Amir Taheri Still Flush with Spring Fever

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.

As I’ve pointed out here many times, the Brotherhood is the most significant Islamic supremacist faction in Egypt (and the broader Middle East), but it is far from the only one. The Brothers also have a richly deserved reputation for treachery and self-dealing of the power-grabbing variety. As a result, they are despised by many Egyptians, including other Islamic supremacists, for reasons having nothing to do with their sharia-centric ideology.

Of more immediate consequence, the Brothers are also out of favor with their erstwhile benefactors, the Saudis. The House of Saud fears a Brotherhood-orchestrated insurrection -- akin to what the Brothers have tried to pull off in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan and other Sunni Muslim countries. Just like the Salafist Nour party they back in Egypt, the Saudis are rabidly pro-sharia. Yet, enthusiastically supported, and almost certainly provided the military’s financial incentive for, the coup against Morsi. It is a major analytical error to confound Egypt’s rejection of the Brotherhood with Egypt’s rejection of Islamic supremacism.

It is an error Amir Taheri consistently makes, as I pointed out when he offered a tortured interpretation of Morsi’s victory in the presidential election as, somehow, a hopeful sign that Egyptians were souring on sharia totalitarianism. It is ironic that Taheri, a proponent of the American policy fantasy that popular elections signal Islamic culture’s transition to real democracy, so often neglects to mention that Morsi and the overwhelmingly Brotherhood/Salafist parliament were freely elected by Egyptians. Morsi and other Islamists did not hide the ball. They openly, unabashedly campaigned on a promise to champion the implementation of sharia -- the Brotherhood’s raison d’etre. Islamic supremacism was not imposed on Egyptians; it was chosen by Egyptians.

Moreover, the sharia constitution that Taheri refers to as the “Morsi constitution” was merely proposed by Morsi -- after being drafted by a committee designed by the elected Islamic-supremacist parliament. It was not the “Morsi constitution”; it was the Egyptian constitution. It became the law of the land only after Egyptians approved it by a two-to-one landslide in a nationwide election.

It is certainly true that real democracy advocates in Egypt do not like the sharia provisions -- like Amir and I, they see these provisions as antithetical to authentic democracy. But we have to face stubborn facts: proponents of Western-style democracy are vastly outnumbered in Egypt. That is why they get trounced in elections. The sharia provisions are in Egypt’s constitution because that is what a lopsided majority of Egyptians wants.

Indeed, it was not Morsi who put sharia in Egypt’s constitution. As I recount in Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, the provision that “Islam is the Religion of the State” has been in the constitution since the founding of the modern Egyptian state in the middle of the 20th century. The constitution’s declaration that “the principal source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence” -- effectively imposing sharia and fiqh, the jurisprudence of sharia -- was added in the seventies. It was a key part of President Anwar Sadat’s program to reintegrate Islamic supremacists, who had been brutally repressed after attempting to kill Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. (Islamic supremacists being Islamic supremacists, they showed their gratitude by eventually murdering Sadat).

In 2011, soon after Mubarak fell, Egyptians conducted their first free election -- a referendum on some constitutional amendments. If approved as the Brotherhood and the Salafists urged that they be, the amendments would allow free elections to go forward. The amendments preserved the old Sadat/Mubarak constitution’s sharia provisions. Democracy activists opposed the amendments: They wanted to write a new, more secular constitution from scratch. Furthermore, knowing they were a minority -- despite the bravado of their rhetoric and the West’s wild inflation of their influence -- they also wanted to avoid elections until they were in a stronger position to compete with the Islamic supremacists.

So there it was, all teed up: a test of strength in Egyptian society between Islamic supremacists and democratic reformers. In the referendum, barely covered in the West, the Islamic supremacists won by a whopping 78-to-22 percent. Subsequently, Islamic supremacists routed the democrats in the parliamentary elections by roughly the same margin. Later, Morsi was elected president.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that Morsi had nothing to do with the even more sharia-intensive constitution adopted during his aborted presidency. It would certainly be fair for Taheri to say that, with Morsi’s ardent support, the committee charged with writing a new constitution undertook to magnify its sharia-enforcement provisions. It would also be accurate to contend, as I contended at the time, that Morsi employed drastic, authoritarian measures to freeze out the courts that secular democrats were counting on to derail that committee’s work. It is simply wrong, however, to speak of a “Morsi constitution” as if he forced it on the country. Morsi submitted the sharia-enhanced constitution to a popular vote, and Egyptians overwhelmingly approved it.

The retention of sharia in the constitution cannot, as Taheri claims, be a much of a disappointment to Egypt’s democrats. They do not like it, of course, but it has been in the constitution for decades and it has very strong public support. Egyptians, though not monolithic, largely see themselves as sharia-adherent Muslims, not Western democrats. If something approximating Western democracy is ever to take root and thrive in Egypt, it will have to happen gradually and under benevolent military rule.

This is not to say the military is uniformly benevolent and pro-democracy. After all, it was Morsi who chose Egypt’s leading general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to command the armed forces, and he did so because of Sisi’s well-deserved reputation for harboring Brotherhood sympathies. But because democrats are so outnumbered, their only hope is a military that stabilizes the country (which would revolt if sharia were stripped from the constitution) and keeps the Islamic supremacists in check. We must not let our hopes cloud our judgment. Democratization in Egypt is a very uphill proposition.