Sisi, ISIS, Tunisia, and Arab Spring Values

Sisi - ISIS

In a recent article at Foreign Policy, Iyad el-Baghdadi described the near-eternal and present dichotomy hoisted upon the Middle East: Support a dictator, or his overthrow via violent Islamism. He finds an ironic symbolism in that the names of Sisi and ISIS are spelled backwards, and describes their evils as parallel.

Near the end of the article he reasserts the hope that motivated many in early 2011:

The Arab Spring is about believing that we don’t have to eternally choose between these two evils, and that we can present a real alternative. Arab Spring activists come from across the political spectrum, but they share a belief in fundamental individual rights, coexistence within one political system, and an open marketplace for ideas. These are the people who represent me — and whom I hope to have successfully, if briefly, represented in a public forum.

These are worthy values, and the author was briefly critical of others beside Sisi and ISIS in his critique:

Both extremes are born out of the same twentieth-century political culture that gave us authoritarian interpretations of just about every ideology: authoritarian Islamism, authoritarian nationalism, authoritarian socialism, and even, yes, authoritarian liberalism. Both view human rights not as inviolable or inherent, but as granted by the state, which can then reduce or suspend them at will. And both envision a state in which some people have less rights than others.

…..

Both sides have a deeply exclusionary, “with us or against us” worldview that manifests itself in a profound refusal to coexist with others. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, we saw the Mubarak-associated figure Shafik hint at banning Islamist parties should he get elected; during Morsi’s term we then watched Islamist discourse squeeze the space for civil society.

It would be worthy to dialogue with Baghdadi (the author, not the caliph!) about his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his criticism of them is far less severe, at least in this article. Indeed, he has tweeted and written prolifically, so his analysis is available.

But within the opening quote and listing of values comes a very poignant highlight: the open marketplace of ideas. Egypt did experience this open marketplace during its revolutionary period. With full respect to the diverse forces influencing public opinion, Egyptians overwhelmingly chose the Brotherhood and Salafis over the vision Baghdadi presents. Then, perhaps over and against his vision again, they overwhelming rejected Morsi.

The system that could tolerate this pendulum was never established, and perhaps this is Baghdadi’s lament. If left alone, would the Brotherhood have helped its establishment? Or are they just a milder version of ISIS, focused on a long term Islamization inconsistent with Baghdadi’s vision?

One problem is that the system the Brotherhood helped establish through their 2012 constitution enshrined an illiberalism antithetical to this vision. Shadi Hamid has explored this theme in his writing. Islamist organizations tend to moderate while in opposition, but then revert to their extremes when in power. But if such an illiberalism is what people vote for, if it wins the marketplace of ideas, how does it square with Baghdadi’s desire for fundamental individual rights?

He does not want to be forced back into a dichotomy, and this is noble. But would his vision have been able to triumph over time, allowing the people to reject Morsi four years later? Or eight? Or…

Perhaps, though the argument of urgency on the part of anti-Islamists is well known. To summarize, the Brotherhood would do all it could to sink its teeth into the existing system, to gain control of its levers and use it to their own advantage.

Fair or unfair, there is a distinction between the two current camps in the Egyptian struggle. The ideology of the Brotherhood — at its end goal, not necessarily through its stages or current rhetoric — does not support Baghdadi’s vision.

  • Fundamental individual rights: These are curbed by sharia, however variously defined.
  • Open marketplace of ideas: There are religious norms not allowed to be touched.
  • Coexistence within one political system: …

Here is the rub, and am I trying to find a comparison. A socialist versus capitalist vision of the economy can be very divergent. But European nations have navigated a path that has allowed various governments to traverse the path in different directions.

But how much allowance can there be for a democratic versus communistic approach to the state? Should the open marketplace of ideas, ostensibly welcomed in a democracy, allow momentum to build that would overthrow the system that enshrines it?

This later comparison seems closer to the struggle in Egypt. Liberal forces in Egypt have enshrined liberal values (to a degree) in the constitution, however much they recognize the violations used in putting down pro-Morsi protests, understanding also the violations on the part of certain protestors.

The question for this camp is if it will tolerate, or be able to resist, the continual violation. That is, will they accept reversion to Baghdadi’s dichotomy? The Mubarak regime held forward liberal values for thirty years — and all the while implemented a state of emergency that made it easy to circumvent them.

In all this, perhaps Baghdadi, like many, will find hope in Tunisia. The United States, two centuries ago, began a political experiment that removed religion from the sphere of the state, setting up a system meant to guard liberty and freedom. It has endured numerous contradictions along the years, but has been largely successful.

Now, Tunisia is beginning a political experiment that is seeking to integrate a religious, Islamist element. Will it be successful? Many Tunisians are worried, for in creating a system that allowed coexistence they had to beat back Islamist efforts to encode religion into the constitution. Efforts to do so in 2012 with the Brotherhood were not successful – the Brotherhood chose even more conservative Salafis as their partner. But the Brotherhood and the Tunisian Nahda come from the same family tree.

Is Nahda simply postponing a greater Islamizing goal? But more to the point, perhaps, of Baghdadi’s hope: Will the system created allow for the emergence and entrenchment of his Arab Spring values?

Consider the recent anti-liberal political moves of Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan, after an extended period of winning democratic elections. Will Tunisian Islamists consistently nudge and needle against values they have temporarily accepted? Will fear of a similar Islamist agenda lead to preemptive crackdown against them? Time will tell.

But the experiment is on, and perhaps Baghdadi and other activists frustrated with the dichotomy have a fledgling example of a third way.

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