Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—On the anniversary of the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Brookings Fellow Dr. Shadi Hamid, an analyst and author who specializes in political Islam and the Arab Spring.
Hamid gives his view on the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi—Egyptian interim president Adly Mansour was sworn in as his replacement one year ago today. Hamid talks about Mursi’s one year in office, the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations’ in the Middle East and what’s next for the now outlawed group.
Shadi Hamid is a fellow with the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center until January 2014. Prior to joining Brookings, Hamid was director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Hamid is currently vice-chair of POMED, a member of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Panel and a correspondent for The Atlantic.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East deals with the new wave of political Islam in the Middle East and the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Why did you choose to focus on this topic?
Shadi Hamid: I wrote Temptations of Power because I wanted to take a step back from day-to-day controversies and the headlines, the tweets and the Facebook comments, and try to understand how and why mainstream Islamist groups evolve over time, identifying a set of causal mechanisms.
I also wanted to take their ideas and ideology seriously, as something “honestly felt,” instead of seeing them as the modern-day equivalent of Christian Democrats, moving along some predetermined linear trajectory toward liberalism or whatever end goal we would like them to end up at. Islamists are Islamists for a reason—because they believe in something distinctive.
That distinctive something is, by definition, at least somewhat illiberal, and herein lies the tension between liberalism and democracy, something which I discuss at considerable length in the book. But I do believe Islamists have the “right” to be illiberal if that is, in fact, who they are and what they believe. We don’t have to like it but we do have to understand it.
Q: Tell us a little about your personal knowledge of some of the Islamist leaders? How do you judge some of those you met such as former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi?
This book was really 10 years in the making. I began researching Islamist movements when I was living in Amman [in Jordan] in 2004-5. Since then, I’ve tried to track the shifts in Islamist behavior during what turned out to be a very tumultuous period. I take seriously the notion that to truly understand Islamist movements you have to do something very simple: talk to them, get to know them and try, in the process, to understand their fears and aspirations.
I got to spend some time with Mohamed Mursi before he became a president. I, and probably he, would have never dreamed then that this man would become not only Egypt’s first democratically elected president, but also one of the most polarizing figures in the country’s history.
Mursi was a Brotherhood loyalist, an enforcer. He was not a visionary or a strategic thinker, by any means. He also tended to be dismissive of the liberal opposition, who he saw as fundamentally detached from the Egyptian public mood. This could have been tolerable in a head of a political party—knot a head of state.
Q: What are the main differences between the Islamists in Egypt and those in Tunisia?
What Tunisia has that others in the region do not, are strong, vibrant&8212;and unabashedly secular—civil society organizations, media outlets and opposition parties. Even the most mild, symbolic sort of “Islamization” will face considerable resistance at every turn.
The country’s “founding father” Habib Bourguiba was not only an autocrat, but an autocrat strongly influenced by the French tradition of Laïcité, the notion that religion should be entirely separate from politics. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon model, which allows ample space for expression of religion as long as the separation of church and state is respected.
This cultural re-rendering of Tunisian society, taking place over decades, cannot be ignored or reversed, as many in Ennahda seem to recognize. For example, Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status is one of the most progressive in the region and enjoys broad public support. Ennahda members eventually made their peace with the personal status code, not because they wanted to necessarily, but because they had to.
In short, while Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are from the same school of thought, they have evolved quite differently due to the particularities of their local context. Another difference worth mentioning here is the role of Ennahda’s historic leader and founder Rachid Ghannouchi in forging Ennahda’s identity and keeping the sometimes disparate parts of the organization together under the same umbrella.
The Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan Al-Banna being the exception, has lacked charismatic leaders and intellectuals. In Egypt, the institutionalized and even in a sense overwhelming nature of the organization, or tanzim, very much supersedes individual personalities, making them less relevant in the evolution of the group over time.
Q: Why did Islamic rule fail in Egypt?
First of all, I don’t think we can really say that there was “Islamic rule” in Egypt. There was very little in the way of actual government-directed Islamization during Mursi’s one year in power. The Brotherhood remained the calculating gradualists that they had always been—they just happened to make the wrong calculations. Despite considerable legislative and executive powers, Mursi and the Brotherhood passed almost no “Islamic” legislation, with the exception of a law on sukuk, or Islamic bonds.
I think it’s important not to conflate the growing opposition to the Brotherhood with opposition to “Islamism” as such. If one looks at the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement’s justifications for seeking Mursi’s overthrow, for example, none of them had to do with the group’s religious conservatism. First, on the mass level, there was a basic frustration with the Mursi government’s failure to address the country’s economic woes and ensure stability. Second, for the country’s liberal elites, however, it went well beyond this, and this is where recognizing the fundamental ideological divides at the heart of Arab politics becomes critical. They feared the Brotherhood not only for what it had done, but for what it might do in the future.
