Sunday February 10, 2013
Baulk like an Egyptian
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
By BUNN NAGARA
As Iran and Egypt begin to huddle, both hold unwitting lessons for other countries about creeping religion in politics.
EGYPT seriously ruptured its seams just over a week ago, after street violence followed troubling anti-democratic moves by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
What might have been a proud second anniversary of the Mubarak regime’s collapse instead became a lament for the revival of autocracy under Morsi.
Morsi reacted by imposing a state of emergency and a night curfew, which seemed the best he could do at the time.
But as his government slid rapidly, those moves soon became the worst things imaginable.
Last Monday thousands of angry demonstrators marched through Egypt’s three Suez Canal cities under curfew and emergency, openly defying him. A provincial governor absconded.
Blood flowed, with scores of people killed and dozens of women violently attacked and raped.
Lesson one on democracy for Morsi: governance has to be by consent or not at all.
After Hosni Mubarak’s long years of autocratic rule, this is a particularly compelling and painful lesson for those who fail to heed it.
Morsi’s clumsy attempt to rule by decree turned Egypt’s democratic stride towards consent into a backward slide towards dissent.
Then push came to shove, and a series of stumbles. The incumbent and still fledgling president can no longer retain power for long, or recover his reputation soon – or ever.
Curfews and emergencies work only with sufficient popular consent to observe them.
Without that consent they become indicators of political impotence – encouraging even more dissent.
The police still seem to be enforcing Morsi’s will by attacking protesters, but they are mostly only taking out their frustrations with him on the closest available targets.
So the “law enforcers” shoot, assault and manhandle demonstrators where they find them, which only diminishes the state’s credibility, magnifies public anger and brings the endgame closer.
There are running battles here, pitched battles there, showcasing a regime on its last legs and bankrupt of ideas and options for governing.
Rule by force long ceased to be a sign of strength for Morsi, instead becoming quite the opposite.
Even if his government were to win all the street battles, which is unlikely, it is certain to lose the all-important war.
With even staunch Muslims on the streets turning sharply against him, for how much longer can his guns and goons be aimed against the people?
Morsi cannot rely on unquestioned loyalty from the military any more than from the police, since his controversial acts of removing judicial and military oversight on presidential power last August also sidelined military authority.
After he ordered troops and tanks to “restore order” last weekend, military leaders expressly refused to use force against protesters.
Instead, military chief Gen Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whom Morsi had appointed, blamed unnamed politicians for the country’s mess.
When a government can no longer neutralise rising public anger, nor rely without question on the police or the military to do its bidding, the end has to be near.
And into this fray came Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a rare visit to Cairo on Tuesday.
The differences between Egypt and Iran seemed clear enough: Sunni Egypt backs Syria’s rebels, while Shi’ite Iran is firmly behind President Bashar al-Assad. But the similarities between Teheran and Cairo may be more decisive.
A generation ago, various Iranian opposition groups rose against a despotic Shah and toppled him.
He had ordered troops against them, but their guns remained silent and eventually fell to the people.
And although the opposition comprised various entities and ideologies, including secular and leftist groups, what emerged was an authoritarian Islamic state.
The Iranian people had fought against despotism, not to replace one despot with another.
If Egypt’s opposition had stopped to think of the consequences, they might have wondered how they ever let Islamist rule take root after Mubarak.
In their blind hatred of the secular autocrat and the feverish rush to oust him, they were led down a path to an even more absolutist and uncompromising religious autocrat.
Democracy is a fallible human system of earthly governance which, not enshrined in any religious text, nonetheless holds the people sovereign.
Rule of religion by any religion owes its allegiance to the highest spiritual authority beyond human agency, except for the way the new rulers choose to interpret it.
Egypt’s loose-knit opposition is wondering what would remove Morsi from his perch: negotiations, a referendum or a new election.
New parliamentary elections in April are unlikely to do it.
They might as well ask: would a committed Islamist, steeped in his divine purpose in politics, ever allow his removal from power by mere human action, even if they call it democracy?
The Iranian President’s visit was apparently intended to mend fences between both governments.
For Morsi, it could also backfire by reminding angry Egyptians that opting for an Islamist autocrat is a grave and costly error.
Many among Morsi’s opponents today had unknowingly worked to grant him power.
He had only just scraped through an election to clinch the presidency, and even then only with the support of non-Islamists and non-Muslims.
Morsi’s misrule comprises actions against the people and inaction when he needed to act.
After all the attacks and killings, and death threats by Islamists against protesters, Morsi did and said nothing.
His only identifiable supporters are the Muslim Brotherhood movement, smaller extremist and Salafi groups and the terrorist-linked Gamaa Islamiya.
It is no way for any country to proceed, much less for one of history’s earliest civilisations to progress.