Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTAfter a dizzying rise to power in Egypt’s parliament and presidency in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood faced mass discontent, was ousted by the military, declared a terrorist organization and its followers were arrested and hounded into exile. Egypt is the most extreme case – but from Morocco to Jordan, and nearly everywhere in between, once-ascendant Islamists find themselves facing unprecedented challenges.

In his new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014), Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid steps back from the headlines to examine how and why Islamist movements change over time, what animates their worldview and what their ultimate objectives are for society. Hamid conducted hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and activists across the region to develop a bold thesis: that repression compelled Islamists to moderate their politics, work in coalitions, and de-emphasize Islamic law. Ironically, then, democratic openings have tended to push Islamists toward their original conservatism, oftentimes leading them to overreach and confrontation.

On April 9, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World will launch Hamid’s new book with a discussion of the past and future of political Islam. CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan will moderate the discussion, after which Hamid will take audience questions. Copies of the book will also be available for sale at the event.

When: Wednesday, April 9, 2:00 to 3:30 PM

Where: The Brookings Institution, Falk Auditorium, 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036


Egypt: crackdown on Brotherhood enters new phase

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods, according to two leading analysts. But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunnewrite for Foreign Affairs:

Under Nasser — as well as Sadat and Mubarak — repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

“As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray — the judiciary as well as the army — now seem to be very willing participants in the repression,” say Browne and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some observers believe the regime’s repression of non-violent Islamists is paving the way for a resurgence of jihadist terrorism.

“Many Egyptians believe that many young people are going to join the forces of terrorism in the near future. As long as there is no open way for political participation, the substitute will be violence,” Cairo political analyst and journalist Mohamed Abdella tells VOA.

EgyptfragmentingReport-COVERIf there is a lesson to be learned from the past three volatile years, it is the negative impact of repressive politics on the capabilities of individuals to articulate political agendas that respond to citizens’ concerns, according to Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster, a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

“While some of this expertise exists within Egypt—for example, in universities and civil society—the crackdown makes the realization of its potential impossible,” the authors argue. “The recent detention of journalists and political activists of varying ideological stripes are examples of the type of draconian measures that are shrinking Egypt’s political space.”

Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said autocrats such as Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been emboldened. “They think they can get away with more than ever,” Hamid said. “And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it’s fair or unfair.”

In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it.

“There is a calculation there,” Hamid said. “They know that they want it more than we do.”

According to human rights analyst Bahay Eldin Hasan, even Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi admitted that the state “is run by the security bodies, who control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary.”

The path away from the current  impasse is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president, Brown and Dunne write for Foreign Affairs:

It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. RTWT

What sort of president will Sisi make? asks Neville Teller, who writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”:

He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat….But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters….

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. ….

 Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”.


Five question’s for Egypt’s Sisi

Egyptians are about to hand the keys to their country to Field Marshal and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with very little sense of where he plans to take them, says Carnegie Endowment analyst Michele Dunne.

 In fact, they know relatively little about Sisi himself, which is problematic given the mountain of challenges Egypt faces. And in announcing his candidacy on March 26—still in uniform, his last act as a soldier—Sisi gave only a few hints, notes Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

In theory, the presidential candidate will have the chance to clarify his stances in the coming campaign. While 2014 is unlikely to feature a serious presidential debate, there will undoubtedly be plenty of public speaking opportunities for Sisi. If he takes them and begins to define his political persona, his answers to five questions should shed light on how he might address Egypt’s massive challenges:

  1. Does Sisi acknowledge that the country has been through a period of unparalleled internal conflict and polarization and that national healing is now needed? He hinted at this during his March 26 speech but then quickly moved to suggest that unnamed “internal, regional, and foreign” enemies were to blame.
  2. Does Sisi extend olive branches to those who have felt excluded and harassed since July 2013—youth, journalists, civil society, critics of military rule—not to mention supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood? New Egyptian presidents typically are magnanimous and try to show that they are leaders of the entire nation. In his speech, Sisi suggested that any Egyptian not being prosecuted should be considered “a full partner,” but that is hardly comforting with tens of thousands in prison and mass trials of hundreds ongoing.
  3. Does Sisi express a commitment to implementing human rights protections in the constitution? Acknowledging the security services’ excesses and promising to institute a serious transitional justice process (Egypt has already had several unserious ones) would be key. There was no hint of this in his first speech, but rather a promise to “rebuild the state.”
  4. Does Sisi express a commitment to political pluralism and take steps to reopen political space for both secularists and Islamists? He gave only the briefest of nods to democracy in his March 26 speech.
  5. How does Sisi discuss the role of the public sector, and particularly the military, in the economy as opposed to that of the private sector, and does he acknowledge that only a vigorous and free private sector can generate the jobs needed for Egypt’s huge and growing labor force? Sisi did say in his speech that productive capacity in “all sectors” should be revived and hinted that Egypt cannot depend on Gulf donors indefinitely, but he said nothing specific about the roles of public and private industries in generating jobs.


