بهي الدين حسن

The acceptable face of opposition

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

The Muslim Brotherhood and National Democratic Party tread the same path, writes Baheyeddin Hassan

A widespread debate ensued in Egypt following comments by the minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, criticising the hijab, the veil, and its spread among Egyptian women. Participants in the debate split into two major camps, a minority supporting Hosni’s stance, or else his right to express his point of view, and a majority which accused him of offending many Egyptian women, and Islam itself. They demanded he should be removed from his office of minister in an Islamic state. Hosni remains a member of the cabinet, though the debacle saw Egypt’s transformation into a theocratic state moving ahead.

Parliament weighed into the controversy as Muslim Brotherhood deputies were joined by their NDP colleagues in railing against Hosni, the chief of protocol at the presidency and the parliamentary speaker being among the critics.

While this is not the first time NDP MPs have joined hands with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is the first time an attack has been given such leverage by the NDP, and included such senior party figures. The controversy saw parliament, for the first time, turned into a forum in which others were accused of “denying established and acknowledged religious principles” and “betraying the religious creed, the state and the people” as well as “the principles of Islam”. Egyptians have not forgotten that following similar accusations outside parliament in the past terrorist groups assassinated secularist thinker Farag Foda in 1992, and then attempted to assassinate Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Now parliament appears to be in danger of becoming a forum for these accusations, and they are being hurled by the ruling party’s representatives.

The attitude of the speaker of parliament, who failed to stop the accusations of treason and apostasy, as well as explicit innuendoes about Hosni being a homosexual and personally corrupt, was particularly shocking. He did not attempt to correct those who stated that Islam is the religion of all Egyptians. The session was infested by demagoguery which raised questions about how sincere Muslims can be in their pursuit of a dialogue with the Other (be it Christian or Western) when dialogue among themselves seems so impossible.

The ascendance of religious discourse within Egypt’s political system began with the 1967 defeat which undermined the legitimacy of the political system established in July 1952. The ruling system in response started to recall religion in order to co-opt support and fill the vacuum created by the July Revolution’s silencing of independent voices, political parties, trade unions, syndicates, non governmental organisations and the media. The religious institution — Islamic or Christian — starting from the mosque and the church, was left to emerge as the sole podium for political concerns to be expressed.

During the 1970s, when the late president Anwar El-Sadat faced a challenge to the legitimacy of his system from the leftist opposition, his principal resort was religion. He countered the challenge by employing political Islamist groups and amending the second article of the constitution to enshrine the role of the religious institution within the political system. The educational curricula and state media were used to launch a process of Islamisation that was far from being initiated by political Islamist groups, which were at the time of little consequence.

The constitutional amendment, which stipulates that Islamic law, Sharia, is the principal source of legislation, geared Egypt towards the promulgation of a religious state. Yet when the then speaker of parliament rushed to play the part of the “railroad switcher”, setting a plan to revise and Islamise existing legislation, he was removed from office and the whole file was placed back in the freezer.

His successor insisted the views of the religious institution could only be advisory, and that legislation remained the prerogative of the parliamentary majority, which was not necessarily identical with the views of the religious institution. Rifaat Al-Mahgoub was subsequently assassinated.

The current speaker of parliament, Fathi Sorour, has opted to act differently. He set a number of alarming precedents during the ” hijab session”. These include the principle that religious considerations have the upper hand when friction occurs between religion and public affairs, that the only reference in religious affair are the clergy, and that parliament can criticise the personal views of ministers, especially if they are related to religion. This reminds me of the Iranian parliament.

It is noteworthy that such principles give the parliament the right, for example, to evaluate the paintings of Farouk Hosni because they somehow constitute “a personal view of public affairs”.

A theocratic state can be defined as one run by a government that believes, or at least that the people believe, it is guided by God. In such countries men of religion assume office and/or exercise political power, and religious legislation is the cornerstone of its legal system. Iran and the Vatican are examples of such states. Egypt, however, since the amendment of the second article of the constitution, has been a constitutional theocratic state, given there is now an obligation upon parliament to check on the opinions of the religious institution over draft legislation, especially when it concerns personal status laws. In some cases, such as the law regulating agricultural land tenancies, the religious institution has been courted in order to give its blessing, with concessions being granted in fields outside parliament. This was the role of religious authorities over the censorship of publications, literary and artistic creative work enhanced, until it was allowed the right to seize publications. Simultaneously, the role of the religious institution in confronting extremism was demoted.

Egypt’s cultural elite and human rights NGOs have been striving for decades to resist giving the religious institution any role in censoring freedom of thought and literary and artistic creative work. Yet with the announcement by the minister of culture following the hijab crisis that a committee comprising religious scholars would be established to monitor the activities of his ministry Egypt appeared to be taking a step on the road of transforming itself from a “constitutional theocratic state” into a “theocratic state. It seems to be approaching the Iranian pattern, moving away from the civil state. That the minister subsequently rescinded his decision to form the committee hardly obliterates the reactions that led to its declaration in the first place.

A few months ago, when the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood was asked about what he would do if he came to political office, he said he would form a committee of religious scholars at each ministry to give advice to the minister. But this is where Egypt appears to be heading, even without the Muslim Brotherhood in office. A committee at the Ministry of Culture will be followed by committees at the ministries of interior and defence. The religious institution already reviews all legislation passed by parliament and has begun to issue “technological” fatwas, such as the one given recently concerning the use of the Internet in economic interactions.

Asked recently about the difference between the NDP’s discourse and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, the deputy supreme guide of Muslim Brotherhood answered that “there is no difference”.

In June 1967, the legitimacy of the system that followed the revolution was shed and its lifespan came to an end. The victory of October 1973 infused new blood into the veins of the regime, but only for a short period, and it failed to enshrine any new legitimacy. Establishing a real democratic system would revitalise the legitimacy of the current system but this appears no more than a pipe dream, with the state having assumed the costs will be more than it is willing to bear. So we are back to the same strategy as the state, just as it did in 1967, attempts to reinforce its legitimacy by resorting to religion. We move ever further down the road towards becoming a theocratic state.

The problem faced by Egypt’s ruling elite is not that the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes an opposition; rather, they are competitors on the same road, which is why they are more dangerous. Leftists and Liberals, on the other hand, are the acceptable face of “opposition”, suggesting the existence of a “pluralistic system”. The most acceptable thing about them, though, is that they suggest the NDP is pursuing options that differ from those that are being pursued by the Muslim Brotherhood.


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