'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 6 February 2011

[Stage Centre] Egypt

‘Democracy is like virginity: you can’t have a limited amount of it.’
[Quoted from BBC World Service Bulletin, 06/02/11]

Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American Professor of International Politics at Tufts University has the ear of the White House on all things relating to Iran. Interesting then that his 2009 book ‘Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It will Mean for Our World’ observes the rise of a new Muslim bourgeoise society that, he argues, will limit the allure of extremism in the Middle East. The battle in the Middle East, Nasr posits, will not be fought along religious battlelines but on grounds of business and commerce – the economy matters. In defence of his argument, Nasr cites Dubai and Turkey as models where, in the case of the latter, religious intolerance in an Islamist state gave way to a ‘Western-style conservatism’.

Nasr must be watching events unfold in Egypt with interest. The most commonly voiced concern of the protestors was that the rich/poor divide had become untenable – their relative poverty denied them the basic ‘privileges’, especially marriage. One source estimated that the protests were costing the country $310 million a day in lost productivity. Given that the GDP for Egypt is estimated at $188 billion that means over 7 days the protests directly lost over 0.5% of the annual GDP for the country. Little wonder then that Mubharak was able to convince elements within the protestors to get back to work.  

The prominence in the media of the Muslim Brotherhood becoming involved in the negotiations with the vice-president is important, but the background and attitudes towards this group are more so. Founded by the influential Hasan al-Banna in 1928 (assassinated, 1948) they are despised by core members of the al-Qaeda group, especially Ayman al-Zawahiri, who believes they sold out the principles of jihad in order to politicize. Since al-Qaeda see all statist regimes as apostate and backed by the West, no negotiation with them is possible. The group has been banned in Egypt since 1954 (under Nasser) since a member tried to assassinate the President, and over 4000 of its members were imprisoned. Most of the members were released in 1964 but a further assassination attempt was met with stern reprisals – many of the top leaders including a key idealogue, Sayyid Qutb (a jihadi ideologue whose death increased the appeal of his writings, especially Milestones) were hanged. Since the Muslim Brotherhood have been outlawed, the core has moved ever closer to the centre ground of Egyptian politics whilst more radical elements within the organisation have split off into other factions and faced severe crackdowns by the Egyptian police. Seventeen members of the Muslim Brotherhood, running as independents since the group is prohibited from running, won seats in the Peoples' Assembly in 2000 in government out of approximately 450 seats and candidates allied to the group accounted for approximately 20% of the 454 seats in 2005.

This goes some way to explaining the Pew Global Attitudes poll released in January 2011  which saw a large preference across Muslim majority countries for democracy. Half of Egyptian Muslims interviewed saw Islam as playing a small role in politics, half saw it as a playing a large part and over 80% saw Islam as having a positive influence on politics. But the more interesting outcome was when asked about if they thought there was a struggle between modernizers and Islamic fundamentalists in the country and if so, which of the two groups one identified with. Only two countries had a majority that identified with the Islamists over the modernizers - Egypt and Nigeria. For Egyptians, Islamism means the Muslim Brotherhood, who, as stated, has played a very conservative, centre-right political role in the country. They thus have a vast amount of leverage in the ongoing discussions and command more broad support, according to Pew, that the Western-backed “modernizing” element of which we assume Mubharak is a tainted figurehead. 

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