My great respect for Amir Taheri notwithstanding, his hopes for democratic transformation of the Middle East cause him, yet again, to misinterpret the most recent developments in Egypt.
There, the initial draft of a new constitution is about to be published, the product of a committee overseen by the military, which has run Egypt’s government since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. The new constitution will reportedly preserve sharia (Islam’s societal framework) as the country’s main source of law. It will also codify the “special status” of the armed forces as protectors of the state vested with supreme power in matters of national defense, foreign relations, and economic affairs — possibly including, the Washington Post reports, the discretion to try civilians (such as Muslim Brotherhood operatives) in military courts.
In a recent New York Post column, Taheri argues that the new constitution will thus be an insidious pact between the generals and the “Salafists” — Muslim supremacists who, like their Brotherhood political rivals, are determined to create a caliphate beholden to Islam’s repressive principles. It will betray hopes for real democracy that are shared, Taheri insists, by the vast majority of Egyptians.
Adopting the conveniently pliable passive voice, Taheri writes (the italics are mine):
The coup that returned the military to power after a year-long interval was presented as an attempt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from imposing an Islamist dictatorship with a constitutional facade. Highlighted were two articles in the Morsi constitution that identified the Islamic sharia as the source of legislation in Egypt and gave Al-Azhar, the official seminary, a virtual veto on certain issues.
The crowds that for weeks filled Tahrir Square called on the army to intervene to save the nation from a burgeoning sharia-based dictatorship. Well, when the new draft constitution — written by a 50-man committee appointed by the military — is published, the Tahrir Square crowds are likely to be disappointed. The two controversial articles will still be there, albeit under different numbers and with slight changes in terminology.
This is rose-tinted revisionism. Yes, the coup “was presented” by democracy romantics as a rejection of Islamic totalitarianism. But that did not make it one. Egypt is a big, complex country, and there was no single rationale for Morsi’s ouster, which was supported by some important Salafist factions — groups that could not be more opposed to Western liberalism. The impetus for removing Morsi that came closest to a societal consensus was not the desire for real democracy; it was — as our colleague David Goldman has observed — that Egypt is an economic basket-case that Morsi and the Brothers were steering toward failed-state status.
And yes, Taheri and other democracy enthusiasts did “highlight” sharia elements in the constitution adopted during Morsi’s tenure as the purported spark for purported massive public opposition. But that was just spin — an effort to depict the democrats’ decidedly minority views as a groundswell, to portray as a pro-democracy movement what was actually an anti-Morsi, anti-Brotherhood rebellion.