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Political Islam and the Arab Spring

Posted: Jan 05, 2013

Editors Note: The recent popular outcry in Egypt in response to President Morsi trying to usurp power was a test case for the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party. In reaction to the recent political protests in Egypt, one Arab- American commentator writes that It is not Islam that is being tested, it is the politics of a conservative religious party.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.--Is political Islam matching the aspirations of the Arab Spring? Egyptians may have a clear answer after living a few years under a Muslim Brotherhood administration. Early signs from Cairo are not encouraging.

President Morsi, representing the Brotherhood, won the post-uprising Egyptian presidential elections for three main factors: support of a relatively well organized grassroots movement, being a leader of a resilient opposition to a series of corrupt regimes and a promise to take a moderate approach to political Islam. It turns out that the Morsi model of governance is a disappointing mixture of hard line religious fundamentalism, pragmatic capitalism and survival politics. Cairo’s current model falls short of the Turkish approach to politics.

Last month Morsi promoted a Sharia-based constitution. This president, a former US engineering professor, came to power in the wake of an uprising which ousted President Mubarak. Regrettably, the new constitution will slow reform rather than accelerate it. A rushed national referendum approved the legal document.

Morsi’s lust for power is not subtle. Within weeks of assuming power he demanded extraordinary presidential privileges. Street demonstrations made him retract his demands within days. As a president Morsi has to learn to serve all of Egypt’s widely diverse constituencies: Islamist parties- moderate and extreme, four different Arab nationalist parties (Nasserites), social service and human rights groups, a marginalized Coptic (Christian) community and a sophisticated network of business groups.

The excitement of the Arab Spring is gradually abating. Morsi has in fact replaced a dictatorship with a religiously-based autocracy. Just as President Mubarak was ousted for policies which ignored the poor, Morsi may one day be ousted for policies which are unfriendly to women and religious minorities.

Morsi is not sufficiently attentive to endemic social problems. At the core of Egypt’s predicament lie educational and economic impediments. One of every three adults is illiterate; 40% of women can’t read and write. Unemployment is high. The college educated is many times more likely to be unemployed than the poorly educated. Higher education makes young people politically agitated and economically dependent.

Tourism is significantly important for Egypt’s economy: in 2008 13 million tourists visited; tourism generated 11 billion US dollars and employed 12% of the workforce. When tourists have to worry about Egypt’s current affairs they lose interest in Egypt’s past – its historic monuments. Tourism is enhanced by a climate of freedom and appreciation of cultural diversity.

The value of the Egyptian pound is rapidly eroding, a sign of a declining economy and faith in the future. External Arab investment is crucial. When Arab investors lose confidence in Egypt’s economy they are not likely to put their money in a stale environment.

In a few months the Morsi regime has lost its charisma, thanks to the steady resistance of thinly connected opposition groups and the support they receive from the international media.

The current Cairo version of political Islam is not reading the sentiments of Egyptians. Despite their deep religiosity the majority of Egyptians do appreciate religious tolerance, freedom of women, secular politics and business with the outside world.

One day Egyptians will launch another well organized campaign of protest against a post-Mubarak regime, which has so far deviated from the goal of the Arab Spring. The Spring was not only about “majority rule” and removal of dictators.

The longevity of the Morsi regime depends partially on the sustainability of the economy. Regrettably, foreign aid of the oil-rich Arab countries continues to protect the economic base of the Egyptian regime from collapse. The International Monitory Fund is currently negotiating with the Egyptian government a massive (4 billion plus US dollars) package of loans. And the US is hooked to a 1.3 billion dollar aid to Egypt to maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

To balance a strategic-interest policy of foreign aid, Washington dedicates three times more to Israel. US foreign assistance is a “tranquilizer” for Egyptian silence (on a flawed Mideast policy) and a “stimulant” for Israeli building of more settlements on Palestinian land.

Egypt benefits from its leadership position in a troubled region. The imminent collapse of Syria, the growing agitation in Iraq, the vulnerability of Lebanon and Jordan, Bahrain’s ignored uprising, the ongoing hostilities in Yemen, makes Egypt look relatively stable.

Egyptians do not have to starve to change their political system. The ideologically diverse opposition groups must unite to confront a political system which will not hesitate to exploit oil-rich Arab countries in order to survive.

Not many had foreseen that the first important political outcome of the Arab Spring is the operational testing of political Islam in state building.

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