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”.


‘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.

Exigencies of self-preservation? Why forces of centralization can’t recapture Egypt

General_Al_SisiEgypt’s economics and sociopolitics are pulling it in two different directions, according to Tarek Osman, a political economist and author of ‘Egypt on the Brink’:

The Egyptian liberal age, lasting 100 years from the mid-19th century, gave rise to western-style universities, a secular judiciary, professional syndicates and a dynamic press. Centralization was diluted. This experiment ended abruptly in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ambitious nationalist officer, overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the first republic – a power structure that revolved round the military. In the following six decades the state subjugated the institutions that had thrived in the first half of the century and eliminated all checks on its power. Power centralization returned.

But the perception that with the reassertion of military power Egypt is returning to centralization is wrong for three reasons, he writes for the Financial Times:

  • As a result of economic reforms undertaken in the past two decades, the private sector has, for the first time in half a century, become the largest employer and provider of investment capital. …..
  • The second reason is the socioeconomic challenges facing the country. ….The ruling powers will have to offer incentives to the domestic and international private sector to commit capital. This will lead to the emergence of a multipolar power structure.
  • The third reason is that the 85m-strong society (of which 45m are under 35, and two-thirds of that group are in their teens) is being transformed. It is more connected to the world, more opinionated, daring, and commercially and socially entrepreneurial.

But there is another scenario, Osman cautions:

The state powers could be drawn further into their war against political Islam; jihadism could continue to rise, leading to a heightening of security measures and weakening of the rule of law. Investment capital would be withdrawn; and socioeconomic demands would remain unmet. This would fuel social unrest, at a time when polarization is entrenched and significant social groups feel marginalized or threatened. RTWT

There is no machine in Egypt, but there is most certainly a system—a self-reinforcing one—that is the result of an environment of uncertainty in which Egyptian elites are individually and collectively trying to discern the direction of politics, says a prominent analyst.

Once they think they know how events will unfold, these elites will do everything possible to ensure that they are on the “right side” of history, writes Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations:

It is unlikely that Field Marshal al Sisi actually ordered the arrests of three Al Jazeera journalists in December of last year, though he created an environment that helped make such violations of basic norms such as freedom of the press possible.  The Ministry of Interior went ahead and did it, which is unremarkable, but the fact that a long list of Egyptian intellectuals, ostensible liberals, and alleged revolutionaries lined up to applaud this clear violation of press freedoms, while the pro-government media was egging everyone on, is remarkable.  (All irony is lost in Egypt.)  This system is the reason why in Egypt’s Jacobin-like discourse anyone who openly expresses concern about human rights violations is branded a terrorist sympathizer. It also explains how otherwise respectful and previously respected Egyptians are falling all over themselves to prove that they are with the new program.

When Abdel Monem Said Aly wrote an article called, Khatiyat Steven Cook or “Steven Cook’s Offense” it was hard not to be angry immediately, Cook writes:

But upon reflection, I understood precisely that he is bowing to the relentless pressure of the system.  The piece, which appeared in Al Sharq Al Awsat on January 22 and re-published in English the following Friday in Al Ahram Weekly as “Where Steven Cook is Wrong” offers a strong and fair critique of my recent blog post “Do Not Run Sisi…Do Not Run,” and erroneously and maliciously ties three colleagues—Marc Lynch, Tamara Wittes, and Michele Dunne*—along with myself, to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Abdel Monem, who was very much a part of the Mubarak power-structure, was signaling to those now in power that despite his longstanding ties to Washington, Brandeis University, and a host of organizations in the West, he can be trusted to advance their political agendas. RTWT

*A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Egyptians see ‘iron fist and silver bullet’ in Sisi: Mubarak-era networks return, dissent stifled

The influential Sunni Muslim cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi today called on Saudi Arabia to stop backing Egypt‘s military, Reuters reports:

“It’s surprising that the Saudi government gave billions of dollars to support the (anti-Mursi) coup and the coup leaders and those who are far from God and Islam,” Qaradawi told Reuters ….”The only thing that links them to their neighboring countries is the language of interests and benefits,” said Qaradawi, who heads the International Association of Muslim Scholars, a grouping close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

With the head of the military, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left), poised to run for the presidency, he is likely to benefit from the former ruling National Democratic Party’s vast patronage network, observers suggest.

Tarek Masoud of Harvard University said the return of “local kingpins” to elected office would raise questions about Egyptian democracy, adding the patronage system is “not ideal.”

“Now in Egypt you are a long way from the ideal anyway, so what you want is some regular electoral process in which people who want to have power accept the legitimacy of elections as a means to getting power,” he told Reuters. “If we can just have a few free and fair elections that are not abrogated … maybe that’s the best you can hope for in Egypt right now.”

The military will also benefit from a seriously compromised judiciary, says a leading analyst.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the judges have shown an “unusual consistency” in ruling against thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, said Carnegie’s Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“There was what I think was a very ill-advised struggle for power between the Brotherhood and the judiciary while the Brotherhood was controlling the presidency,” Ms. Dunne told the Wall Street Journal. “The judiciary does seem to be vengeful.”

Some observers have described the public mood as a wave of collective mass psychosis, epitomized by the cult-like adulation of Sisi and the armed, the FT reports.

“It’s as if they are trying to weed out any desire of dissent and non-submission to anything other than the state,” says Mohamed Dahshan, a Harvard scholar specializing in Egypt. “It’s like I bow to you and do whatever you want. There’s this voluntary submission. It’s shocking because it’s also humiliating.”

