By Nasos Abuel
As many analysts have remarked, the Arab Spring has been succeeded by a Muslim winter. Although it was liberal ideas of democracy and social justice that provided the impetus for most revolutions in the Arab world, it is conservative Islamic tenets that are being employed in order to erect the new edifice of the Arab states. In most countries that underwent a political transformation following the deposition of their tyrants (Egypt, Tunisia) the Muslim Brotherhood has won national elections. We can only wonder what the future holds for these Arab countries and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood that have been articulated in Egypt and Tunisia include economic recovery accompanied by full employment, democratisation and a return to the teachings of Islam. According to the Brotherhood, “It is not Islam that abandoned the Muslims; it is the Muslims who abandoned Islam”. Evidently, their promises comprise a populist platform that has defined its aims but has not as of yet delineated the necessary measures in achieving them. Undoubtedly, the Brotherhood, having come to power through national elections, basks in the legitimacy democracy offers. Its use of popular referendums to decide critical legislative acts (such as the Constitution in Egypt) demonstrates its ostensible willingness to address the people. In addition, it claims that its actions will not harm other religious minorities, such as the Copts in Egypt.
Economic recovery, the key to further legitimation of these governments, requires great patience and a constellation of favourable conditions. A country like Egypt, which suffers from social instability, ruined public finances with a rising budget deficit, and scarce private investment, will find it difficult to achieve any economic growth in the near future. In particular, Egypt must not only eliminate the cronyism and corruption of the Mubarak era that paralysed its economy, but also reject the statist system that rendered all of Egypt dependent on government money. The private sector in Egypt is feeble and cannot compete on the international scale. In effect, any privatisations of state enterprises will probably end-up in the hands of foreign capital. This is not necessarily harmful, since foreign investment is imperative in order to modernise the economic structure of the country, foster employment, and allow the Egyptian economy to become incorporated in a globalised market. Nonetheless, such privatisation must be pursued with utmost caution and careful planning by the government (i.e. the Brotherhood) so as to prevent sell-outs of vital industries and reckless exploitation by foreign owners of resources. Furthermore, the government must engage in economic reform in order to release the creative and entrepreneurial forces that are currently in stasis.
This analysis of the growth prospects begs the question: Is the Muslim Brotherhood suited for this colossal project of economic modernisation? Theoreticians of the Brotherhood have claimed that a market economy does not deviate from Islamic economic theory. This assertion is not inconsistent with the Christian Democratic economic doctrine that has prevailed in Europe, where parties motivated by religious principles (namely Christian) have supported market-oriented economic models. But the Muslim Brotherhood may seek to entrench its loyal Islamic sector by adopting the clientelism of the Mubarak regime: patronage is an invaluable tool in the hands of any government. Such favouritism would not bode well for economic growth.
But whilst economic growth is a domain with innumerable factors that cannot be controlled, the formation of institutions is directly connected to the ideals of the Brotherhood. If the Muslim Brotherhood intends to bring the Arab world closer to Islam through the imposition of Sharia law, then it is safe to say that secular institutions will be demolished gradually but steadily. The condition of second-rate citizens will be perpetuated and the law will become largely the monopoly of religious leaders, thereby displacing the legislative role of the elected National Assembly. Unfortunately, it is not only in Egypt that we witness the dismembering of the secular state, but also in Tunisia (and in fact in Turkey), despite its strong secular legacy.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood may espouse a more moderate approach in light of the religious minorities within Arab States for reasons of national reconciliation and social harmony. Indeed, there are practical reasons for such an approach. Firstly, a climate of social disorder is not conducive for investment, which creates jobs and prosperity. Secondly, religious minorities are often amongst the most powerful economic players (e.g. the Copts in Egypt) and silencing their voice in the political discourse or ostracising them from the social lattice may be calamitous for the nation’s economy. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood may opt to follow some “juste milieu”: whilst it will seek to strengthen the Islamic character of institutions, it will probably not completely efface their secular components.
In conclusion, one may argue that a moderate Muslim Brotherhood is the best solution for this period of transition. As elections have revealed, the Arab peoples are not fully committed to secularism nor are they disposed to Islamic totalitarianism. Therefore, a political hybrid is required. Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood can devote its efforts into becoming an Islamic Democratic Party, similar to the Christian Democratic Party of Germany (CDU). Such a proposition would mean that the party would be guided by the values of Islam but not by the rigid implementation of Sharia law, so that religious tolerance would still be possible. Hopefully, the Muslim Brotherhood will properly interpret the omens of our time and act like a political force with its eye set on the future.
Nasos Abuel ’16 is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.