Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old One
The new president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, all of a sudden seems only marginally different from his predecessor. At least that is the impression one gets from how he has so far reacted to growing opposition to his rule.
The problem is of course that religious leadership is in many ways not compatible with a modern democratic State (we will leave the desirability of a State as such aside for now; as far as we see it personally, this pre-civilizational anachronism of the age of violent conquest belongs in the dustbin of history). It will tend to be more coercive than a secular government would be, possibly far more so. It cannot live without censorship or without forcing non-believers to accept norms and diktats that they oppose. Eventually, it won't tolerate competition – and then one is back at square one, as it will have become a fully autocratic government.
It didn't take long for Egypt's new president – who was initially feared to be 'too weak to stand up to the remnants of the old order', chiefly the powerful military – to show his autocratic tendencies. To be sure, there are quite a few remnants of the old order still in exalted positions of authority in Egypt, unavoidably so. However, it is easily overlooked that nothing is easier adapted to the purposes of a new ruling caste than an already existing apparatus of oppression. The policemen and soldiers that have enforced Mubarak's rule care little who pays their wages. And so the recent 'bloodiest night since the revolution' had this to offer:
“Last Wednesday, supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi fought running battles in front of the presidential palace in Cairo's upscale district of Heliopolis. Both sides were extremely violent, beating each other with baseball bats, firing guns and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. Eight people died. The Muslim Brotherhood said all the dead were from their ranks, but that's probably not entirely true. There is no reliable information, however.
Some 140 people, among them women and minors, were "arrested" — not by the police, but by the Islamists. "That is an incredible occurrence," says human rights lawyer Ragya Omran, who was at the scene. "They have no right whatsoever to do that."
An investigating committee set up by the Justice Ministry issued a statement saying that on this night, the bloodiest since the revolution almost two years ago, 31 people were tortured. Human rights lawyer Ragya Oman insists the total is higher than that. "116 people were badly mistreated," she says.”
"The Interior Ministry did nothing to protect the citizens from the brutality and vigilante justice of the Islamists," Omran says. Garhi, the journalist, also says he was shocked by the cooperation between the Islamists and the police. "They didn't just tolerate the abuse, they also supported them by covering up their torture chambers." A spokesman for the Morsi government has since told The New York Times that there will be an investigation into the incidents.
Since that night, there has been intensified debate on whether the Brotherhood has a militia — thugs who train in so-called sports clubs. The Muslim Brotherhood disputes that the brutal interrogations were organized in any form.”
This is the same interior ministry that previously regularly came down like a ton of bricks on the very Islamists whose bidding it is now doing. It is noteworthy that the new president in no way attempted to distance himself from these events. In fact, it appears as though he is the Brotherhood's man through and through, and not the moderate he was once portrayed as:
“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on Thursday night. But instead of striking a conciliatory tone aimed at calming the tense situation in his country, he continued to toe the Muslim Brotherhood line. More violence is almost sure to be the result, and Morsi himself shoulders the blame.
There wasn't a hint of real concessions to the opposition. Even the BBC abruptly shut off its live broadcast of the speech after seven minutes because it offered nothing new.
Morsi made no overtures to his opponents, instead repeating that he would not budge from the decrees he issued at the end of November, granting him broad authority and removing checks on his powers from the judiciary. He even said that he would stick to the December 15 date for the referendum on the hastily composed Islamist constitution.
Given such a hard-line approach, Morsi's empty calls for national dialogue are farcical. He invited opposition leaders to meet him at the presidential palace on Saturday at 12:30 p.m., but was rebuffed. The opposition does not believe Morsi is prepared to make any concessions, and called for more demonstrations instead.
Morsi's short reign continues to polarize the nation. During his television appearance, he blamed the opposition for the Wednesday night orgy of violence which erupted on the streets outside his presidential palace, the bloodiest clash in the country since the fall of Mubarak in the spring of 2011. In reality, of course, both sides are to blame, with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood eagerly chasing their political opponents through streets of the upscale Heliopolis district for hours. They too abused those they managed to catch.
Still, Morsi sought to blame prominent opposition leaders for the escalation and even referenced mysterious "foreign powers" — just like his despotic predecessor Mubarak.
The speech, however, did provide clarity on one point: Morsi remains intent on strictly following the course of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group wants to see their man, who won a narrow victory in summer elections, to put Egypt on the path to fundamentalist Islam. And the Muslim Brotherhood is in no mood for compromise. After more than 80 years in the political underground, Brotherhood leaders have decided to seize their chance.”
Here we see one of the big problems the Western world has created by supporting autocratic militaristic regimes in the Middle East for decades: as all legitimate political opposition to these rulers was brutally suppressed, the only organized opposition that was capable of forming did so under the cover of religion. To be sure, religious organizations were oppressed as well, but they could not be completely uprooted, as the regimes strove to avoid an open confrontation with Islam. In some countries like Saudi Arabia the ruling elite even made permanent arrangements with the clerical hierarchy.
So now it seems the choice is between one type of autocratic regime or another: either a nationalistic-militaristic one, or an Islamist one. Of course these dynamics should have been crystal clear ever since the Iranian revolution. After the CIA had helped with the violent deposition of the elected Mossadegh government in the 1950s, paving the way for the Shah, a charming well educated torturer and reportedly one of the world's biggest heroin smugglers to boot (he allegedly often carried a ton or two of the stuff around on his plane), Iran and the world got Khomeini and his fellow clerics in the end. Anyone with even a smattering of understanding of Iran's history should have seen that coming actually. The revered jurisprudents of the Shi'ite faith based in Iran have held great political power for centuries, whether or not they exercised it openly. They only had to bide their time.
As an aside to all this, an argument can be made that it is not necessarily a bad thing if one's political elite is composed of religious people. Belief in the existence of a higher authority on the part of an earthly ruler can be quite beneficial if it helps avert excesses like e.g. those seen under god-less dictators like Stalin and Mao. However, this is not the same as saying that the government should be run as though it were an arm of the church.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all based on the same source material and yet seem to have very little love for each other. They also exhibit starkly different rates of modernization. This is not meant to be a slight, it is a statement of fact. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of other countries where Islam is politically powerful, adulterers still run a very real risk of getting stoned to death, to name an example. A number of very cruel medieval forms of punishment are meted out, in stark disproportion to the severity of the crimes they are meant to punish (such as cutting off the hands of thieves). In secular democratic societies, neither adultery nor homosexuality are regarded as punishable crimes, but the shariah actually demands the death penalty for them. As recently as May of 2012, four men were sentenced to death by hanging by Iran's supreme court for 'sodomy'.
In view of recent events in Egypt, one must therefore greatly sympathize with all of the country's citizens that would like to finally arrive in the 21st century. Unfortunately for them, the timing of the revolution was not ideal. It happened in the middle of a global social mood downturn and one of the things that have been observed during such periods is that magical thinking, superstition and religion tend to be in the ascendancy relative to scientific thought and secularism. Of course it remains to be seen how things develop from here on out in Egypt; these events are not set in stone. It strikes us as quite important though, as the country could well be setting the trend for the entire region. After all, Syria too is on the verge of seeing its secular dictator fall – and his putative successors are highly likely to be of an Islamist bent as well.
Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi: The Muslim Brotherhood's standard bearer
(Photo via: dagelijksestandaard.nl )
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