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Hichem Karoui: Why Egypt matters to Arabs
July 14, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

As the crisis continues in Egypt, three observations should be made: first point, we have to admit that there is no good coup d’etat, no good military rule. Democracy and good governance are the affair of the civilians. Military officers, regardless of their professional competence, their nationalism, their humanism, their goodwill, are not qualified for governing countries, particularly after a popular revolution against dictatorship. The Egyptian military is no exception.

Second point, we have to admit that democracy has been the victim of political manipulation under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt could not be left to become a big failure. Even if nobody questioned the legitimacy of president Mohammed Mursi, the lack of consensus under his rule has jeopardised the state by creating a deep social cleavage dividing Egyptians.

Third point, unfortunately the coup — even backed by half-Egypt — is still a military intervention in politics, according to an old backward tradition invented for the use of underdeveloped countries. I don’t object to the purpose of serving the Egyptian society against the manipulations of one political group that seemed on the way to dangerously accumulating powers.

Without check and balance, democracy is but a delusion. Nonetheless, to remove a thorn from the foot, is it necessary to come with a hammer? The military is the hammer. That’s why the foot is now unusable and the entire leg is in bad state. Who knows what would happen next? The situation is merely unpredictable.

This said, Egypt would remain ungovernable to the hardliners as long as they are unable to make a consensus around them. That means to give up their old idea of involving the whole society in their project. The consensus is anyway necessary for any political party. The aim should be political participation, not domination of the state and the society.

Egypt is important to all the Arabs; and the Arabs are probably more important in its history than any political party, hardliners included. It is the destiny of Egypt to play the role of moderator within the Arab world. That’s why the Arab League is in Cairo. This fact, emanating from history and geopolitics, can hardly be changed whatever the party in power.

Egypt has always been the cultural bridge between Maghreb and Mashreq.

Throughout the depression and World War Two, Arab nationalism and Islam combined to form a powerful message to be used against colonisation. However, the most successful nationalist leaders could both wield that message and also talk a language the coloniser understood, as they were often either Western-educated or influenced by Western thinkers.

North-African nationalist leaders such as Allal Al Fassi, who led the Moroccan Independence party, Habib Bourguiba, the lawyer who founded the Neo-Destour party and became the first president of independent Tunisia, embodied the synthesis of Muslim values and Western thought. They not only represented that synthesis but claimed it as well. Nasser represents the same trend, though more sensitive to the broader Arabo-Islamic cause and non-alignment.

This will be reflected in their political achievements since the independence. Modernisation and reformism was their proclaimed objectives. Yet, they were not the first to claim it.

Modernisation was a notion defended by Muhammad Abdu (1900-1905) who thought it possible only within an Islamic frame of references, as well as by his secular successors like Lotfi as-Sayyed (1872-1963), Saad Zaghloul (dead 1927), Taha Hussein (1889-1973), Ismael Madhar (1891-1962), etc.

Lotfi as-Sayyed did not treat directly issues related to religion, but dedicated most of his work to Egyptian nationalism, which he considered to be best served if it embraced liberalism as philosophy and values. In one of his articles published in Al Jareeda (1913), he contended that Egypt’s biggest handicaps to progress were “its delusions regarding the so-called Arab unity (Al Ittihad Al Arabi) and the so-called Islamic League (Al Jâmi’a Al Islamiyya).”

Synthetic and secular trends will meet again in the period between the Wars, giving birth to another effluent of renewal where we can observe the conjugated influences of Al Afghani, Abdu, Shemayel, Farah Anton, Jacob Seruf, and Salama Mousa.

Thus, we see a meld of Islam and secularism whose thinkers will be labelled “secular Muslims.”

In the period from 1925 to 1930, this trend will reach a climax. In 1913, Mansour Fahmi (dead 1958) wrote his Ph.D dissertation about “the women condition in the Islamic traditions and its development” (supervised by Levy-Bruhl). It was described as a “scientific research, liberated from commitment to the truth of revelation.”

In 1925, the Azharite sheikh Ali Abderrazek published a book titled Islam and the foundations of governance, in which he argued that secularism exists initially in Islam as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not consider appointing a successor as pertaining to the religion. The importance of Abderrazek’s work is that as an Azharite insider, he was able to give evidence from his erudition in religious texts and Islamic law and history that secularism was embedded in Islam. So, it is not imported.

In 1926 was published Taha Hussein’s book on “ante-Islamic poetry” which evoked for the first time ever the possibility of analysing with methodical doubt historic and religious texts.

In the same year, Ismael Madhar was calling in “Al Muqtataf” to fight against the metaphysical mind blended with a little science represented by Al Afghani and replace it with the scientific European mind, without trying any kind of synthetism.

In the same period also appeared the first Arabic translations of August Comte’s positivism as well as biographies and essays on Rousseau by Muhammad Hussein Haykal (1888-1956).

In 1930, the Tunisian writer Tahar Haddad (1899-1935) published Our Women in the Shari’a and Society, which is considered as a herald of later feminist works and which has probably paved the way for the Tunisian Code of Personal Status promulgated in 1956 by Habib Bourguiba. Haddad took up the case against prejudices regarding the status of women that were unjustly attributed to Islam calling for a return to Ijtihad (interpretation). He inspired bold reforms on the female cause. He focused on the fact that a radical social reform was needed. His work reminds us of Mansour Fahmi’s dissertation.

Egypt has exerted a great influence on the modern Arab culture. Whatever the Muslim Brotherhood pretends, these historic facts cannot be erased. They are the engine behind Mursi’s removal.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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