By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely — Lord Acton in 1887 reflecting on Europe’s descent into despotism. Keeping stumm, only blurting out objections to mixed bathing beaches and gin and tonics, hid the Egyptian Islamists’ intentions: to erect gibbets to crucify killers and chopping blocks to amputate an arm and a leg off thieves.
Crucifixions? Why was the country allowed to vote without knowing what Salafi MPs had in mind? Of course, you say, it must be a hair-brained idea from a small cabal of extremists.
Hold on. The arm-and-a-leg bill has arrived in parliament, supported by other Islamists and clerics from Al-Azhar, the venerable headquarters of Sunni learning.
The bill is symbolic of a concerted effort to convert Egypt into a theocratic Islamic state. This week is pivotal as those who’ll write the new constitution were picked.
Seeking power, Islamic candidates assured the electorate they were in favor of multi-party government. Everyone’s views would be respected, they said. Now they’ve got power they’ve abandoned tolerance blatantly.
They’re going for broke: an Islamic constitution, president, government and parliament.
The voters were duped. The secular and liberal members of the new parliament are being ignored; the Islamists have called for a vote of no confidence in the government. They’ve reneged on their pledge not to run for the presidency, announcing they’re looking for a candidate and they’ve given Islamists free reign to write a constitution they want.
The Islamist onslaught is contrary to the spirit of Tahrir.
Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding, Mahatma Gandhi said wisely. Voltaire’s opinion was that tolerance was the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly, he said.
Can a way be found to accommodate pluralism before it’s too late? Or, is Egypt embarking on an Iranian-style path that hands power to a bigoted religious clique?
If the Muslim Brotherhood that dominates political decision-making can take U-turns whenever they want, what’s to stop them renouncing the Peace Treaty with Israel?
If they can ignore election commitments, what are the portents for peace? Not good.
The Brotherhood has assured Hamas that the border between Gaza and Egypt will be opened permanently so that goods and people can cross freely — a shift of policy and a slap in the face to Israel, which didn’t go unnoticed. Israel sent two planes to Cairo to pick up the embassy’s furniture and filing cabinets.
An Israeli official told Reuters the Egyptians are free to do what they want on their border, of course, but we are working on the assumption that, if only for the sake of their own national security, they will ensure weapons and terrorists do not pass into Gaza from Sinai, or in the other direction.
Iran’s support for Hamas is also a critical piece of the new diplomatic jigsaw being put together by Egypt. The Tehran news agency IRNA reports Iran is ready to expand relations with Egypt, quoting Mojtaba Amani, Iran’s top diplomat holding the Egypt brief.
Visiting Cairo last month he was following up on a meeting between Egyptian businessmen and Iran’s Chamber of Commerce last year. Amani said talks were underway to resume Iran-Egypt relations immediately. Bilateral relations would require a change in laws, he said. As it stands, Iranians are not permitted to enter Egypt.
So, one way or another, Egypt is developing a new foreign policy. A particular word came up last Wednesday when the Chinese vice president Xi Jinping met the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohammed Amr in Beijing.
China hopes to work closely with Egypt to further consolidate political trust, Xi said.
Diplomats noted that particular reference. Trust — or lack of it — is at the heart of the NGO dispute between America and Egypt. The US Embassy harbored a group of NGO workers because the Egyptians couldn’t be trusted not to throw them into jail indefinitely. Americans and Europeans paid $5 million bail for the same reason.
Now Egyptians have reason not to trust their leaders. During the weeks of electioneering candidates pooh-poohed any suggestion that Sharia law would become the norm.
Yet that’s what’s united the Islamists. The Salafis’ bill would introduce a section of Islamic law that specifies crucifixion for robbery and amputations for theft — hands for the first and second offence, feet for third or fourth convictions.
Quranic punishments were abolished in the Ottoman Empire in favor of the French penal code, which Egypt adopted in 1875, restricting Sharia to matters of personal status. Though some Egyptian politicians flirted with introducing Islamic law in the late 70s and early 80s, the attempt was dropped.
Now the Islamists have the majority in parliament and, though they swore they wouldn’t, they’re fixing the constitution and the presidency. According to Al Ahram, 70 percent of the constituent assembly is from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice and the Salafis Nour parties.
Only 14 of the 50 MPs are independents or non-Islamists and even the 50 non-parliamentarians are dominated by pro-Islamists, according to a list examined by Al Ahram.
So much for the new dawn, the sacrifice of hundred and the suffering of tens of thousands.
Power gradually destroys every humane and gentle virtue, said Edmund Burke, the Anglo Irish politician philosopher whose support for the American Revolution was tempered by his condemnation of the French.
Egypt’s revolution deserves support. But those who claim to be revolutionaries do not.
They can’t be trusted if they can’t be sincere.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.