Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Egypt Risks the Fire of Radicalism

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Egypt Risks the Fire of Radicalism

Article excerpt

Bringing down President Morsi would have repercussions far beyond Egypt.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. I oppose their politicization of my religion. I take comfort in the fact that millions of Egyptian Muslims are protesting against the ideology and policies of a government led by a Muslim Brotherhood president. Islamism is being roundly rejected by ordinary Arab Muslims. That's the good news. But there is bad news, too.

My Egyptian friends may not wish to admit this, but their country is home to a modern experiment. It was Egypt in 1928 that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was successive Egyptian military rulers who arrested, tortured, killed and exiled thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was in the prisons of Egypt that contemporary jihadism was born as Sayyid Qutb was hanged in 1966 for criticizing Egyptian society and its government.

Out of that violent history, the Brotherhood reformed and came to accept the ballot box, abandoned the use of bullets to assassinate politicians. They may not be Jeffersonian democrats, but they now believe in consensual government. For all their faults, they contested and won the presidency in June 2012. Mohamed Morsi has been an experiment to see if Islamism can exist within a secular framework. This is bigger than Egypt: What happens here will affect the direction of Islamist groups everywhere.

Granted, Morsi has not been as successful as hoped. His presidency has seen the rise of Salafist radicalism, attacks on religious minorities, power grabs in the absence of parliamentary scrutiny, fuel shortages, breakdown in law and order, flight of capital and investment, sharp declines in tourism and ongoing mass protests. He is surrounded by arrogant advisers who see governing Egypt as their entitlement, their reward for having been imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak.

The anger of the millions of protestors is understandable. But emotions are not a strategy for government. If Morsi is toppled, who replaces him?

There is no credible alternative political leader. The opposition has not done the hard work of mobilizing, uniting and producing leadership. Returning to military rule may seem like an attractive option to many secularists who prefer dictatorship to an Islamist democracy, but they forget that Egypt is undergoing an experiment in reconciling political Islam with modern government.

The Muslim Brotherhood's campaign of mass counterdemonstrations to save Morsi's presidency has focused on the slogan "supporting legitimacy." And Morsi himself has stressed that there is "no alternative to legitimacy." The message is that Morsi is a legitimately elected president and to overthrow him without elections is illegitimate. Not only is this politically dangerous, it is religious dynamite.

Various Salafist clerics have vowed to support Morsi's government. On one level, this is promising: hard-line religious players supporting a secular presidency. But if their man falls, they will see his successor as "illegitimate" and will resort to violence and be in open warfare with Morsi's military (or interim civilian) successors. Morsi himself has vowed to die to preserve this "legitimacy." We cannot take this lightly.

Renewed violence by Islamists who feel shortchanged by democracy and secularism is a real prospect if Morsi is humiliated. …

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