Reflections on the Egyptian Coup: The Fate of Political Islam


July 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm

In his, Dictionary of Political Thought, the noted political philosopher, Roger Scruton, defines a coup d’etat as follows:

[A coup d’etat is] a change in government by force resulting in a change of constitution, and brought about by those who already hold some form of power whether military or political. The institution of a coup thereby transforms the terms on which their office is held from a public trust into a private possession.

We start with this definition to spare anyone the need for debating whether what transpired in Egypt was a coup d’etat or not. By any meaningful definition of the term, it was. Saying that is not to deny the role that the massive uprising of June 30, 2013 played in providing a justification or cover for the coup. However, in analyzing what happened, the uprising is of secondary importance. In any case, the events that have transpired, regardless of how we interpret them, will have far-reaching implications, both for Egypt and the region.

One of the questions being asked by many in the aftermath of the coup in Egypt is, “What does this mean for “political” Islam?” This is a critical question considering that in the Sunni Muslim realm, the Muslim Brotherhood, the party intricately associated with the ousted Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, has been the standard bearer of political activism. In answering this question we have to emphasize that politics and every other affair in this creation starts and ends with Almighty God, Allah.

To reiterate, we have to remain firm in our understanding that the affairs of the world are orchestrated by Almighty God and not anyone or anything is His creation. While we may search for the immediate causes of the situation in Egypt, and by so doing examine to role of the Egyptian military, at-Tamarrud, economic realities, behind the scenes machinations of Israel or the United States, the perceived or real incompetence of the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, etc., at the end of the day we have to face an inescapable fact. Namely, Allah, for a wisdom He understands best, did not want a Muslim regime controlling Egypt at this time. He thus created causative means (Asbāb), some mentioned above, to implement His Will. When we accept this reality we can move beyond the frustration and disappointment that is afflicting so many in light of the recent events.

To emphasize that it is Allah who is the only effective “power-broker” in the world, reflect on the following verse from the Qur’an, “Say, O Allah, the owner of all sovereignty! You extend sovereignty to whosoever you please and you withdraw it from whosoever you please. You elevate whomsoever you please, and you debase whosoever you please. In Your Hand is all good, and You, over all things, possess power (Qur’an 3:26).” Accepting this reality and understanding that it is actualized in our world, is one of the greatest manifestations of Tawhid, or the affirmation of divine oneness. In this case, we are affirming that there is one effective source of power in this creation –Almighty God, Allah. This has to be our starting point in moving forward.

In turning to an analysis of the events that have transpired at the level of Asbāb and the interplay between them, there are those who argue that the coup in Egypt and the unceremonious dumping of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime there marks the end of “political” Islam. Ironically, among those making such a claim is Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, even as his venal and brutal regime is being preserved by the direct intervention of Hizbollah and Iran, two of political Islam’s stalwarts, in the Syrian civil war.

Political Islam, in some form, will continue to exist, however, for it to be viable on the global stage, it will need a major reformation. First of all, it cannot be sectarian. The limits of a sectarian political Islam are clearly displayed in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Muslim involvement in the contest for power proceeds along sectarian lines that leave no room for competing ideas in a struggle for hearts and minds. The only argument is blood and the ensuing carnage only generates fear and loathing in the hearts of the masses of ordinary believers. The political bankruptcy of the various “Muslim” parties involved in the contest is plain. The slaughter generated by such groups may continue unabated for the short term, but such groups have no real political future.

Secondly, any meaningful manifestation of political Islam cannot be self-serving. One of the criticisms of Morsi’s regime is that it was self-serving. In other words, its primary focus was advancing the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, this contention is amenable to debate. The perception though was real in to minds of many Egyptians. Any Muslim party endeavoring to rule democratically over a particular country in the Muslim world has to understand that the eclectic ideological nature of the citizenry of most modern Muslim nation-states, combined in many instances with a similar degree of ethnic, tribal or religious diversity makes it nearly impossible for it to pursue a strict, party-line first agenda. Any group endeavoring to do so will alienate many parties whose support will be critical in any efforts to move the state in a new direction.

This makes the principal challenge for an aspiring Muslim ruling-party a constitutional one. In other words, a carefully crafted constitution has to adjudicate how the requisites of the Shari’ah, widely understood, and the historical approach to religious minorities living in Muslim lands, best articulated under the Ottoman Millet system, can best be reconciled with modern ideas of citizenship and individual rights. The task, while daunting, is not impossible if we accept that the arena to be governed by the constitution, the modern nation-state, has no historical precedent in the Muslim world. Therefore, there is no historical precedent for the constitutional order that needs to be created. That being the case, new arrangements must inevitably be created. Recognizing this fact frees us from the belief that there is some sort of ancient precedence that can be neatly retrofitted for the new political condition.

A Muslim ruling-party supervising such a constitutional process has to see itself as the servant of the people, and not the servants, or perhaps more fittingly, the slaves of a nonexistent historical precedence. In the modern political arena, with its complexities, intrigues, and traps defined in large part by an American-dominated neocolonial order, the idea of the Muslim party as servants of the people, with all of their diversity, has to trump the idea of the Muslim party as guardians of a mythical historical order. The former approach is the only way to create the intellectual flexibility needed to begin even conceiving what the possible constitutional arrangement would look like.

Philosophically, such an approach is consistent with the saying attributed to the Prophet, peace and blessings of God upon him, “The leader of the people is their servant.” Although some point out that this saying is conveyed by a weak Hadith, another part of the same Hadith is considered authentic. Namely, “The one serving water to the people is the last of them to drink.” The ethos of service and the subordination of the immediate interests of the ruling party is the only way to begin creating the good-will and broad-based of support (social and political solidarity) needed to insure against the kind of machinations that culminated in the ouster of the Morsi regime.

Another critical change needed for Muslim parties endeavoring to rule over contemporary Muslim nation-states is related to what we have discussed above. The broad-based nature needed to advance any sort of meaningful political project domestically has to be replicated internationally. What has been dubbed the Arab “Spring” has been preceded by the Latin American “Spring,” Eastern European “Spring” and the African “Spring.” In other words, all of these regions have preceded the Arab world in attempts to create democratic regimes after varying, in terms of their duration, periods of authoritarian rule. One of the greatest checks against the vulnerability experienced by the fledgling regimes of Arab World is the creation of bonds of solidarity with the more assertively anti-imperial states of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other words, Muslim parties have to understand that they cannot engage in truly independent policies in isolation.

In the case of Morsi’s Egypt, it might have been helpful if his regime had taken an a priori stance against seeking loans from the IMF and instead announced that he would work with nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to create an alternative international development bank. Of course such a move would have not been favorably received in Washington, which as we are now learning, never favorably received the Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime to begin with. On the other hand, such a move might have created the political imagination in the masses of Egyptians needed for them to believe that the material sacrifices they were making were for greater goals and therefore worth enduring. People will sacrifice where there is a belief that they are sacrificing for something greater than their immediate interests. However, where there is no higher belief or vision, both the people and non-visionary political parties perish.

In conclusion, the themes mentioned in this essay, namely: a “spiritually-rooted” political analysis; a meaningful modern Muslim constitutionalism; a fully articulated Muslim philosophy of service-oriented politics; and Muslim participation in a reconstituted global “Third World” movement are all worthy of book-length exposes. Furthermore, moving from the realm of ideas, once those ideas have been identified and articulated, in each of these areas involve trans-generational social and political movements. These are merely some areas, in my estimation, where “political” Islam might begin reconsidering a fundamental reorientation if they are to remain viable in light of the conditions currently prevailing in both the national and international political arenas.

Reprint from Al-Jazeera Stream: