Egypt and Pakistan; something borrowed, something new

February 9, 2011

candelightThe Egyptian uprising contains much that is familiar to Pakistan – the dark warnings of a coup, in Egypt’s case delivered by Vice President Omar Suleiman, the role of political Islam, and a relationship with the United States distorted by U.S. aid and American strategic interests which do not match those of the people.

President Hosni Mubarak cited Pakistan as an example of what happened when a ruler like President Pervez Musharraf – like himself from the military - was forced to make way for democracy. ”He fears that Pakistan is on the brink of falling into the hands of the Taliban, and he puts some of the blame on U.S. insistence on steps that ultimately weakened Musharraf,” a 2009 U.S. embassy cable published by WikiLeaks said.

Comparisons with Pakistan tend to make you somewhat sceptical about the chances of Egypt’s uprising turning out well.

Yet there is something quite new coming out of Egypt that has the potential to be transformative across the Muslim world. And that is the rejection of all forms of old authority, including, significantly, religious authority.

“The revolution was not just directed against the autocratic, repressive and corrupt Egyptian regime, which relied on an alliance of money, power and corruption. It was also directed against the official religious establishment and its discourse that supports this regime, either directly or indirectly.” Hossam Tammam writes in Egyptian paper Al Masry Al Youm. (scroll down to see the story as the link opens a page with a lot of space at the top).

“The Egyptian revolution has completely reconfigured the religious scene and clarified the public’s position towards religious institutions and discourses in the country. The result has been surprising. No one expected that religious Egyptians are capable of overriding the powers of religious institutions and of challenging religious discourses that they suddenly perceived as part of a corrupt and repressive regime. The official religious establishments–both Islamic and Christian–have been the biggest losers in the revolution.”

Such a trend, if it were allowed to flourish, would be tremendously important in the context of Pakistan, where political parties and the military alike have both used, and been held hostage by religious parties whose power by far exceeds their poor showing at the ballot box.  In a conservative society (as both Egypt and Pakistan are) few dare face down the accusation of “not being Muslim enough” by challenging the religious establishment. The last well-known figure to do so in Pakistan, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was gunned down last month over his call for a reform to the country’s blasphemy laws, and his death celebrated by the religious right.  Many of the voices speaking out against his killing came from young Pakistan bloggers.

In Egypt, religion has been sidelined – but not abandoned – by an uprising which has seen Christians and Muslims protesting, and praying together, in Tahrir Square.

In his essay about the uprising, Mohammed Bamyeh writes that.” remarkable was the virtual replacement of religious references by civic ethics that were presumed to be universal and self-evident. This development appears more surprising than in the case of Tunisia, since in Egypt the religious opposition had always been strong and reached virtually all sectors of life. The Muslim Brotherhood itself joined after the beginning of the protests, and like all other organized political forces in the country seemed taken aback by the developments and unable to direct them, as much as the government (along with its regional allies) sought to magnify its role. ”

“Like in the Tunisian Revolution, in Egypt the rebellion erupted as a sort of a collective moral earthquake—where the central demands were very basic, and clustered around the respect for the citizen, dignity, and the natural right to participate in the making of the system that ruled over the person. If those same principles had been expressed in religious language before, now they were expressed as is and without any mystification or need for divine authority to justify them. I saw the significance of this transformation when even Muslim Brotherhood participants chanted at some point with everyone else for a “civic” (madaniyya) state—explicitly distinguished from two other possible alternatives: religious (diniyya) or military (askariyya) state.”

The media has made much of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the role it might play in the Egypt which emerges from the current upheaval. Many argue that the west must engage with Egypt’s most organised opposition group, noting that it has renounced violence and stressed its commitment to democracy.   Others see it as a dangerous group which inherently cannot escape its origins as an anti-colonial organisation whose thinking provided the ideological roots for al Qaeda.

Yet in a sense, that is completely the wrong way to frame the debate.  The uprising in Egypt is not about substituting one organisation with another – or even about overthrowing autocratic rule for a democratic government including the Brotherhood.   It is about something new that we don’t understand yet and probably won’t understand for some time to come. Its spontaneity so far has been its strength; its heroes, like Google executive Wael Ghonim, surprising.

Or as Tammam writes in Al Masry Al Youm, “Any discussion of the status of Islamists in a new Egypt makes little sense if it’s based on the same data that was previously used to study religious movements, and if it ignores the fact that Egypt has witnessed a revolution that destroyed many of the old features of its religious scene.”

Writing in Pakistan, in a very different context, Yasser Latif Hamdani argues in the Daily Times that the current fury over the blasphemy laws is a last-ditch and doomed attempt by the mullahs of the religious right to reassert their authority. “The march of history is irreversible. Today there are more women in the workforce than before and the internet revolution is a permanent revolution.”

“Pakistan’s future lies in ensuring that the democratic process is allowed to continue, that internet proliferation and the technological revolution reaches everyone in this country. When enough people are exposed to the world at large, enough women are in the work force and the youth of this country are no longer susceptible to false religious frenzy, the mullah will wither away or turn on himself. ”

His views may turn out to be wishful thinking.  The Egyptian uprising may yet be crushed, or exploited. No one can predict the outcome of a revolution.  But we do seem to be seeing something here that goes well beyond the way people choose to be governed.

(Photo: candlelit vigil in Tahrir Square)

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