The stakes in Egypt: far more than local politics

10 - Sep - 2013

Upheaval in Egypt:

Egypt is going through a series of convulsions as a divided people fight for the kind of future they want for their society.  In the process, those who wanted an Islamic State with particular characteristics and the rule of their own understanding of Shari'a law, are confronting not only non-Muslims, but also a broad range of groups, parties and organizations representing leftists, minorities, liberals, women and secularists. 

The seemingly surging tide of political Islam has been blocked by nationalist sentiment, liberal concerns, Christian fears, and a broad consensus that resented the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to consolidate all power in its own hands, not even sharing that power with other Islamist parties like the Salafis.  Even with ample warning of the vast currents arrayed against it, the Muslim Brotherhood, refused to compromise. 

Their candidate, Dr. Mohamed Morsi, now sat as Egypt’s first ever elected civilian president, and the constitution they drafted over the objections of non-Islamists, was ratified in a referendum held within 15 days of releasing the text.  The alienation of all these diverse factions continued.  Tens of millions of Egyptians signed petitions demanding a new presidential election, and these tens of millions took to the streets on the 30th of June 2013.  

The Army joined the enormous popular outpouring opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, deposed the President, and supported an interim government of technocrats to oversee the redrafting of the constitution.  The head of the Supreme Constitutional Court was called on to serve as interim President, and a “roadmap” was approved for a return to democratic elections.  But emotions ran high, and violence ensued.  Violence begets more violence, and the tense situation could go into a spiral leading to an autocratic regime if the main actors do not manage to stem the confrontation and follow it up with a necessary national reconciliation.  So which way will Egypt go?

I submit that this is a question that transcends local political concerns and is really a matter of global import.  Here’s why.

Egypt, The Arabs, The Muslims and The World:

As the world goes through these early years of the 21st century, it is clear that there is an important estrangement between the West generally and the Muslim World, with all the caveats that the use of such broad all-encompassing terms as “The West” and “The Muslim World”.  But as shorthand for a common thread or element in a variety of conflicts going from social tensions to outright war, the confrontation is indicative of a profound sense of malaise among most Muslims and a shared sense of unease among many westerners about the “other”. 

Finding ways of building better relationships between the various parties would undoubtedly be helped considerably by the development of effective pluralistic democracies in the majority Muslim countries of the world.

For a variety of historical reasons, the Arab world with its 350 million people has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate weight in the world of adherents to the religion of Islam, who number some 1.4 billion souls.  That is partly due to the language of the Quran, the origins of the prophet, the presence of the holy sites of Islam, and the long tradition of religious scholarship that made the majority of scholars of Islam, whatever their ethnic origin, read and write in Arabic.  

Again for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, Egypt with its 85 million people has a disproportionate influence on the Arab World. So what happens in Egypt is very likely to have a large impact on what happens in the Arab World and then again in the whole Muslim World.

An Egypt that is pluralistic and democratic would have major influence, and so would an Egypt that became a Sunni version of Iran, and so would an Egypt that returned to an autocratic system of rule.

Alternative Visions vying for the future of the Muslim World:  

Despite the presence of a formal structure, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) , which groups under its umbrella 57 Muslim Countries, there are vast differences within that membership:  from tiny countries that can be very rich or very poor (Qatar and Comoros) to relatively large countries that can be rich and dynamic (Turkey) or very poor (Bangladesh).  Clearly they each have different priorities and interests, but they share a certain common sense of identity, and within that diverse group, the equally diverse group of Arab countries have an even stronger bond due to a common language and largely common history.

A number of countries vie to have greater influence and play a leadership role within this group of countries.  There are three such major players on the scene today.  

Saudi Arabia which is the host to the OIC secretariat and an active founder, and as the place from which Islam emerged and where Mecca and Madina are located is a natural…  But its conservative Wahabi outlook is not to the liking of all.

Iran has had an exceptionally charismatic leadership in Khamenei, but the reach of that leadership, though large, has been constrained.  This is because Iran is Shi'a and non-Arab, which has somewhat limited the impact of the Islamic Republic’s leadership in the Arab World, as Farsi sermons need to be translated into Arabic to be of impact on the Arab Muslims, and of course because Iran is predominantly Shia it further limits its impact on the mainly Sunni Arabs as well as much of the rest of the Muslim world which is predominantly Sunni.
Turkey has a new modernist and dynamic leader who gained much influence in the Arab and Muslim world, especially since Turkey, a Sunni nation, was successful economically and in terms of modernism, as well as having had a historic background of having been the home of the Ottoman Empire, the last great Empire of Islam with Istanbul as the seat of the last Khalifa.   But again, modern Turkish is not Arabic and does not even use the same alphabet like Ottoman Turkish did.   The pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli declarations of Mr Erdogan have earned Turkey’s PM a special respect in many parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Each of these three countries presents a different vision of what a contemporary Muslim Country could look like.  The entry of a stabilized post-revolutionary Egypt on that scene, with the standing of Al-Azhar and its formidable arsenal of intellectual Islamic scholarship, would make it an immediate contestant for a leadership role.

Other Arab countries are not apt to carry the same weight.  Iraq has its own internal problems. Algeria is still convalescing from the aftermath of its protracted civil war between Islamists and the secular State. Other countries are too small to have the same heft, no matter how well they may perform.  Thus countries like Qatar and Jordan cannot lead the Arab World displacing such players like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  After all, no one would expect that Luxembourg or Switzerland could lead Europe, even if they aspired to it.   But on the global scale, potentially large actors like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia may well vie with Turkey and Iran for a role in the years ahead.  But that is a discussion for another day.


So the entry of Egypt into the fray will have a major impact on how the likely scenarios for the Muslim world play out.  

An Egypt that withdraws into itself and lets others lead with new initiatives is one possible scenario, especially if we do not transcend the current confrontational stage and we enter a situation of “low intensity conflict” that will keep the country inward-looking and lacking in self-confidence.  But a resurgent Egypt, confident in the path it has chosen, will have a very large influence indeed.  

Enormous differences will always exist between and within societies in the Muslim majority countries, and all of this may have little meaning for many millions of Muslims in many parts of the world, whether they are living as minorities in other societies or as part of a majority in a Muslim majority country, and they will simply go about their business trying to eke out a decent living for themselves and to secure a better future for their children, even as all these political currents swirl around them. But people live within the boundaries of a sovereign State and under a set of laws and regulations enforced by a government.  Which vision guides the State, and how laws are drafted and what these laws are, and how the government that will enforce them is selected and empowered and checked will affect the lives of one and all.



(1) The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) (formerly Organization of the Islamic Conference) is the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations which has membership of 57 States spread over four continents. The Organization is the collective voice of the Muslim world and ensuring to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world. The Organization was established at a summit in Morocco in 1969.

News Letter