In mediaeval Europe, the clash between the Church and the Enlightenment was one between the religious establishment and the new ideas and perceptions espoused by philosophers and theologians. The conflict only assumed a broader societal form with the elimination of the Church from the political realm and the gradual assimilation by society of Enlightenment thought. This evolution prepared the ground for the major revolutions of the 18th century that ushered in new systems of government. I speak here of the French and American revolutions, among the chief achievements of which was that they instituted political reforms that gave prevalence to such values as freedom and liberty and enshrined these principles — and guarantees for these principles — in their constitutions.
Comparing this to Arab societies, and the Egyptian case in particular, over the past two centuries, we find that reform came from the top. This applied from the era of Mohamed Ali in the first half of the 19th century through the Nasserist era in the 20th century, with some exceptions in the liberal era in which the soil was prepared for reform by an elite that had the positive effect on society of fostering the growth of an educated class that espoused modernist and democratic ideas.
In tandem with the political and social reform movement, the phenomenon of political Islam arose with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. Although his ideas conflicted with contemporary thought, he succeeded in building a social base using the religious factor, which easily served to recruit new classes into his ranks and to keep them in line. The Muslim Brotherhood, thus, applied a top-down attitude towards society that was essentially an extension of its internal line-of-command structure in which inviolable and unquestionable instructions radiate downward through the echelons of a rigid hierarchy, as in any authoritarian order. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why this organisation would never be able to generate an ideological system along the lines of that bequeathed by the Enlightenment, even though the ideas and values of the Enlightenment — such as freedom, justice, equality and tolerance — emanate from the very essence of Islam. It is also one of the factors that would lead this organisation to up the stakes in its contest with political authorities over a single aim, which was to come to power and gain hegemony over society at large. It is therefore not surprising that during its more than 80-year history the Muslim Brotherhood would lock horns in a fierce battle with a succession of heads-of-state, even as it continued to extend its presence among society drawing on a shared hatred for the regime and the Egyptians’ general vulnerability to religious exploitation.
However, after the 25 January Revolution toppled the conventional ruling authority by means of a peaceful uprising, the Islamists succeeded in attaining the power that had remained inaccessible to them due to the former regime’s monopoly over it. Yet, in view of their ideological and organisational makeup, it was not odd that, even though they came to power through a fair democratic poll, they would turn out to be more authoritarian than the rulers that preceded them. This reality precipitated major transformation in the Egyptian revolution, effectively abbreviating the centuries it took in the Western experience to shift the conflict with religious authority — as represented by Muslim Brotherhood rule — from the intelligentsia to society at large. The Egyptian public did not elect the Muslim Brotherhood to reproduce an authoritarian regime, but rather to realise the aims and aspirations of a revolution that had broken many taboos.
This dramatic transformation began to play out on the ground following the constitutional declaration of November 2012. That dictatorial declaration alerted the people to the immanent danger of the rebirth of a tyrannical order in a religious cloak and they arose in massive numbers to protest Muslim Brotherhood autocracy. Over the following six months, tensions gradually heightened in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relentless intransigence until, finally, on 30 June, one year into the Mohamed Morsi presidency, unprecedented millions took to the streets and squares of Egypt to demand the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Indeed, a tangible sign of the extent to which modern democratic thought had spread among society was to be found in the petition drive that paved the way to that historic day and that had gathered more than 22 million signatures on a document declaring dissatisfaction with the current government and its Muslim Brotherhood masters. The 30 June movement culminated with the army intervention that brought president Morsi’s dismissal.
This transformation in the conflict on the ground is remarkable, if relatively late, for a traditional Arab society in which political and religious authoritarianism prevailed for more than 1,500 years. That society at large has taken up the struggle against the advocates of the ideas of radical Islamism without abandoning the strength of its religious faith as practiced in a modern way, reflecting contemporary ideas and values, will remain the most significant development in the Egyptian revolution.
In the past, Egypt saw the fall of a political order when Mameluk rule passed to Mohamed Ali. It experienced another transformation, from within the Mohamed Ali dynasty itself, following the 1919 Revolution that created a constitutional monarchy that presided over a rich period of liberal rule. Then came the order established by the Free Officers movement following the June 1952 Revolution. What is new today is that society itself is waging a revolution against traditional ideas and values which may be a basic reason for the gulf between us and other societies that created a renaissance for their peoples, a renaissance that did not eliminate the faiths of their peoples and, in fact, increased respect for these faiths.
The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.