Liberal reform in Egypt is believed to be set back: now the West will be barred from any political Westernization by the Muslim Brotherhood.
So why even try?
Here’s why: the people of Egypt deserve better than a police state or a theocracy.
The US, Europe and other liberal institutionists too often expect an all or none democratic result. Many non-policy expert policy makers thought the Palestinian elections would bring about some positive Middle eastern reform and that the Arab Spring was yet another chance. Now we are all skeptics and want to abandon it all together.
What the real confusion is really about is seeing popular votes as liberal reform. Fact one: democracy does not equal liberalism. What is liberalism? At its most basic, liberalism is about human freedoms and universal laws (i.e. free speech, free assembly, fair trials, just punishments, etc.). At its most advanced, liberalism is about political progress—a driving to always become better servants of the people and citizens to become improved and given opportunities without fears.
Having said that, a second misperception is the belief of democracy as some kind of “political sorcery” which will instantaneously transform a nation. Fact two: democracy is not a divine method or a panacea. Democracy is simply a method of concentrating social power and directing social affairs. It is up to the people to decide what their particular democracy will be.
Egypt is a difficult case study in democratic reform because it is a highly secular-Islamic state. Like Saddam Hussein, Bashir Assad, and other Middle Eastern leaders, the Egyptian ex-President Hosni Mubarak was extremely oppressive to religious factions pushing orthodox Islam. Yet, the Egyptian government had made many political concessions to orthodox Muslims under the proceeding regimes and more and more Egyptians took shelter in Islam versus the a corrupt and brutal strong-man.
Sharia law is a form of orthodox Islamic law that is based on the Koran, the Sunnah (the example of the Prophet), and the fiqh (a combination of historic court precedent and reasoning). Sharia’s harsh and stringent codes, according to many experts, have made it an impossible political ally to liberalism. Islamic laws such as the death penalty, the chopping off the hands of thieves, and what the West would see as intrusions into its daily life as it concerns all manner of religious activity, social behavior and punishment, including: the manner of dress, diet, fasting, strict moral conduct, subordination of women, charity obligations, etc. It is seen as incompatible with any degree of liberalism in the West.
The level of Sharia practiced differs highly in interpretation from country to country, with Saudi Arabia, being the most extreme example. Egypt is somewhere in the middle, but with the election of the new President, Dr. Mohamed Morsi, who has promised to increase Sharia, the some are afraid the state is soon to become a Saudi Arabia.
To Muslims, their law is sacred and divine. Not too long ago, the Catholic church had similar requirements on the Western Civilization.
Protestantism and Reformation.
So there’s your answer?
Revolution and reformation in the West happened gradually and must do so the same in the Middle East if they are to reach any form of democratic liberalism. The West cannot look at Egypt from the scrutiny of a 21st century democracy. It should also not expect dynamic radical transformation with every change of regime. Instead, it should support and encourage genuine gradual liberal improvements without necessarily undermining or disturbing cultural and religious impediments. Sharia law in the Middle East need not be a challenge if it is understood correctly.
How is that?
The “requirement” of state Sharia need not be confused with the “application” of Sharia. How one applies Sharia is the prerogative of a people and a society. While the Egyptian President seeks more stringent and orthodox measures, the West should take advantage of pushing for greater moderation and liberal interpretations, rather than the destruction of a generation of reactionary policies in the making. The liberal advantage is that it seeks to address the “human” concern and not the institution of a particular government. This is a goal that even Egyptians can appreciate and work with.
There are economic woes to consider as well. In 2011, a Gallup poll found 81 percent of Egyptians claiming the job market is bad. It is believed by many too that economic conditions and oppression have been contributors to the rise of a “back to Islam” movement, not just in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East. They seek a greater religious commitment in harsher conditions and under the promise that practicing more of Islam in a stricter and fuller environment will offer them greater peace.
In Gallup polls taken 2005-2006 demonstrate that at least 67% of Egyptians felt that “Sharia must be the only source of legislation.” That is 8 percent higher in support of Islamic law than in Pakistan. Clearly, Sharia is supported by the majority and it seems the Egyptians are bent on a unique hybrid of Islamic democracy. What this would entail exactly is uncertain, but it would not be a strict theocracy and it would not be a Western style democracy.
Sharia law is the political glue of solidarity for the Egyptian peoples but one must also remember that a minority of almost 25% desires to keep other laws in place and that 94% supported “free speech” in any new constitution if it were drafted 2006. Presumably this is still the case.
Most importantly, the Egyptian military is acting as a safe-guard for secularism and stability against radical Islamist take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood political faction. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is still the ultimate power and will continue to protect its interest. For this reason they have drafted a provisional constitution in 2011, ousted the Brotherhood faction from parliament and just recently gave themselves more power. It should however, be of note that the SCAF effectively forced Mubarak to “resign” and then guided the election process to replace him. Their goals have been consistent: transitioning from a police states, appeasing the civilian population , retaining power, and keeping the country away from a civil war.
A further consideration is that the presidential election race was very close. President Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party (not the freedom and justice for Liberalism but the freedom and justice from a dictatorial regime party) almost tied former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. This shows that the population does not desire Islamist reform completely and that it may be more like 50-50 Islamist vs. secular government.
In order for this whole thing to work, the Egyptian military and the other factions will need to peacefully compromise. A liberalizing of Sharia law is one possible answer, where protections and freedoms are guaranteed. This should be seen as starting point and opportunity for Western liberal aid and not a road block.
Brett Daniel Shehadey is a writer, commentator and holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from AMU and a B.S. in Political Science from UCLA.