution so that Chavez could extend the terms of presidency. The Constitution Assembly had the overreaching power to abolish government institutions and to dismiss officials who were perceived as corrupt or as operating only in their own interests. The new constitution replaced the bicameral Congress with a unicameral Legislative Assembly and granted Chavez the power to regulate citizen’s rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters. Overall, the new constitution eliminated the check and balance of Venezuela and allowed Chavez to control every branch of the government. The example of Venezuela shows that non-Islamic party and leader abused the democratic institution to concentrate power in the hands of few using a similar way with the Islamic leader. It is unfair to single out the Muslim Brotherhood and blame its Islamism belief for harboring authoritarian sentiments and not respecting the democratic institution. The abuse of power after an election is a common political problem rather than an “Islamic feature.”

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The real problem is the lack of proper institutions and the rule of law. The radical transition to democracy is always hard and painful. After decades of monopoly, the political power suddenly because contestable among different groups and factions. Politicians have no experience on participating in a democratic system and do not know what to expect from elections. There is also no game rules for guidance that all sides respect and follow. A beauty of liberal democracy is the peaceful transition of power. A political leader is guaranteed by law to live peacefully as a citizen after renouncing political power. However, without the rule of law, the loss of power usually means death. There was a Prison’s Dilemma between Morsi and the military leaders. Egyptian military and the Brotherhood were bitter enemies. Since the Nasser era, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting continuously. The military fears that the MB would concentrate the power and transform Egypt into a new authoritarian state. In the authoritarian state, the military would lose its control over the government, and key military leaders would be trialled like Mubarak. Therefore, the military viciously restrained the power of Morsi. The MB, being oppressed for over half a century, fears that the loss of power would bring a new wave of mass purge and death. Therefore, Morsi concentrated as much power in his hand as possible. This Prison’s Dilemma became a bitter power struggle between the military and the Brotherhood and led to the final overthrow of President Morsi in 2013.

Authoritarian regimes rules base on oppression, thus using negative elements in a society such as pork-barrel politics, military and security forces, Secret Service and surveillance. Under such system, the positive elements of civil society, such as political parties, civil groups, and private business communities failed to develop. The fall of authoritarian regimes is the failure of the oppression means rather than the nurture of civil society. In a short period, the negative elements are removed, but the positive elements are not growing fast enough support the institution. Therefore, a significant power vacuum emerges in the society after the fall of authoritarian regimes. This power vacuum includes the ways to organize society from chaos to order, to the separation of power and responsibility among each government branch, the check-and-balance, the rules of fair election, the peaceful transition of power and so many others. The vacuum causes social turmoil and endangers the new democratic regime. Unable to fill in the vacuum with positive elements quickly, the new democratic regime inevitably introduces the negative elements back to the political arena. However, the re-emerge of these old negative elements symbolize the once democratic new government collapse back to an authoritarian regime.

This essay aims to reflect on several popular misconceptions on political Islamism. As this essay illustrates, the political Islamist party is not an “Islamic problem” but rather a “political problem.” The example of Egypt shows that the lack of proper institution after the radical regime change and democratization, rather than the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, contribute to the collapse of the democratically elected government after the Arab Spring. Islamism often shoulders the blame for every problem in the Middle East; however, the blame overshadows the real political problem within the region.🔷

(All quotes from this essay are from "Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Election in Egypt" by Tarek Masoud)

(Cover: Dreamstime / Giusi Cosentino - Tahrir Square during the Arab revolution in Egypt, Cairo, Egypt - 18 November 2011.)



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