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Egypt: a new dawn and a lesson for the west

The downfall of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood might be a sign of democracy finally coming to Egypt, but above all it shows how tragically the west has failed to grasp what is going on in the Middle East.

Tim Parsons
30 August 2012

It is still unclear how Egypt’s tentative steps towards freedom and democracy will finally evolve. Will the nascent presidency of Mohamed Morsi emerge as an epoch-changing moment in which the Muslim Brotherhood finally asserts and keeps power through the ballot box, or will Egypt’s military retain control of the levers of power condemning the country to many more years of poverty, political inertia and economic decline. At the moment no one knows the answers to these questions as both the world and the people of Egypt itself watch the power struggle continue between the newly elected Morsi and the old military junta.

Newly elected Egyptian president Morsi in Tahrir Square. Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.

Newly elected Egypt's President Morsi in Tahrir Square. Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.

What is abundantly clear however is the complete lack of both insight and political judgement with which the west’s political leaders and policy experts interpret the developing events in both Egypt and the wider Middle East, as the tide of change initiated by the Arab Spring continues apace. It was the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said who more than thirty years ago alerted us to the paradox inherent in what he described as western Orientalism, the study of the Muslim Middle East. Despite the fact that considerable resources in the western world are invested in the study and analysis of the Middle East and Muslim world there continues to be evidence of a striking inability of western politicians and policy makers to accurately predict some of the most momentous changes in Middle Eastern politics over recent decades.

Just as leaders in the west were shocked by the rapid collapse and fall of the Shah of Iran’s despotic regime back in 1979, so they were shocked and surprised again by the sudden fall of their puppet dictator in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The surprises continued when the Gaddafi dictatorship tottered and fell in Libya and Assad’s regime in Syria began to crumble soon after. Throughout the progress of these events western policy approaches have been posited upon some fundamentally flawed assumptions and opinions. First, the grotesque and unsustainable assumption that the only way to keep al-Qaeda out of the Middle East was to continue to support and prop up the unelected criminal elites who held power in so many strategically important Middle Eastern states:  from Egypt, to Bahrain, to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Second the equally baseless assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood was anti-democratic and posed a major threat to the west. It is ironic indeed that it is in fact the Brotherhood, those 'Islamists' and 'fundamentalists' who have, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the formally western-backed Egyptian Army, delivered to the Egyptian people a democratically elected parliament and now presidency.

Equally mystifying to the west’s Middle East policy experts is the cordial relations that exist between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, a relationship that can actually be traced back to the time of Hassan al-Banna the Brotherhood’s founder who sought the support of the Coptic Church in a unified resistance to British colonialism. Policy miscalculations such as these not only highlight our 'experts'' ignorance of Middle East politics and misinterpretation of the role of Islam in Muslim society but also illuminate a singular lack of knowledge about Eastern Christian society as well. (Even now western policymakers are trying to fathom the apparent complexities inherent in the close political alliance between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the country’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement). The third and final erroneous assumption is that majorities in Arab countries aspired to the western model of secular liberal democracy where anything goes and the rights of the individual are paramount.    

Whilst it may be true that many of the young men and women who have demonstrated in Tahrir square and elsewhere subscribe to a future vision for their country which would not be dissimilar to that found in the west with a largely secular society that embraced many aspects of western culture and society, it is equally true that a vast number of people in the region, probably the vast majority, do not want to create a western-style society in the Middle East. Yes, they want freedom and democracy and the restoration of individual rights and freedoms. But rather it is the rights and freedoms conferred by Islam that they aspire to, not the godless decadence and debauchery that many may feel characterises society in the west. For many observant Muslims commonplace features of western life remain anathema. Normative facets of western liberalism such as the sexual exploitation of women, the often sneering indifference to the institution of marriage, gay rights, and a casual approach to teenage pregnancy and abortion are, for some, aspects of our society to be pitied not emulated.

So where does this leave the future relationship between the western powers, principally North America and western Europe, and the emerging powers in the newly-configured Middle East? Perhaps developments in Turkey can provide an insight into how things may change: for the better. In recent years Turkey has evolved from being an avowedly secular western-leaning Muslim state largely controlled by the military, to a successful and fully-functioning parliamentary democracy with the military firmly under the control of the civil power and a government that although western-leaning and progressive economically, is ultra-conservative and empathetic to Islam in social and domestic policy. Forced into reconsidering a future role and position both in the region and in the world by the constant rebuffs and prevarication it has faced when pursuing its previous ambition to join the European Union, Turkey is now treading another path. With a thriving economy and growing population the political sclerosis and slow-motion financial collapse in the eurozone must now look decidedly unappealing both to Turkey’s leaders and their electorate. Instead, Turkey is happy to bask in the admiration of the wider Muslim world for the achievements of a moderately Islamist government. If Turkey can play a positive role in supporting and fostering the emergence of democratic government in its majority Sunni Muslim neighbour Syria, Turkey’s prestige and influence in the region and across the Muslim world, will grow and grow. 

It will of course be in the wider strategic interests of both Turkey and a democratic Egypt to continue to have strong and close ties with the west. And those future ties are likely to continue to be built upon mutual defence, security and economic interests, but with Turkey and Egypt playing the role of partners, and not that of supplicants, to western governments.  

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