• From reading the American press, you would believe that if Middle Eastern Muslims were allowed to govern themselves by having free elections, this would be the route to democracy. This is a fallacy that we have been following now as a matter of American foreign policy for many administrations and many years. You cannot tell me that, after the same Egyptians voted two-to-one to have an intense Sharia constitution, eight months later they suddenly did not want Sharia any more. What they decided was that they did not want Morsi any more.

  • If here is ever to be anything approximating democratic transformation in Egypt the only way it is going it happen is if Egypt has a respected institution, such as the military, that governs the country, with the help of whatever technocratic officials it needs to run the country day-to-day, and where the forces of secular democracy at least have a chance to compete -- which means growing these institutions to cultivate a respect for minority rights and individual liberty.

The good news is that the Egyptians will not be able to keep their Sharia constitution, at least not the way the Muslim Brotherhood designed it. But the way it was covered in the United States, this was not reflected as good news.

What is going on in Egypt now, while I wouldn't go up in a balloon over it, is much more of a ray of hope than anything that we have had previously in what has been called the Arab Spring -- a misnomer, if ever there was one. We actually knew quite a bit about how Egyptians wanted to be governed before Mubarak fell thanks to polling that was done there – in fact, done not only in Egypt but across the Middle East, from Egypt all the way to Indonesia.

There was pretty authoritative polling, for example, done by the University of Maryland in 2007 in conjunction with an outfit called World Public Opinion. It indicated that, depending on where you asked the questions, upwards of two‑thirds, and in some places over 80% of Muslim populations across the Middle East, wanted to live under Sharia, Islam's legal code and societal framework.

An veiled woman casts her ballot in the second round of Egypt's presidential election, in 2012. (Image source: Jonathan Rashad/Flickr)

Let me briefly address what Sharia is. There is no division in Islam – at least in classical Islam, Islamic supremacism, which is the Islam of the Middle East – between the secular and sacred realms. Sharia has ambition to be a total societal system.

To call it just a legal code really does not do it justice, because its ambition is to govern everything from the great things to the small things, from the matters of economy, military relations, the setting up of a government or caliphate, down to interpersonal relations and even matters of hygiene. It is a soup to nuts framework for how life is to be lived – it is not only, in many countries, about girls being prohibited from attending school, but about the many other ways in which girls and women are suppressed, not only their education, but professionally and in interpersonal relations as well.

From the Islamic perspective there is a belief that Islam has to be imposed, and that Sharia is the necessary precondition for Islamizing a society. The first World Trade Center bombing was really our first significant exposure in the United States to radical Islam conducting terrorists attacks on our shores in what turned out to be a systematic way over time.

It is interesting to me that 20 years after the World Trade Center bombing we still do not have a good understanding in the United States of what Jihad is. If you listen to the apologists for Islamic supremacists who are featured frequently in the media, you would think that it is an internal struggle for personal betterment; that it doesn't have any military component. If you listen to them long enough, you would come away thinking that it wasn't anything more meaningful than remembering to brush after every meal.

But Jihad is essentially a military concept, and people on our side, or on the national security side, of this debate have it wrong when they say it is everywhere and always a military concept.

What it is -- everywhere and always -- is the advancement of Sharia. It is about the implementation of Sharia. Whether jihad is done violently or non‑violently, the point is to implant Sharia because Sharia is seen as the necessary building block for Islamizing a society.

In the Middle East, it should tell us a lot that people across the region and in Egypt by upwards of two‑thirds said that they wanted to be governed under Sharia law. It should have given us a real clue about what was apt to happen once Mubarak fell and what, in fact, did happen once Mubarak fell. For all the hullabaloo about "democracy" and "democracy promotion," the first election in Egypt -- about two months after Mubarak was ousted -- got very little coverage. I think it was the most important of all of the elections they had – then and thereafter. The media did not cover it much in the United States and in the West; it was dismissed as a procedural election about scheduling and something to do vaguely with constitutional amendments.

