In Egypt, neither Islamism nor militarism is the solution. What we need is a visionary founding document, and the stillborn constitution of 1954 fits the bill.
It is a sign of just how awry the situation has become this past week that Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya actually sounds like one of the more sensible players on the political stage. The group said the very preservation of the state depended on genuine reconciliation based on respect of the constitution and legitimacy.
Despite Al-Jamaa’s continued belief in Sharia as a “complete and perfect” system, this moderate, conciliatory message is a far cry from the 1990s when the organisation was engaged in a violent insurgency aimed at destroying the state. This included the assassination of leading secular intellectual Farag Foda and the 1997 Luxor massacre.
Meanwhile, the state which Al-Jamaa failed to destroy seems strangely fixated on self-destruction or at the very least implosion, while the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Al-Jamaa split away because the former abandoned violence, is ratcheting up its inflammatory rhetoric and refuses any dialogue or compromise. Likewise, the army has been doing its own inciting and engaging in evermore violent crackdowns against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
Last week, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, dressed in the ultimate dictator chic of sunglasses and full military regalia, urged people to take to the streets on Friday to give the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chillingly, a “mandate” to “face possible violence and terrorism.”
Though shocking, it is not so surprising that a military man should think that a political problem can be resolved by force of arms. But if history and common sense teach us anything it is that words cannot be fought with swords; you can only combat ideas with ideas.
Sure, if some extremists resort to violence, then they should be handled with reasonable force to protect other civilians and society. However, if the ideology that led them to take up arms is not engaged with and challenged effectively, and the root causes tackled, then the idea will live on and mutate, even if some of its advocates are imprisoned or killed.
That is why it is so worrying and terrifying that many, otherwise sensible and intelligent people responded to Al-Sisi’s call. It is also disappointing that some movements that stood up to Morsi’s bullying and tyranny have decided, at least for now, to throw in their lot with the freedom-loathing military.
Take Tamarod. After employing admirably peaceful and democratic means in its grassroots campaign against the ousted president, which saw the rebel movement collect 22 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi’s departure, it urged people to show their support for Al-Sisi. “We call on the people to take to the streets on Friday to support their armed forces… in confronting the violence and terrorism practised by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr was quoted as saying.
There is certainly a lot wrong with the Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, but accusing them of “terrorism” is disingenuous to say the least. Yes, a minority has committed acts of violence, but for the most part, the protests have been peaceful. Besides, playing the terrorism card , which comes straight out of the neo-conservative and Mubarak handbook, only fuels demonisation and leads to escalation.
Regardless of what wrongs the Brotherhood as an organisation may or may not have committed, the truth of the matter is the killing of unarmed civilians, as occurred during the massacre on Saturday, will not only do anything to combat terrorism, in many definitions of the term, it counts as an act of state-sanctioned terror.
Luckily, a growing number of voices are rising up against the din of jingoistic nationalism to say neither the military nor the Brotherhood, neither Morsi nor Al-Sisi. There are early signs that some in the anti-Brotherhood camp are already regretting and questioning their support of the military they had opposed so hard, and to such cost, during the first transition.
Even Tamarod is taking small steps in that direction. On Sunday, the movement voiced alarm at Saturday’s massacre. “Our campaign supports the state’s plans in fighting terrorism; however, we have earlier stressed that this support doesn’t include the taking of extraordinary measures, or the contradiction of freedoms and human rights,” Badr said.
It won’t be long, I hope, before it dawns on Tamarod that a so-called “war on terror” cannot be waged, as George W Bush demonstrated so decisively, without undermining freedoms and human rights. This can be seen in how the Ministry of the Interior, probably with SCAF’s blessing, has reinstated state security departments ostensibly tasked with combating extremism and monitoring political activity.
This Orwellian apparatus was shut down thanks to the 2011 revolution and, unsurprisingly, Tamarod has rejected this “return of Mubarak’s state security.” And herein lies the rub: Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, Morsi and now Sisi are all cut out of the same authoritarian cloth.
Morsi, the Brotherhood and the Islamists proved conclusively that Islamism is not the solution. Pretty soon, people will wake up to the realisation (yet again) that Al-Sisi and the SCAF are definitely not the answer.
What we need is a third way in which religion is for the individual, the army is for defence against foreign aggression and the nation is for everyone: secularists and Islamists, young and old, women and men, rich and poor.
One effective, potent and highly symbolic way to achieve this is to revive the stillborn 1954 draft constitution, which lay forgotten and collecting dust for decades in the basement of the Arab League.
Showing remarkable foresight of the dangers ahead, it set out to craft Egypt as a parliamentary democracy, which would’ve prevented the presidency from accumulating the arbitrary powers it now enjoys. It is also full of progressive ideals, including “absolute freedom of belief”, freedom of expression, labour rights, women’s rights, social justice and solidarity, including with foreigners who do not enjoy the same rights in their home countries.
Had this constitution become the republic’s founding document, Egypt today would have been a very different, and much better place. Adopting it, albeit belatedly, can help Egypt become that better place by laying the foundations for true equality.