A recent image coming from Egypt shows a large group of people praying in the city of Arish, and suddenly, as they lie on the ground, prostrate, the security forces unleash a volley of live bullets at them, injuring and killing several people. Still more recently, security forces shot into a group of people as they prostrated in prayer at dawn in Cairo, killing at least thirty and wounding hundreds. In these instances, the great Egyptian democratic revolutionaries are not offended or outraged. They are shockingly and shamelessly silent.
Yet, after the military coup in Egypt, so many commentators have jumped to the conclusion that political Islam has been dealt a deathblow from which such movements will never recover. This could have been the case if Morsi was defeated in the ballot box, or if he was forced to resign through a persistent and patient movement of civil disobedience. Now that the Egyptian army has upheld the long honoured tradition of authoritarian societies by overthrowing a civilian government the picture has changed dramatically. Now that the streets of Egypt have once again become drenched with the blood of civilians and the prisons have become full of political dissidents, the losers and winners must be assessed in a very different way.
The reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood believed in the political process and tried to practice it. Like the Salvation Front of Algeria before them, they believed that democracy and Islamism are reconcilable, and that it is possible to build an overlapping moral consensus with non-Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood were consistently accused of being exclusionary and of functioning with a tribal mentality. Ironically, their opponents adopted a no less exclusionary discourse of calling the Muslim Brotherhood fascists and Nazis – an accusation as bad as being called infidels or sinners. While the Muslim Brotherhood showed that they are no angels and are subject to all the flaws of political competitors, Egyptian secularists once again demonstrated that their commitment to human rights and civil values is fickle at best.
Egyptian secularists were outraged when the comedian Bassem Youssef was harassed by Morsi’s government, but were blissfully untroubled when the only television station owned by the Brotherhood was closed down without legal cause or process.
They were outraged when Morsi infringed upon the non-existing integrity and independence of the Egyptian Supreme Court, but the same secularists are blissfully untroubled when the military abrogates a constitution that was passed by a popular vote, and hands over executive, legislative, and judicial power to a judge who boasts a long career of service to Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. Worst of all, Egyptian secularists were outraged when an anti-Morsi demonstrator was injured or killed but are shockingly unperturbed when those killed are suspected of being Islamists or pro-Islamists.
What has been dealt a deathblow after the Egyptian coup is moderate Islamism. What has been dealt a deathblow and has become a stale joke is the idea of human rights in Egypt. The so-called liberal secularists have once again showed themselves to be more than willing to forget about lofty principles when it comes to checkmating their Islamist opponents.
The so-called liberal secularists of Egypt exploit the language of democracy and human rights in the same way that Islamists exploit the symbols of Islam and the values of Shariah. Both preach what they do not practice, and both behave in ways that completely undermine what they preach.
So who emerges as the winner in Egypt? The people? I don’t think so. After the coup, hundreds of people have been injured, killed and imprisoned and many, many more are yet to come. Force begets force and despotism has a remarkable way of perpetuating itself, like a lethal cancer. The military, as always, emerges with its traditional privileges and powers intact. The horrendously savage security forces of Egypt emerge as winners.
Sadly, it is the so-called liberal secularists who have sent a resounding message to these security forces by looking the other way as they kill, arrest, and torture the right people this time. Suddenly, the secularists of Egypt are no longer talking about the police atrocities that sparked this revolution in the first place. No one is talking about the rights of Khaled Said and others who have been tortured to death. Indeed during the anti-Morsi demonstrations the great revolutionaries carried officers from amn al-dawla on their shoulders and gleefully cheered the people and the police are one hand.
Perhaps some have noticed that one faction of Islamists refused to support Morsi. It is the same faction that is adored by Saudi Arabia, and the same faction that produced Bin Laden. Saudi Arabia did everything it could to undermine a government that believes Islam can be reconciled with democracy. But the Islamists that have emerged unscathed and that will continue thrive are Wahhabi Muslims who do not believe in democracy and do not believe in civil and human rights. They are the Islamists who will continue to work to root a Saudi style theocracy in Egypt.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA.