On Egypt

Demonstration in Cairo, 25 January 2011 (Juan Cole)

For the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world

— President John F. Kennedy, address to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, September 26, 1963.

It will be tempting for those of us in North America to view the demonstrations and protests in Egypt as a nascent democratic movement; our media and indeed our own popular consciousness tends to view most of these grassroots uprisings through the lens of the American War of Independence.  But it’s worth remembering that revolutions more often yield tyrannies just as awful (if not moreso) than the ones they were fomented to destroy.  The Jacobin Reign of Terror, Stalin’s Great Purge and Mao Zedong’s many domestic slaughters (suppression of counterrevolutionaries, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution) are just a few of the obvious examples.

We also have a regrettable tendency to regard democracy as an end in itself, when in fact it is merely a decision-making tool.  Democracy allows a society to express its values, and Canadians and Americans see it as being an intrinsic good because our societies propagate values that promote socioeconomic mobility for the vast bulk of our populations.  We’ve been remarkably blessed, having been spared (so far) the tragedy and shame of electing a genuine opponent-slaughtering homegrown despot.  Other nations—Haiti and the Philippines, for example—haven’t been nearly so lucky.  But even if a democratic society avoids the hazard of electing a closeted tyrant, there is always the possibility that the values it expresses will be quite antithetical to equality and social harmony; Canada’s two original Indian Acts, America’s Jim Crow laws and Britain’s Test Act are all pretty good examples of democratically mandated inequality.

With these caveats in mind, we would be right to wonder what sort of domestic and foreign policies an Egypt freed of the Mubaraks might yield.  There’s the transnational Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but are they popular enough to command the allegiance of the average man in the street?  What are attitudes in Egypt actually like?  According to a backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations (Islam: Governing Under Sharia, Nov. 2010) there are broad majorities supporting both democracy and the strict application of sharia:

In a 2007 University of Maryland poll (PDF), more than 60 percent of the populations in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia responded that democracy was a good way to govern their respective countries, while at the same time, an average of 71 percent agreed with requiring “strict application of [sharia] law in every Islamic country.” Whether democracy and Islam can coexist is a topic of heated debate. Some Islamists argue democracy is a purely Western concept imposed on Muslim countries. Others feel Islam necessitates a democratic system and that democracy has a basis in the Quran since “mutual consultation” among the people is commended (42:38 Quran). John L. Esposito and John O. Voll explain the debate in a 2001 article in the journal Humanities.

Noah Feldman, a former CFR adjunct senior fellow, writes in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article that the full incorporation of Islamic law is viewed as creating “a path to just and legitimate government in much of the Muslim world.” It places duplicitous rulers alongside their constituents under the rule of God. “For many Muslims today, living in corrupt autocracies, the call for [sharia] is not a call for sexism, obscurantism or savage punishment but for an Islamic version of what the West considers its most prized principle of political justice: the rule of law,” Feldman argues.

— Johnson, Toni and Lauren Vriens.  “Islam: Governing Under Sharia.” Council on Foreign Relations, November 2010. [Emphasis mine]

For those steeped in the intellectual currents and political economies of the West, that final bolded sentence in the second paragraph may read like the mathematical equation 2 + 2 = potato.  How do they get that result from those inputs?  In the Western world, sharia is shorthand for 7th century oppression; but in the Muslim world, sharia offers—at least theoretically—a way out of the corruption and tyranny governing their lives today.  Western modes of governance and economics, on the other hand, are perceived as being the cause of Muslim poverty and decline.  A further CFR backgrounder (Sharia and Militancy, Nov. 2010) explains:

Sharia in the Muslim world is often associated with good governance. A 2008 Gallup poll of Muslims in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt found sharia is “perceived to promote the rule of law and justice.” Most Muslim-majority countries have political systems and legal codes derived from Western models. However, many of these countries have majority populations that are economically or politically depressed. John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, writes in his book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, that many Muslim nations suffer from “overcrowded cities lacking social support systems, high unemployment, government corruption, and a growing gap between rich and poor,” and sharia’s appeal can be attributed to a number of factors, including a widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem. “Many Muslims blame Western models of political and economic development as sources of moral decline and spiritual malaise,” and look to sharia for social and political order, Esposito says.

