“Fundamentalism is good for protest, good for revolution, and good for war, but not so good for development.”
After a century of being persecuted and driven underground, mainly for their vibrant nationalism and their anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian views, Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has finally taken center-state. But in light of recent unrests and demonstrations, due to a controversial referendum regarding a new constitution, the Islamist Muslim Brother and their newly elected leader, President Mohamed Mursi, will have to continually remind themselves that they are no longer a “state within a state.” They will also have to reject an age-old mistaken notion, a tyrannical misstep, often committed by those elected, that neither are they “the State.”
In the twentieth-century, while Egypt was undergoing a tumultuous process of decolonization with a number of military and nationalistic dictatorial leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood served as a socio-political force for justice and equality. They strengthened Egypt’s Muslim communities by rebuilding Muslim life at the political, economic, and cultural levels. In many poor areas, they gained popularity by building schools, factories, and hospitals. Guided by Islamic principles, they became active in trade unions and armed forces. Still, many teachers, skilled workers, merchants, lawyers doctors, and industrial workers formed the base of the Muslim Brotherhood, calling it a “state within a state.”
Now, as popularly elected leaders, President Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood face another crisis. Along with acknowledging that they are no longer a “state within a state,” they must also avoid becoming “the State.” If Egypt is to finally transition itself into a free and democratic system, liberal, secular and Christian groups and their views will have to be fairly represented and respected, even protected. At issue is Egypt’s new constitutional draft, which opposition groups claim is biased and emphasizes Islamic laws. Some want a more modern and secular constitution that would allow a stricter separation of mosque and state, along with granting more rights to workers and women.
However, a number of Islamic political groups and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood are expecting a constitution that promotes Muslim clerics as the arbiters for many civil rights. They are also seeking protection from secular and illiberal forces that they believe will undermine their religious principles and demean the exemplary behavior of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of this, demonstrations have again filled the streets of Egypt. Clashes have occurred between secularists, New Islamists, Christians, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The military has been used to quell riots, issuing a statement saying the path to dialogue was the best and only way to avoid violence and achieve unity.
In the past, the Muslim Brotherhood supported popular revolts and helped end imperial rule. But each new secular and modern reformer turned on their religious ally, fearing threats to their leadership. Reprisals made by prior regimes, such as President Hosni Murbarak’s, created wholly separate justice systems in order to silence all opposition, even punishing, torturing, and killing anyone who was perceived as a threat. Such actions will have to be avoided. Neither can militarism alongside impoverished masses coexist. Despite billions of dollars in economic and military aid, leaders failed to promote significant economic development and ruled with an increasingly dictatorial hand.
Dissenting groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, were driven underground. Their leaders were imprisoned and assassinated. Suspending constitutional rights, limiting freedom of expression and assembly, giving government the right to imprison people indefinitely, extending police powers, and legalizing censorship, merely led to more strikes and armed rebellions. At the same time, a corrupt market economy, forcibly imposed and that caused enormous poverty, gave rise to both moderate and militant Islamic factions. Disagreements over traditional and spiritual Islam or liberal and secular paths emerged.
To assure that one heavy-handed regime does not replace another, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will have to ensure that a more representative and justice-oriented society be allowed. They will have to recall how many sought their assistance and leadership, mainly for their charitable works and social actions, designed to improve schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and factories. All parties will have to avoid the “politics of retaliation and revenge” and instead, embrace the “politics of reconciliation and reality.” The reality being, that is, that in order for a democratic Egypt to succeed no one group should act as a “state within a state,” nor should it behave as “the State.”
Islam in Egypt has inspired many changes in political, religious, and secular traditions. Many still believe Islam and Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi can create a more just and equitable social order. But given Egypt’s diverse religions traditions and its many cultural norms, it will have to allow a more pluralistic society with a pluralistic constitution, something many Western powers have yet to accomplished. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood can help achieve this if it remembers its own arduous journey, recall its own history of social compassion and justice, and recognize that when diverse groups maintain their special interests the entire nation benefits.
Simultaneously, when human rights are respected, when the lives of impoverished masses are improved, and when a one-party dictatorship (whether it favors westernized elites or Islamic clerics) is avoided, a peaceful and equitable society can emerge. Pluralistic constitutions always realize that moral virtue lies between two extremes, that what is right for one is right for all, that every human being has unconditional value, and that justice has no favorites. If Egypt can achieve this, it will avoid the sectarian violence that has plagued other nations-like Iraq and Afghanistan. It has the potential of becoming a new ethical and pluralistic paradigm, modeled on both religious and ethical principles.
A “state within a state” can never effectively govern, but popularly elected leaders that represent everyone fairly and reasonably can.