‘Largest death sentence in modern history’ shows Egypt’s ‘basic state institutions malfunctioning’

The Egyptian government took its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood to a new level today, when a court sentenced 529 members of the outlawed organization to death — the biggest mass sentence in the modern history of the country, stirred global outrage:

The defendants — supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who is also on trial separately — were charged with the murder of one police officer and trying to kill two others during violence that followed anti-coup demonstrations last August. The condemned men were also accused of storming a police station, inciting murder, and damaging property during clashes that flared up in the southern province of Minya following the violent dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, during which up to 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed.

“The sheer level of repression since the coup is really remarkable, it’s unprecedented and not just in the kind of way that people use that word: it actually is unprecedented,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, told VICE News. “First you have what Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history and now you have the worst mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.”

Even though the sentences were almost certain to be reduced, “the staggering harshness and speed of the verdict still show how profoundly the basic institutions of the Egyptian state are malfunctioning,” Nathan Brown, an expert on the Egyptian judiciary at George Washington University, wrote in an email. “The fact that cooler heads are likely to weigh in is only limited consolation for the degree to which mindless repression still seems to be the order of the day.”

The judgment can be appealed at the Court of Cassation, which would probably order a new trial or reduce the sentences, legal expert Gamal Eid told AFP.

“This sentencing is a catastrophe and a travesty and a scandal that will affect Egypt for many years,” said Eid, who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“It sort of defies logic,” said Marie Harf, deputy US State Department spokeswoman, adding that Washington was “deeply concerned” and “shocked”.

“Obviously the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial,” Harf said.

Amnesty International said it was the “largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world.”


“We have never heard of anything of this magnitude before, inside or outside of Egypt, that was within a judicial system — not just a mass execution,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Egypt’s ‘margin for democracy


Egypt’s presidential election, previously set for this spring, could be pushed back to midsummer, state media reported (HT: FPI).

Egyptian analyst and liberal politician Amr Hamzawy has a few questions “for those who have stayed silent.”

Question 1 – directed to the politicians who remained silent regarding the human rights violations that followed July 3, 2013, he writes for the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.

This question is for the politicians who regained their ability to talk about the principles of transitional justice, accountability for those implicated in these violations, reform of the security services, and the rights of the martyrs only after the arrest, detention, torture, repression, restriction of movement of members of the Muslim Brotherhood had overstepped all bounds…..

Do you suppose that your deep silence and double standards in dealing with the violation of rights and freedoms and your endeavor to create the impression of defending democracy to support your clear electoral ambitions do not greatly limit your moral, humanitarian and political credibility?

Question 2 – directed to the writers, politicians and media personalities who have participated in or supported the governmental order following July 3, 2013. …. do you not see that the laws and constitutional provisions that you have passed now expel citizens from public spaces (the protest law), tie the hands of the elected authorities who operate under the oversight of the military. and reduce the opportunities for developing a true framework for transitional justice? Do you not see that all this falls at the very heart of the democratic structure, the path towards transformation and the competitive electoral exercise that pushes Egypt forward?

Question 3 – directed to the intellectuals, scholars and political science professors who have driven the notion, in the context of supporting the likely presidential candidacy of Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and in a manner which benefits him, that the presidential candidacy of military figures occurs, and has occurred, in democratic states. …..: how can you ignore the fact that the candidacy of military figures in stable democracies differs radically from their candidacy in a state such as Egypt where the military is not subject to the oversight of elected civilian authorities as regards their legislation, their budgets and the appointment of the Defense Minister? How can you feign ignorance of the traditional weakness of civilian institutions in the composition of the Egyptian state vis-à-vis the dominance of its military-security component? To the political science professors among you, how can you not take heed that under the present conditions of Egypt’s state, politics and society the presidency of a military figure would only deepen the imbalance between its civilian and military-security components?

Question 4 – directed to the writers, politicians and media figures who supported the intrusion of the military into political life on July 3, 2013 and perhaps favored the July 26 “popular mandate” to confront terrorism and violence then gradually re-evaluated matters and backed away from supporting a continued political role for the military…..: do you not suppose that your support for the intervention of the military in July 2013 inevitably led to the present developments, that is, to the likely candidacy and presidency of the Defense Minister and the exceptional status of the military? Do you not realize that the obstruction of democratic procedures, the dominance of the military-security complex and the justification of doing away with rights and freedoms under the banner of confronting terrorism and violence – for which there is no alternative, though this confrontation may be conducted with respect for laws, rights and freedoms – can have no outcome other than to produce a severe regression in the role and effectiveness of the civilian political elite and an even more severe loss of the people’s trust in the key figures of this elite after they consented to subordination?

“These questions, presented here without contempt, are meant to encourage reflection, reexamination and self-criticism,” Hamzawy writes. “Tomorrow there will be a new margin for democracy in Egypt.”


Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party.