What’s been happening in Egypt this week is as important as the revolution that overthrew the old regime almost two years ago. A new dictator has arrived, and while the Muslim Brotherhood’s overturning of democracy was totally predictable, Western policymakers walked right into the trap. They even helped build it.
President Mursi has now declared his ability to rule by decree. The key concept is that he can do everything to protect the revolution. In doing so, he is defining the revolution — as the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, which was made by a broad coalition of forces, soon after became defined — as an Islamist revolution.
One could call the Islamist strategy a short march through the institutions. Once Islamists take power — in Iran, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, and perhaps too in Syria — that is only the beginning of the story. They systematically do a fundamental transformation.
The media, or at least a large part of it, is tamed. The draft constitution written by the Brotherhood and Salafists allows the government to shut down any newspaper or television station by decree. The courts are made impotent and judges replaced. Mursi’s decree said he could ignore any court decision.
At a November 18 press conference, a few days before Mursi issued his decree, the leading secular-oriented representatives in the constitution-writing constituent assembly resigned, charging the new document would enshrine Sharia law. The problem was not the statement in Article 2 about Sharia being the main source of Egyptian legislation but rather later provisions making it clear that Islamist-controlled institutions would interpret precisely what that meant. Amr Moussa, former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, said the new constitution would bring disaster for Egypt. Abdel Meguid called this combination “Taliban-like.”
Scattered secularist forces, Coptic Christians, liberals or the remnants of the old regime, and modern-minded women do not pose a real threat to the regime. They are not violent, not organized, and not flush with cash. They can expect no material international support. There will be no civil war between the moderates and the Islamists, the suppression of one by the other. The Salafists are itching for confrontation; the Muslim Brotherhood is patient. But when Salafists harass women or stab secularists or attack churches, the Brotherhood-controlled government will do nothing to protect the victims.
Of critical importance for Egypt is control over the religious infrastructure: the ministry of Waqf that supervises huge amounts of money in Islamic foundations; the office of qadi, the chief Islamist jurist; al-Azhar University, the most important institution defining Islam in the Muslim world; which clerics get to go on television or have their own shows; and appointments of preachers in every public mosque in the country.
Many clerics are not moderate but most are not systematic Islamists. Soon they will be or at least talk as if they were. Revolutionary Islamism will become in Egypt merely normative Islam. Thus is the endless debate in the West about the nature of Islam — religion of peace or religion of terrorism? — short-circuited and made even more irrelevant. The real power is not what the texts say but who interprets them. And the Islamists will do the interpreting.
While the judges are still holding out bravely, only the army has real power to counter the Islamist revolution transforming the most important country in the Arabic-speaking world into the instrument of the leading international anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic organization. It doesn’t matter how nicely Mursi spoke to Obama any more than, say, how Lenin — who moderated Soviet policy in the 1920s to consolidate the regime and get Western help — did in his day.
What is going on inside Egypt’s army, the last remaining institution that could offer resistance? We don’t really know, but there are certainly some important indications. In theory, the army is the only force that can challenge the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But why should we believe the officers want to engage in such a battle?
Under the leadership of a secret society called the Free Officers, Egypt’s army overturned the monarchy in 1952 in a virtually bloodless coup. Yet while Egypt was for decades thereafter ruled by the resulting regime, the military government soon became a military-backed government. Officers either moved over to civilian offices or, if they opposed the regime, were purged.
Aside from doing its professional duties, the new generation of officers turned to money-making. The Egyptian army became a vast economic enterprise, with its own farms, factories, and housing estates. It was not a political interest group, and certainly not an ideological organization, but an economic enterprise.
During the more recent revolution, the army’s main concern was its own corporate interests — especially control over the military budget, the choice of its leaders, and those business activities. Over and over again the Western mass media and governments spoke as if they were dealing with a South American army that wanted to rule the country. It was portrayed as repressive and potentially tyrannical. By definition, all civilians — especially the Muslim Brotherhood — were good guys against the supposed military would-be dictators.