But in Egypt, it was teed up as an election between the forces of Islam and the enemies of Islam, which is how most electoral politics, since they have had electoral politics, is framed there. The point of that first election was, "Should we enact these few constitutional amendments, add‑ons to the old regime constitution, since that will enable us to have quick elections? Or should we write a brand new constitution and put the matter of elections off until we can do that?"

The Muslim Brotherhood and the most influential forces in Egyptian society -- which are basically al‑Azhar University and the imams in the various mosques across the country -- strongly campaigned that the constitutional amendments should pass and that there should be quick elections. Why? Because they do not understand Egypt based on what they read in the Western press; they understand Egypt because they are there; they knew that if they had a quick election in Egypt, it would mean that the Islamic supremacists would win, and win overwhelmingly.

On the other hand, the secular forces, the authentic democrats -- and there are some in Egypt, just not as many as we would like to believe – they preferred this idea of writing a whole new constitution. Putting off popular elections would give them a chance to grow democratic institutions. They hoped, over time, that they'd be able to compete with the Islamic supremacists.

This was the way the choice to be made in the election was presented to voters. Then had this first popular election in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists won by a whopping 78% to 22%.

When people were free to vote for what they wanted, they voted for Sharia. They followed that up very quickly with parliamentary elections, and the Islamists won again by a margin of about 78% to 22%. In fact, the notable thing about the parliamentary election was that the secular democrats actually got fewer votes than the forces that are known as the Salafists, after the form of extremely conservative Islam from Saudi Arabia.

The Salafists are Islamic supremacists groups that are actually even more impatient for change in a Sharia direction than the Muslim Brotherhood is. What we learn from the election is that, the position of wanting Sharia change even more rapidly than the Muslim Brotherhood was pushing for, was actually more popular in Egypt than secular democracy was.

You would grasp none of this from the way the Arab Spring was covered in the American media. From reading the American press, you would believe that we were dealing with a country of 80 million "Jamal al‑Madisons" waiting to happen, and that if they were allowed to govern themselves by having free elections, that that was a route to democracy.

This is a fallacy that we have been following as a matter of American policy now for many administrations and many years. This idea that popular popular voting is the equivalent of democracy; the notion that holding an election conveys the idea that a society wants to adopt a "democratic" culture, as we understand that term in the West.

I went to Saint Hellena's Grammar School in the Bronx, and when we were in the third grade, we had popular elections. We elected a president, we elected a vice president, we elected a treasurer. It was great. It was a wonderful exercise in civic responsibility. But everyone knew the nuns were still in charge.

We did not become a democratic culture by virtue of going through a popular election. It was instructional, but it did not change the basic facts on the ground – which is what we need to understand about Egypt. A popular election is an indication of where a culture wants to go, even if the direction is not democratic.

A democratic culture respects minority rights and has at least a modicum of respect for liberty. It limits the role of government in life and ensures that government's role does include protecting the rights of minorities. We are about a million miles away from having in a place like Egypt.

It was a foregone conclusion that if the Muslim Brotherhood stood for election to the presidency, a Muslim Brotherhood figure would win. By the time the transitional military rulers (who took over after Mubarak fell) woke up to what was happening in Egypt and saw the prospect of a parliament dominated by Islamic supremacists and a presidency dominated by Islamic supremacists, they realized that this would be a catastrophe. So they tried to derail it.

They disqualified, on bogus grounds, the popular Muslim Brotherhood candidate, a man by the name of Khairat Al‑Shater, at the time, a much more important Muslim Brotherhood figure in Egypt than Mohammad Morsi. In fact, Morsi is a Shater protege. They disqualified Shater, perhaps thinking that this move would eliminate the chance of having the Muslim Brotherhood control both the parliament and the presidency. Once they won the parliamentary election in a landslide, they then went back on their commitment to not field a presidential candidate, which they were allowed to do but which was very unpopular in the street.

I think the generals probably thought they had more leverage at the time because of the Muslim Brotherhood's broken promise, than they might otherwise have. And they probably believed that, by eliminating Shater from contention, they had fixed the problem, because nobody really knew who Morsi was.