A 2008 Gallup poll of ten Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia, indicates that most Muslim populations are not advocating theocracy (PDF) when they envision sharia’s role in governance. Experts say many Muslims view sharia as a means to be liberated from government corruption and believe it can exist within a democratic and inclusive framework. However, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an Islamic law expert at Emory University, writes in his book, Islam and the Secular State, that advancing the cause of a theocratic Islamic state assumes that the ruling authorities will be less corrupt and more pious than those of a secular one. An-Na’im believes this assumption rests on a weak premise. He writes: “The fundamental defect of the idea of the Islamic state is that the logic of the invocation of religious or moral authority can be very easily inverted, so that instead of regulating political power by religious authority, religion itself becomes subordinated to power.”

— Johnson, Toni.  “Sharia and Militancy.”  Council on Foreign Relations, November 2010. [Emphasis mine]

This dichotomy—that a majority of Muslims want both democracy and strict sharia, and see no inherent paradox in the mixing of the two—is fundamental if we want to understand where the so-called “Muslim street” is coming from.  For this is exactly what the polling results tell us, and Egypt is foremost in wanting to have the best of those two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.  Let’s have a look at the poll results from the 2007 University of Maryland study, Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda.  It’s more illuminating than a thousand breathless reporter-in-the-crowd pieces.  I will quote the relevant sections of the poll after each chart; you can click on each chart to enlarge it.

Views on Democracy; Sharia. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Democracy: In all four countries polled, strong majorities (67% overall) said they considered “a democratic political system” to be a good way of governing their country.  Support for democracy was highest in Egypt, where an overwhelming 82 percent saw it as good and a 52 percent majority called it “very good.”

Human rights: Support for human rights appears to be strong, even extending to the freedom to practice any religion.  Respondents were asked whether in their own country, “people of any religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs.”  On average 82 percent said they should (63% strongly)… In Egypt almost nine out of ten (88%) agreed, including 78 percent who agreed strongly.

Sharia: Most respondents express strong support for expanding the role of Islam in their societies, a view that is consistent with the goals of al Qaeda. Large majorities in most countries—an average of 71 percent (39% strongly)—agree with the goal of requiring “strict application of Shari’a law in every Islamic country.”  …About three in four Moroccans (76%) and Egyptians (74%) also agreed.

Views on US Government; Desirability of US Withdrawal from Islamic countries. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

The US Government: Negative views of the United States government are widespread. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians (93%) expressed unfavorable attitudes toward the current US government, with most (86%) saying their opinion was “very unfavorable.”

Responses were mixed when presented arguments that made the case that the United States has at times been helpful to others or compared favorably to other great powers in history.  Presented the argument, “There have been at times in American history where it has helped to promote the welfare of others.”  A majority in Egypt (58%) and a plurality in Morocco (42%) disagreed…

Similar responses were elicited by the argument, “There is a lot wrong with America, but at least America has done more to promote economic development in the Middle East than past great powers like the British.” A majority of Egyptians (59%) and a plurality of Pakistanis (37% to 28%) disagreed…

Getting the US Military out of the Muslim World: Large majorities in all countries agreed with the goal of getting “the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries”—on average 74 percent.  …In Egypt, agreement was 92 percent (82% strongly).

