Islamists, elections and the constitution
The Muslim Brotherhood wants to rush the elections to get a constitutional order tailored to their religious absolutism, not the character of the people's revolution, writes Azmi Ashour*
Many are deeply disturbed by the polarisation between the proponents of producing a constitution before parliamentary elections are held and the advocates of parliamentary elections first. To heighten the anxieties, the polarisation has acquired a pronounced sectarian dimension, as one of the poles has become a rallying point for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that parade beneath religious banners.
As dangerous as this situation is, it has not been without some benefit. Above all, it compels each camp to justify their actions and positions to public opinion. Yet despite the many revealing arguments and expressions that both sides have issued in the course of heated exchanges, the notion that a constitution produced prior to parliamentary elections would lack legitimacy has a special ring. This is not so much because this is the essence of one of the Muslim Brotherhood's slogans as it is because it was an argument favoured by the priests of the former regime who cited it as a pretext for suppressing civic life and entrenching the regime's dictatorship. One still recalls how frequently they appealed to it in that brief period between the beginning of the revolution and the ouster of Mubarak, and the way the concept of "legitimacy" was distorted to promote the perpetuation of the authoritarian powers of the regime as opposed to the prevalence of the rule of law.
The metamorphosis of a political controversy into a dispute with religious overtones underscores a trait in the Islamist camp that may not previously have been as obvious, which is that when they are unable to counter a political adversary's position by rational argument they turn the question into a religious issue. They deployed this tactic in full force during the run-up to the referendum on the constitutional amendments in March, when they lashed out at "constitution first" advocates not only as opponents of "legitimacy" but as "secularists", a term that they have maliciously construed as synonymous with anti-religious.
It was to be expected that these Islamist forces would apply the same approach that the former regime applied to its opponents, with the added ploy of branding those who differ with them as heretics. After all, they are an indirect by-product of the despotism of that regime, which cast them as its enemy and used the fight against them as a means to sustain its legitimacy and perpetuate its corruptive hold on society. They are thus a reaction to the dictatorial repression and violence exercised against them by the former regime, rather than the product of a natural birth and evolution of political forces in society. This phenomenon helps account for much of their behaviour since the revolution.
The Egyptian revolution was a middle class revolution that fused this segment of the population along with others behind a national cause and that made no use whatsoever of the Islamists' customary rubric. Islamist forces were more caught off guard than the regime. Suddenly they found themselves having to scramble aboard a movement that had begun without them and in which they were now no more than part of a whole, as opposed to the whole and the be- all and end-all of movement in the street, which is how they regarded themselves until this point. It is little wonder, therefore, why they seized the first opportunity to move to the offensive and begin to malign any political gathering or action that took place independently of them, as occurred on the second "Friday of Anger" demonstration, which still succeeded in rallying a million in spite of the Islamists' insinuations and slurs.
It also helps explain why, after Mubarak's removal from power, these groups quickly reverted to form and deviated from the revolution's causes, which was perhaps only natural since they had not initially been part of the revolution. They thus reverted to consolidating and building up their bases of support on the basis of their own ideological and organisational legacies. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood at least, this came as a blow to the youth who, in their outlooks and attitudes, are closer to the youth of revolution than to the Muslim Brotherhood old guard that, since the revolution, has been more determined than ever to retain its iron grip over the organisation.
As the foregoing suggests, these rigid ideological groups are proving incapable of adapting to a mode of thought and behaviour outside the framework of an opposition given to hurling religious accusations against those that differ with them in opinion. Virtually, every interview and statement issued by their officials, inclusive of the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide, confirms that they operate on the premise that they possess a monopoly on the absolute truth on matters of religion. The Muslim faith is what the Islamists say it is and anyone who has another idea on the subject is simply wrong. The tool has been relatively successful in mobilising large swathes of a deeply religious society that is reluctant to challenge the sanctified heights that the Islamists have claimed for themselves and that they are turning towards their own political ends.
Ironically, such behaviour works to underscore the true nature of the revolution before the opportunists pounced. The fall of the previous regime brought benefits to many, not least among who are the Islamists. Prime among them are the Salafis and others like them who had not even taken part in the revolution but who now have the opportunity to establish their existence. This, of course, is their right, but on the condition that this occurs within the framework of a constitution that guarantees the right of all bodies of opinion to express themselves with equal freedom. Ultimately, a constitution that enshrines such rights and guarantees for all must prevail over all ideological and political camps and serve as the final arbitrator between them.
This brings us back to the question of the basis of legitimacy in this phase. Is it the 25 January Revolution or the 19 March referendum?
Surely it cannot be the latter, the effect of which was merely to amend a few articles of a constitution that collapsed with the demise of the former regime. By contrast, the legitimacy of the revolution is grounded in the fact that it was the revolution that brought down that regime and its constitution. This is what the Egyptian people rejoiced at and it was in this spirit and on this basis that they approached the referendum. It was the impetus of the legitimacy of the revolution, not the referendum on a handful of constitutional articles, which enabled the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to assume the reins of power, that created the Essam Sharaf government, and that hastened the trials of the pillars of the former regime. This, therefore, is the legitimacy that will continue until the creation of an institutional and legal framework for the Egyptian revolution.
It follows that the attempt to circumvent this legitimacy, as the Muslim Brotherhood is doing now, and to focus on the exception -- the referendum -- as though it were the central issue, is a flagrant injustice and a departure from the true nature of the (as yet) incomplete Egyptian revolution. To reduce the revolution now to the question of parliamentary elections is absurd. Parliamentary elections were held in 2010 and the Muslim Brothers fielded themselves in large numbers. However, as a result of electoral fraud or because the government failed to fulfil its side of the bargain with the Muslim Brotherhood, none of their candidates succeeded in the first round, so they withdrew from the second round. Nor is this a matter of presidential elections. We had direct multi-candidate elections in 2005, even if the former president did not subsequently follow through on his promises of political reform. No, the true heart of the matter is whether we can build a proper constitutional and institutional framework for the Egyptian state in the form of a set of governing rules, laws and principles that will apply to all without discrimination and which allows for no exceptions, whether on the grounds of some claim to moral superiority or some vague notion of a breach of legitimacy. This is the real challenge that lies ahead and it should take priority.
As for the ferocious struggle on the part of political forces that have assumed religious names and ideologies to obtain the largest piece of the post-revolutionary cake, I can see nothing to justify it. What are they afraid of? It is not as though a democratic Egypt would be against them. They have lived for decades under a dictatorial regime that sought to suppress them. Surely they can only stand to gain under a democratic order that recognises the existence of all shades of opinion and that is built upon principles of mutual respect and a constructive interaction between all the diverse forces in society. There can be only one explanation for their resistance. They want a democracy exclusively tailored to them and to their religious absolutism which conflicts with constitutional values that safeguard pluralism and the right to differ. This is why they are in such a rush. They want to secure power and control in order to pre-empt the creation of a constitutional and legal edifice that will belie their presumption of superiority that rests solely on the Islamic gilding they apply to their speeches and policies, the substance of which have nothing to do with the true essence and spirit of Islam.
Clearly, therefore, civil forces have some cause for alarm, all the more so given that the current state of polarisation has proven that they carry no insignificant weight in Egyptian society, in spite of the strident voices and attention-grabbing appearance of pseudo-Muslim pietists.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.