Shater is regarded as a hero, even among people who are outside the Muslim Brotherhood, because he was persecuted by Mubarak. Morsi was much less charismatic and much less well‑known among Egyptians than Shater. Three weeks before the election, when they had a debate of the major candidates, Morsi was not even invited to participate. Yet, he ended up winning. He won the first round by a fairly comfortable margin, and he won the second round in what passes for a squeaker in Egypt: about 52% to 48%.

Egypt was being run by the generals – the so-called Supreme Counsel of the Armed Forces. They had a lot of authority to do pretty much whatever they wanted in terms of setting the conditions for candidates to seek office. Obviously, they underestimated the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to turn out the vote.

The other political advantage the Brothers had was this: the organization is notoriously sneaky and dishonest. Initially, they said they would not field a candidate for president. Just as they initially said they were only going to seek 30% of the seats in Parliament – and then, when they realized they could win more, they upped it up to 50% … and then 80% … and then they sought everything.

It's worth noting that a Sharia upheaval under the guise of the "Arab Spring" was highly predictable in Egypt. After all, Egypt is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, with about a 10% Christian minority, and very few Shiites. It is easier to peg than other countries in the region that have more of an ethic and religious mix.

For example, even in Indonesia, which is thought to be about as moderate an Islamic country as a Muslim majority country can be, the 2007 polling indicated that 50% percent of people wanted to be governed under Sharia. Even there, it depended on where you asked the question: If you asked it in Aceh Province, which is very heavily Islamic supremacist, it was closer to 80%.

The most notable thing about the Egyptian presidential election may have been that the candidate who got 48 percent – i.e., the candidate who lost to Morsi in the final round – was not a secular democrat. He was a relic of the Mubarak regime. You see, the Egyptian people realized that if they were going to stop the Muslim Brotherhood, turning to the secular democrats was not a route to do that. There weren't nearly enough of them. The only way to rein in the Islamic supremacists was to turn to the old regime.

The electoral experience in Egypt shows us how very far away that nation is from democratic culture. That carries over beyond Morsi's ouster. I would caution people who were so very impressed by the rioting and the rallies that went on, and by the millions of people who poured out onto the streets, not to mistake the uprisings in Egypt as opposition to Islamic supremacism. That misimpression is embedded in the narrative that the Western press has tried to develop – a narrative that actually has convinced a lot of people here – that Morsi imposed a Sharia constitution on Egypt, and as a result, there was great rebellion and uprising in the street.

It's simply not true. Morsi did not impose the Sharia constitution on Egypt. Yes, Morsi did everything that he could to protect the process of enacting and adopting a Sharia constitution. That is because there was some concern, on the part of not only the Brotherhood but also the Salafist parties, that the Egyptian courts would interfere and try to derail the process of a new Sharia constitution. Morsi took authoritative action to protect that process.

But in the end, the Sharia constitution – a constitution that was more intensely Sharia‑based than the previous constitution that Egypt had – was not imposed on the Egyptian people. They were invited to vote on it. And when they did, the Sharia constitution won by a margin of two-to-one. It didn't just win. It won huge. You cannot tell me that the same Egyptians who voted two-to-one to have an intense Sharia constitution suddenly decided, only eight months later, that they did not want Sharia anymore. What they decided was that they did not want Morsi anymore.

What we need to understand here is that it is not a good idea to conflate how people in Egypt feel about the Muslim Brotherhood, with how they feel about Islamic supremacism. The fact is that they have a lot of reasons to dislike the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, for very good reason, is reputed to be dishonest, power-grabbing, and treacherous. It is disliked even by other Islamic supremacists.

The Brotherhood has a considerable following. It is the most important grassroots Islamic-supremacist organization across the Middle East. But it also has many detractors. Many other Islamic supremacist groups, including Salafist groups, would like to see it toppled just so that they could replace it as the most influential Islamist organization – in a majority Islamic country, that is power.

