Jul 10, 2013
With their leader's toppling, how the members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will react over time is an open question. Just as salient is how other Islamist movements, from Morocco to Indonesia, will respond.
By Farish A. Noor, For The Straits Times
THE tumultuous developments in Egypt continue, but their impact will extend well beyond the country itself, for what happens in Cairo does not necessarily remain in Cairo. With the fall of President Mohamed Mursi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Islamist parties and movements the world over have begun to ask an obvious question.
Why should Islamist parties even bother to enter the democratic arena and take the trouble to contest elections if they can ultimately be deposed by other non-political actors?
In the immediate aftermath of Mr Mursi's fall, this was the question raised by some of the more radical Islamist groups across Asia, including the Hizbut Tahrir, which has always maintained the line that democracy is a sham and that it can never lead to real changes in society.
Feeling vindicated by the events in Egypt, movements such as these have repeated their call to boycott the democratic process further. Some have gone further by arguing that they can come to power only by force rather than via the ballot box.
That such a position can be assumed by some of the more radical groups in the Muslim world today is disheartening to say the least, but it does raise serious questions about the rationale and justification behind Mr Mursi's toppling. By the 1990s, other Islamist leaders and intellectuals such as Mr Rachid Ghannouchi had already argued that political Islam has to be adapted to a legitimate and constitutional process, and that Islamist parties have to accept and play by the rules of the democratic game.
Ballot box: Mixed results
TO THAT end, he argued that Islamists should abandon the path of radical confrontational politics and accept their being voted out of power should they fail in their task as elected representatives. In countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Tunisia, we have seen how Islamist parties have attempted to capture the state not by the gun but by the ballot box - with mixed results.
Political Islam's engagement with the democratic process has been seen as generally positive by most analysts; it was argued that this was the best and perhaps only way to ensure that such religious communitarian movements would be brought within the ambit of established socio-political norms.
The scholar Olivier Roy was among the ones who insisted that by contesting elections and playing the democratic game, Islamist movements would gradually moderate and reform themselves as they would have to appeal to a wider electorate that may also include non-Muslims and Muslims who did not agree with their Islamist ambitions.
By and large, Professor Roy argued, the democratic process was a positive one that would eventually normalise religiously inspired politics and open the way for the emergence of a more conciliatory, accommodating and pragmatic form of political Islam.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mr Mursi belongs, was among the Islamist movements that eventually created their own political party and took the opportunity to offer themselves at the polls.
A huge step forward
THEIR victory, marginal though it was, suggested to some that the Islamists of Egypt were at least able to make the necessary concessions in order to become part of the public political domain. This was, it has to be remembered, a huge step forward from the days when Egypt was confronted by more violent Islamist groups, such as the Takfir Wa'l-Hijrah and the Tanzim al-Jihad, that opposed all forms of democratic politics in toto.
Though many among Egypt's cosmopolitan and liberal circles were not too pleased to see the Muslim Brotherhood contest at the elections (and even more alarmed by its subsequent victory), it could be argued that this was a better alternative to radical militant groups setting off bombs in public places and threatening to wage war against the state.
But Mr Mursi's fall has cast these developments in a negative light, and Islamist parties the world over now feel that they may share the same fate if they were to come to power some day.
For some of the leaders of Malaysia's Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), for instance, the toppling of Mr Mursi has caused them to doubt the validity of the democratic process as a whole.
In the words of one senior PAS leader: "Islamists are now in a bind. Though they were a little late in adopting democracy as a means to come to power, they eventually took it up wholeheartedly. But now they have been punished in a way that leaves many of them disillusioned."
The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is therefore something that will inevitably have consequences well beyond North Africa and the Arab world.
Notwithstanding the failure of Mr Mursi's own administration and the accusations against his own heavy-handed approach to leadership, it cannot be denied that the Muslim Brotherhood also happens to be one of the biggest mass movements of the country and that it remains well organised and united in its ambition.
How the Brotherhood's mass following will react in the weeks and months to come is an open question, but related to this is the question of how other Islamist movements - from Morocco to Indonesia - will respond as well. Islamists have to understand that in any democratic system, any party can be removed if it has clearly failed to live up to its mandate. But the Brotherhood insists that it was not given the time to prove itself and that the toppling of Mr Mursi was problematic too.
The larger concern, however, is that if the Islamists of Egypt and elsewhere no longer feel that the democratic process can ever be fair to them, which path will they take in the future?
The choice they make will determine not only the long-term security of Egypt, which has been in a state of crisis for three years now, but also the rest of the world by extension.
The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.