Views on attacks against US troops; Support for attacks on US and European civilians. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Attacks on US Troops in Muslim countries: Consistent with their support for the goal of driving US military forces out of Islamic countries, respondents express significant—but not universal—approval of attacks on US troops in Islamic countries, including both those that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and those that are based in the Persian Gulf. On average, for each area, approximately half favored such attacks, with three in ten opposed, but there were substantial variations between countries. Very large majorities in Egypt said they supported such attacks, as did robust majorities in Morocco…

Majorities in Egypt and Morocco expressed approval for attacks on US troops in Muslim countries. Egyptians were those most likely to support such actions. Nine out of ten Egyptians approved of attacks on US military troops in Iraq (91%) and in Afghanistan (91%). Four out of five Egyptians (83%) said they supported attacks on US forces based in Persian Gulf states…

Attacks on US, European Civilians at home and in Muslim countries: Consistent with the opposition to attacks on civilians in principle, and in contrast to the significant support for attacks on US troops, majorities in all countries disapprove of attacks on civilians in the United States as well as civilians in Europe. Nearly as many disapprove of attacks on Americans working for US companies in Islamic countries. In all cases the Egyptians are the most opposed, while the Pakistanis are the least…

Egyptians were the most strongly opposed. Nine out of ten disapproved of attacks on both Americans (91%) and Europeans (93%) and most of them disapproved strongly (79% for Americans, 84% for European)…

Most respondents also opposed attacks on US civilians working for US companies in Muslim countries. In Egypt, nine out of ten disapproved, including 78 percent who chose “strongly disapprove.”

Views on Groups using violence against Civilians; Support for Groups that attack Americans. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Islam’s view on attacks against Civilians: Most believe that attacks on civilians are contrary to Islam. Respondents were asked about the “position of Islam regarding attacks against civilians,” and asked whether it supports or opposes such attacks. They were offered the additional options of saying that it “certainly” supports or opposes such attacks. Most took the strongest position of saying that Islam “certainly” opposes targeting civilians. On average, 63 percent took this position including 83 percent of Egyptians…

Groups that Attack Americans: Respondents were also given the opportunity to differentiate between various “groups in the Muslim world that attack Americans.” In this context significant numbers expressed support for at least some such groups. Respondents were given three possible responses: “disapprove of all of these groups,” “approve of some but disapprove of others,” and “approve of all or most of these groups.”

In contrast [to respondents from the other three countries], two-thirds of Egyptians (66%) said they approved of at least some of these groups. This included 51 percent who said they endorsed some and rejected others and 15 percent who said they approved of all or most groups that attack Americans.

I think this poll is valuable because it demonstrates quite clearly that the average Egyptian is a not a bloodthirsty terrorist ready to indiscriminately cut civilian throats, but they do support many Islamist goals, and are rather virulently opposed to US influence in the region.

Now that you’ve waded through all of that data, there lies the big question.

What do these poll results mean for a democratic Egypt?

I grant that the data is a few years old, and thus public opinion may have shifted since it was collected.  But if the trends indicated in these polls are still generally true, I believe we can draw several significant inferences.  Egyptians appear to broadly support attacks on the US military presence in the Muslim world.  They may disagree with Al Qaeda’s tactic of attacks on civilians, but not its political goal of US withdrawal from the Middle East.  Even in the unlikely best-case scenario where Egypt develops a fully functioning democracy with an effective bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, official tolerance of other faiths, and so forth—overnight, no less—it’s pretty clear to me that any democratic Egypt (with or without the Muslim Brotherhood in the legislature) is going to bear the following hallmarks:

  • Significant elements of sharia in both civil and criminal law.  Not necessarily Saudi-level brutality in punishments, but certainly sharia will be the cornerstone of Egyptian jurisprudence.
  • Termination of the US-Egypt security alliance, and the cessation of most security cooperation with Israel.
  • Covert or overt support for regional terrorist groups that focus on attacking military targets.

Assuming Mubarak doesn’t simply wait out or crush the opposition (per the example of the Iranian “green revolution”), the democratic Egypt of the future isn’t going to look too friendly.  A people’s impression of a particular nation isn’t going to change overnight, and Egyptians are basically inimical to the United States.

One can see why the decision is difficult for the President; support a tyrant who is a “friend”, or hang the tyrant out to dry and—even in the best case—he will be replaced by a profoundly hostile democratic government.

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