So we should not mistake the ouster of Morsi with the rejection of Islamic supremacism. In fact, the main Salafist party in Egypt was actually in on the ouster of Morsi – standing by the military and vigorously supporting it. Why? Because they would like to be the new Brotherhood in terms of power and influence.

Much more than a commentary on -- much less a rejection of -- Islamic supremacism, what happened in Egypt was more of a function of the country's being an economic basket case on the verge of being a failed state, where much of the population is living in squalid conditions. The Saudis, who used to have fairly cordial relations with the Brotherhood -- which is why we have a number of these Islamist organizations that we have in the United States -- have now turned on the Brotherhood, in fear that the Brothers will foment the same kind of rebellion in Saudi Arabia as they have in Egypt, and as they are trying to do elsewhere.

Once Morsi was ousted, the next thing you heard was that there was an influx of $12 billion from the Saudis and some of the other Gulf States. The ouster of Morsi actually resulted in capital that is desperately needed by a country that really is on the brink of financial and economic disaster.

Why has what has recently happened been somewhat of a hopeful sign? If we really want to promote democracy and we really want to see countries like Egypt turn to democracy, we have to be realistic about the culture we are dealing with. We have to be realistic about what an uphill battle democratization is. We are talking not about something that can be done in an election or three. This is the work of a generation or more. And even in a generation or more, it is no sure thing that Islamic cultures are going to democratize in the Western sense.

If there is going to be anything approximating democratic transformation in Egypt, it can only happen if a respected institution, such as the military, governs the country with the help of whatever technocratic officials are needed to carry on governance day-to-day. Only that can create a climate in which the forces of secular democracy have at least a chance to compete -- which means a chance to grow in influence, a chance to promote a culture of respect for minority rights and individual liberty. With the possible exception of al-Azhar University, which has been the seat of Sunni learning – the heart of Sharia – since the tenth century, the Egyptian military remains the most widely respected institution in the country -- largely because military service is compulsory for all able-bodied males.

The fostering of true democratic culture is not something that, in a place like Egypt, is going to happen overnight. If we really want to promote democracy, it would be better to tie American aid to actual improvements in individual liberty.

For example, to be more concrete about it, why do we abide the fact that Mecca and Medina are closed cities? Do people know that? In Saudi Arabia, non‑Muslims cannot set foot in Mecca and Medina. They're deemed unfit to set their feet on the ground. And then there's the mutawaeen, the religious police, who vigorously crack down on things like women driving, women out on the street without accompaniment, women working in certain industries, etc.

I think that we ought to be tying our aid to rescissions of those repressive elements of Sharia. Such a linkage would not only be much more consistent than popular elections with the idea of promoting a democratic culture; it would be politically popular among the segments of the population that you need to activate, particularly women, if there is ever actually going to be cultural change in the Middle East.

It may take decades for it to happen, but it will not happen if we force or strong-arm anyone, as it seems our government now wants to do, into having popular elections under circumstances where everything we know tells us that popular elections will result once again in Islamic supremacists coming to power. It will result in a rerun of the same episode that we have lived through for the last six months. Do we finally realize this? It is not certain our government does, but people are in the United States may be waking up.

The dominant dynamic Islam of the Middle East is Islamic supremacism. This dynamic does not mean that there are not reformist Muslim currents. It does not mean that that there are not other interpretations of Islam. But it is important to face facts – the reality – of with what we are dealing.

The dynamic Islam of the Middle East is stridently anti‑American. It is stridently anti‑Western, and it is very repressive. I do not think that that is going to change soon. That is not to say that it cannot change ever, and that there is not a lot of tumult in the Muslim Middle East about reform. But we are a long way from anything approaching democracy.

We must finally understand that elections do not equal democracy, and that if we want to promote democracy – which we should do – we need to do it at a very grassroots level. We need to be as supportive as we can of the secular democratic groups that are promoting minority rights, and get away from this idea that it is constitution-writing and elections that foster democratic culture.

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