Fear factor

In a country where many have no access to the internet, state TV is a powerful tool for selling a new narrative, analyst Trudy Rubin reports.

Even Khaled Saeed, the young man whose brutal death at police hands in Alexandria sparked the original Tahrir revolt, is no longer sacrosanct. One military source in Cairo said: ”Don’t be fooled into believing Saeed was a good guy.”

Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist in Cairo, said: ”Our own history is being rewritten by an alternative reality. And this rewriting of history is relentless.”

“Say what you will about [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, but he at least appealed to people’s higher instincts, their hope for a better future, for social justice,” said Khaled Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian historian. “Sisi is addressing some of the basest instincts not only of Egyptians, but in any people: fear.”

But by moving to formally take the reins as head of state, Field Marshal Sisi is taking on a far greater and riskier challenge, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times suggests:

Promoted by the state and private news media as a national savior, Field Marshal Sisi will have to manage an increasingly unruly domestic population, including an elite expecting a full restoration of its privileges; generals who may see him as only the first among equals; a broad section of the public that still feels empowered to protest; at least hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters who openly reject the new government; and a terrorist insurgency determined to thwart any hope of stability.

“I think the economy eventually will be the undoing of anyone in that position, because all the same issues that led to the 2011 uprising are still there — the youth unemployment, their marginalization from politics, the overly bloated Civil Service, the unsustainable food and energy subsidies,” said Samer S. Shehata, a University of Oklahoma political scientist.

Continuing protests and violence have squashed any hope of recovery of the crucial tourism sector, he said, and “no one has the will required to take the necessary and painful steps required to move the country forward.”

Economic troubles are just one of many deep and protracted problems dogging the state, including crumbling infrastructure, a chronic energy crisis, ongoing political unrest and an insurgency based in the Sinai, TIME magazine reports.

“He needs to find out: does he have a program to deal with the poverty line or not, because the minute he steps out of his uniform, it’s a farewell party from the military. He doesn’t have their backing anymore,” says veteran rights activist Hisham Kassem, the former editor of the widely-read newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. “If he does not deliver hope and reasonable, tangible changes in the country, there is going to be a third uprising.”

In Sisi, Egyptians see an iron fist and a silver bullet, said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

“It’s tied up with the dislocation that many have experienced in the past three years and the generalized and wistful hope for the simple restoration of stability and normalcy,” Hanna told Al Jazeera. “People are looking for a silver bullet; they’re hoping for the impossible.”

Though they are not able to present a viable alternative, activists are uneasy about Sisi. Fearing an imminent return to Mubarak-era oppression, critics say that by installing a strongman in the presidency, even by democratic mandate, Egypt could license the security apparatus to expand its crackdown.

“2014’s instability could force President Sisi to submit to full, direct, ruthless military control,” wrote Nervana Mahmoud, a critic of Sisi, in an op-ed for Daily News Egypt, an independent, English-language daily based in Giza. “Currently, the army is an empire within the state. Later, the army may expand to control the state.”

Outside the protective shell of his military-appointed authority, Sissi will find himself subject to the fickle political climate that pervades post-Mubarak Egypt, Al Jazeera reports.

“Sissi will be very afraid of joining Mubarak and Morsi. The question is, will he respond to this vulnerability by initiating reforms or further repression?” said Eric Trager, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Sisi’s gamble

“On a personal level it is a huge gamble,” said Hanna. As president, Sisi “no longer has civilians to absorb the anger of the public when the situation doesn’t improve. He’s got a lot of public support, and he would win in an election tomorrow. But Egyptians have proven themselves fickle in their support for public figures.”

The decision was also a gamble for the military itself, since any failure by Sisi would also tarnish them as an institution, Hanna told the Guardian. “But it is hard to imagine the military doing to Sisi what they did to Morsi. It happened to Mubarak after many, many years, in very exceptional circs, but it is difficult to see that happening again.”

Wrong side of history

“In order to implement its [roadmap] they are suppressing any voice of dissent, mine included,” Egyptian academic Emad Shahin (left) told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

Since being accused of espionage, he has received support from the Council for a Community of Democracies (see below) and academics at Georgetown University, who expressed “grave concern” at the charges.

The U.S. and other democracies should be wary of endorsing a political process that is all too reminiscent of the worst Arab autocrats.

“We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” he said. “We had the Iranian revolution and the support of repressive and autocratic regimes, and also the consequences that this brings to [the] U.S.”

 “This is reminiscent of the 99.9 per cent that people like Saddam Hussein used to get, people like Bashar al-Assad used to garner,” Shahin said.

Anyone who has tried to advocate against the new constitution, he said, “has not been tolerated throughout the process.”

That includes a prominent liberal political scientist and former parliamentarian

Democratic forces need to focus on building a constituency for liberal politics and ideas, Amr Hamzawy told NPR:

We are facing a public space which is investing trust in the military establishment. And someone like me can continue saying but, well, guys, you are militarizing the state. You are pushing us away from democracy, but no one is listening. So I have to figure out where my entry points are. As a formal politics, should I run again for parliament or should I focus on informal politics: building grassroots activities and grassroots movements and initiatives.

Foreign actors are unable to impact current developments, Hamzawy suggests.

“What we are looking at is bound to be a homegrown issue where external forces, be it international or regional, can only play limited roles.”