The Struggles of Political Islam

Commentary | July 09, 2013

Writing in the Daily Mail, EWI Board Member Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary of India, argues that the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision of "political Islam," as embodied by Mohamed Morsi’s brief presidency, and the continuing crisis in Egypt illustrate the failues of the Arab Spring. 

If the overthrow of President Mubarak by the mass of protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011 was a surprise, the ouster of President Morsi by even larger protests in Tahrir Square and across Egypt in recent days is equally dramatic.

Mubarak was in power for 30 years. The people, tired of his repressive and corrupt rule, wanted change. Morsi, in power for only a year, has alienated the people extraordinarily quickly, forcing a regime change.

Morsi, elected as President through a tortuous but reasonably credible democratic process, differed from the manner in which Mubarak assumed and retained power. Those young, social media activists who sought regime change in 2011 may not have intended power to be transferred to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), with the Salafists in tow. But the MB being far more organized and embedded at the grass root level than the more liberal and secular forces responsible for expelling the Mubarak regime, won the election and acquired political legitimacy. Now they have been ousted by what is effectively a military coup.


This unforeseen development in a country that is the political and cultural heartland of the Arab world cautions against interpreting the nature of forces at play in the Arab world from narrow, self-serving political perspectives.

When political change occurred in Tunisia and Egypt through street protests against dictatorial regimes, it was pre-maturely hailed as the Arab Spring by the West. The Arab world, it was claimed, was moving towards democracy, refuting a widely-held view that Islam and democracy cannot cohabit.

The entry of MB into electoral politics was welcomed as a sign of maturing democratic impulses sweeping the Arab populace. Fine tuned analysis to disarm fears about the implications of this long-banned organization joining politics and aspiring for state power were offered. The MB comprised of various political currents, it was said, with moderates in the ascendant. “Political Islam”, which the MB represented, was seen as the only way that democracy could be ushered into the Arab world. Seen as a hostile force after the Iranian revolution, “political Islam” became a viable and acceptable instrument to promote America’s vocational attachment to the international spread of western style democracy.

Reservations about Morsi were held in abeyance, believing that he could successfully make the transition from military rule to democracy in Egypt. Morsi, in fact, made a fairly positive impression after assuming power, at least externally. He seemed intent on restoring Egypt’s political role in the region, reaching out to Iran, reducing the heavy weight of America on Egypt’s foreign policy, courting China, renewing relations with nonaligned friends of the past like India.

India received him in March this year, signalling our positive view of the political change in Egypt and acceptance of the moderate credentials of the MB. Surprisingly, we found common language on Syria as well as on terrorism in our joint declaration with him.


However, perceived inadequately in their acuteness by the outside world because of tailored international media coverage, serious tensions have apparently been brewing in Egypt because of Morsi government’s policies to islamicize Egyptian institutions and society through appointments and educational and cultural initiatives. With the failure to improve economic conditions, with poverty and unemployment rampant and sectarian strife targeting the Coptic community, public grievance against the Morsi government has been escalating.

Protests against Morsi's Policies - Talaat Harb Square

It did not seem, however, that matters had reached such a dangerous tipping point. Could such truly massive demonstrations that require huge resources, remarkable coordination skills and identifiable leadership occur spontaneously or erupt primarily through the use of social media, especially in an inadequately wired society? Individuals like El Baradei and Amr Moussa, with limited public following, have emerged as the political face of the popular revolt, which leaves many questions unanswered.


The U.S. seems to have been egging Morsi to bridge growing domestic political differences, with Secretary Kerry, during his March visit to Cairo, while pledging additional aid, calling for restoration of “unity, political stability and economic health to Egypt." Kerry spoke about the “deep concern about the political course of their country, the need to strengthen human rights protections, justice and the rule of law, and their fundamental anxiety about the economic future of Egypt" that political and business leaders conveyed to him. The U.S. Congress reacted sharply in June to the repression of NGO workers—Egyptian and American—assisting Egypt “as it moves down the path towards democracy, democratic training, the building of civil society, and the establishment of the rule of law.”

The Arab Spring has withered at its roots. The political judgment that MB had evolved into a moderate force has proved faulty. That “political Islam” could usher in democracy in the Islamic world has proved to be wrong. Ironically, opening the doors for more democracy in Egypt allowed conservative Islam to walk in and thwart the wishes of a large section of the population.

If the revolt against MB rule in Egypt will reverse the rising tide of conservative Islam in the Arab world on the strength of Gulf wealth and Turkish ambiguities, it would be a welcome development. The immediate prospects in Egypt are, however, bleak as a legitimately elected government has been ousted by the military and the erstwhile President confined. The West is refraining from describing this as a coup, which it is as the Constitution does not empower the Egyptian armed forces to be political arbiters in a crisis, however serious.

The Egyptian military, supposedly trusted by society, is now being castigated by MB activists, as is the U.S. So much for the Arab Spring and Egypt’s much-lauded experiment with democracy with Islamists in charge. The last word to be said may well be a bloody one! 

Click here to read this article in the Daily Mail.