And this is why the Brotherhood or even milder Islamists like Ennahda will always arouse fevered opposition, regardless of what they actually say or do. The fears might be speculative—and this itself is problematic—but they are also grounded in a reality of ideological difference.
Islamists and non-Islamists do, in fact, have different visions for their societies, and that includes foundational—almost metaphysical—issues about the meaning, nature and purpose of the nation-state. And then there are the more obvious reasons.
Any democratically elected president, Islamist or otherwise, was going to have to a deal with an almost impossibly complex array of problems, which had been building up, really, over decades. This is, in part, why revolutions are inherently destabilizing; they unleash popular expectations—expectations that, in the real world of politics, simply weren’t going to be met. This was why many warned the Brotherhood against running a presidential candidate—one of the group’s original sins—but for a number of reasons they were pushed in that direction.
Q: Why didn’t the same thing happen to Tunisia’s Islamists?
Ennahda leaders had a number of things going for them: first, they didn’t have strong Salafist parties aggressively injecting religion into every political debate and dragging them further to the right.
Second, the second largest party, after the first elections, was a secular party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR).
Third, Tunisia also, importantly, lacks a history of military intervention in politics. [Former President Zine El-Abidine] Ben Ali saw the army as potential competition and kept it at a distance. Tunisia’s transition period was fundamentally different—the old regime was less front and center, and Tunisians could start anew to a greater degree than in Egypt, designing new transitional institutions that enjoyed broad legitimacy across ideological lines.
Lastly, Tunisia’s Islamists had the benefit of hindsight. They saw what had happened in Egypt in July 2013. They were afraid and paranoid, but instead of lashing out and trying to monopolize power (which would have almost certainly failed) they erred on the side of caution and restraint. They wanted to live to fight another day. So, they backed down during the confrontation with the secular opposition over the summer.
Q: Do you agree with the notion that Islamists, generally speaking, don’t believe in democracy? And that once they reach power through democratic means they will seek to dismantle it?
I understand where this fear comes from, but it’s a fear that’s purely speculative in nature. There is no recorded instance in history of “one-person, one-vote, one-time”—of Islamists coming to power through democratic elections only to abrogate the democratic process. Most Islamist movements in the Arab world, as well as South and Southeast Asia, have participated in and respected the democratic process.
As I discuss in the book, some of the most internally democratic organizations in the Middle East are Islamist parties, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) being a notable example. Now, one might say that a scenario of “one-vote, one-time” might happen in the future. As an analyst, I can’t disprove something that has not actually happened yet. What I would say is that we have to be careful not to make definitive statements about the character of a rather diverse movement based on something that may or may not happen in the future. If anything, looking at the historical record, Islamists have a better record of respecting the democratic process than secularists or liberals do, so it seems odd that we would focus so much on the democratic commitments of one but not the other.
That said, we have to make a distinction between “liberal democracy” and “democracy.”
Mainstream Islamist groups like Ennahda or the Brotherhood may be committed to the democratic process, but that does not mean they’re liberals or are going to become liberals anytime soon. Islamists are Islamists for a reason, after all. So it’s fair to say that many Islamists would like to use the democratic process for illiberal ends, but that’s not the same thing as saying they don’t believe in democracy.
Q: You wrote that Islamists are convinced “that the US and other Western powers simply would not allow them to win.” Is that true?
It’s true that Islamists have generally believed that and held on to it as an article of faith. This draws, first and foremost, from the Algerian experience, where democratically elected Islamists were on the verge of coming to power, only to see various Western powers either tacitly or directly supporting the military coup. I think there was an opportunity with the Arab Spring to move beyond that and, to its credit, the administration of US President Barack Obama was willing to accept democratic outcomes in Egypt, even if they had concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: What about the Islamist governments of Sudan and Iran? How are they different from the experiences of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia?
When the Brotherhood in Egypt came to power, a lot of people raised the specter of Iranian-style theocracy. The comparisons with Iran, Sudan or Afghanistan, though, are a bit misleading. Iran’s Islamists came to power through revolution, not democratic elections. The path of reaching power is a key determinant of Islamist behavior once in power. Revolutions, by their very nature, are supposed to be radical and radicalizing, and that helps to explain the uncompromising nature of Iran’s Islamists, at least in the early years of post-revolutionary Iran.
But this is also why the Brotherhood and Ennahda had so few “models” upon which to draw. The examples of Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan weren’t quite applicable to their own experience. This also helps explain why Islamists after the Arab Spring were less prepared than they perhaps should have been. A lot of this was new terrain and, to a large extent, Islamists were learning on the fly, without a clear vision of what they actually wanted and what they hoped to accomplish in both the short and medium term.