With any major event, an intellectual must review their information and perceptions, yet they do not necessarily have to change their outlook unless there are objective reasons to do so. In the Arab world, considerable and long overdue debates have arisen across the entire scene, whether in terms of depicting, interpreting, analyzing or envisioning the future.
In this context, it is natural, or even healthy, to witness an ongoing debate about the rise of political Islamist groups to power in a number of Arab states via the ballot box. Here it is beneficial to incorporate multiple perspectives and approaches to analyze a phenomenon of such size and complexity. Comparisons must be drawn and attention must be paid to history, the current reality and the future, along with various political, economic and cultural challenges.
However, some Arab intellectuals, the majority of whom are commenting from outside the “Arab Spring” states, have opted to adhere to their own particular point of view whilst dismissing all others. For example, they believe that the rules of politics necessitate that they must be satisfied – without any form of criticism, questioning or analysis – by the Muslim Brotherhood acquiring the most votes in recent elections. By doing so, they are hiding behind the slogan of democracy, yet ignoring its very essence and its profound arguments both past and present. They are also ignoring the fact that the results achieved in the ballot boxes do not necessarily represent a transformation in mindset or outlook.
For the past year and a half, many symbols, elites and civil parties in Egypt have expressed varying degrees of concern regarding the Brotherhood’s rise to power. When the election results were announced, none of the aforementioned rejected President Mursi’s victory, but rather they continued to be wary of the Brotherhood and its political project and persisted with their criticism politically, by choosing to be in the opposition. However, this is something which some other Arab intellectuals failed to do, under the pretext that Mursi’s votes should nullify all historical, cultural and political criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last week, a revealing incident took place when President Mursi announced a decree to overrule the earlier decision to dissolve Egypt’s parliament issued by the constitutional court, the same court where the president acquired his constitutional legitimacy by taking his oath of office. Subsequently, Egypt was engulfed in a crisis that lasted for days when civil currents, liberals, nationalists, leftists and others championed the civil state option by adopting explicit and strong stances against the president’s decree. Several well-known names adopted such a stance including Sa’duddin Ibrahim, Hamdin Sabahi, Mohammed ElBaradei, Refaat el-Saeed, El-Sayyid el-Badawi and many others. Yet some Arab intellectuals failed to do so, and maintained their same old conviction that the ballot boxes must be obeyed.
A few days later, Mursi retracted his decision; having thrown a huge stone into the Egyptian political pool and watched the waves reverberate around him. Perhaps, this was simply a ploy to create a crisis and subsequently deal with it in order to reshape the Egyptian scene, and this could be a common strategy in the forthcoming period.
The principle of realism is not a naive submission to the accomplished facts, rather it is an attempt to understand the reality, analyze it and then identify the priorities and interests at stake. Domestically, realism prompted the Brotherhood’s opponents in both Egypt and Tunisia to confront the movement following its victory. Whilst regionally, the Gulf States – for example – confronted two Islamist models; the Shiite model in Iran, and the Brotherhood model in Sudan. The Gulf States did not cut off their diplomatic ties with either country, despite the fact that they lived a state of open confrontation with Iran, and a state of repulsion and attraction with Sudan. This puts paid to the idea that the only political option in such situations is comprehensive acceptance or diplomatic severance.
No two democratic experiences are the same, whether in the times of ancient Greece, or in the contemporary history of Europe and the West. Furthermore the experiences of the West are far different to those of the East. Hence, when some Arab intellectuals attempt to identify elements of similarity between the Arab voters level of electoral awareness compared to that of the West, this neglects the historical and cultural contexts of the respective nations.
The Western citizen has overcome many of his old group loyalties that are, at least politically, deemed to be backwards – i.e. sectarian, ethnic, ideological and tribal loyalties – whilst the Arab citizen still seems completely immersed in these. Although such loyalties continue to exist among some categories in the West today, Western awareness cannot be classified as backwards. Comparably, the voting results in our Arab world clearly demonstrate that such backward loyalties are deeply-rooted in our Arab consciousness.
We must by no means confuse the way in which supporters of a political party in the West cast their votes with the way in which Muslim Brotherhood affiliates act – the two situations are vastly different. The former case is deemed a political choice, whereas the latter is mere ideological dogmatism. The Brotherhood affiliates are under an oath of allegiance to the General Guide, to whom they are subordinate, and as a result, they go to the ballot boxes without free will. This is clear from the Muslim Brotherhood’s literature on the subject, so should intellectuals continue to champion such dogmatism, as long as it is carried out in democratic circumstances?
An intellectual would be doing a great disservice to history and to his peers if he viewed the Muslim Brotherhood purely from the perspective of the ballot box with no consideration for its history, awareness, culture or politics. The ballot box only gives us numbers, which everyone is then required to adhere to. Yet these numbers are worthless if they serve to abolish historical information, the freedom of thought and political institutions.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood never believed in democracy, although he used it as a tool to dominate power. He rejected political parties, and favored violence against those in his group who adopted a different viewpoint. He regularly used the stick to punish them, and this evolved into the establishment of a secret organization for assassinations and political killings. Then he exported his ideology and his group led a coup in Yemen. Today the “old guard” and members of the Brotherhood’s secret organization dominate the decision-making process within the group, having managed to expel most affiliates who adopted a different point of view. With this history and reality it is clear that this group, in its internal dealings, never believed in democracy. Yet, some intellectuals now seem convinced that it will abide by democracy in its leadership of the state.
The Muslim Brotherhood has consciously confined the concept of democracy to the ballot box, curbing the wider concept by placing restrictions on culture, intellect, art and creativity. Some Arab intellectuals have failed to realize that the Brotherhood’s interpretation of democracy is only designed to serve its political project, and that this has nothing to do with the true essence of democracy.
Any observer can recall numerous dubious acts committed by the Brotherhood’s newly-elected symbols, as well as their unelected guides, in both Tunisia and Egypt, yet some “Brotherhood liberals” prefer to completely turn a blind eye to this, believing that the only thing that matters is the ballot box and its results.