Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Failing the litmus test of legitimacy

 By Rami G. Khouri
One of the big issues that remain to be resolved across the entire Arab world is how citizens who feel most comfortable participating in public politics through the lens of their Islamic religion can do so with both credibility and safety.
For the past 80 years or so, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoots in the Arab world have been a main vehicle through which many Muslims combine the expression of their personal piety, moral values, citizen expectations and political action. Today, this option has become more problematic for many Arabs, both because of the recent incompetence of the Brotherhood in office and the crackdown against it by various regimes, especially Egypt and wealthy Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others.
Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour personifies the anti-Brotherhood Egypt. He was installed by the armed forces head, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi last August, to replace the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood official Mohammad Morsi. Mansour said Sunday in a television interview that he thought the general public opposed the Brotherhood’s participation in politics because it used violence. He said that any member of the Brotherhood who renounced violence and gave up membership in the organization was welcome to engage in political action and join the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.
“If people are convinced [and vote for them], they are welcome,” Mansour declared. He added that he could not engage the Brotherhood in negotiations because they had incited and committed violence after Morsi’s ouster. The Sisi-installed government designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and banned it from public activity. Thousands of its supporters and leaders have been arrested since July.
Continuing Friday demonstrations and labor strikes across Egypt indicate that not all members of society are pleased with the changes since July. Available indicators suggest significant support simultaneously for military rule through the Sisi-led government, for Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups and for more secular and nationalist groups that failed to consolidate their strength and numbers following the removal of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
Many Arab governments since the 1950s have banned the Muslim Brotherhood, always without permanent success. That is because the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups harness two irrepressible forces: They challenge political and socio-economic conditions that cause hardship, and they play on the sense of hope that divine promise and their own political action will bring about a better, more just future.
Such attitudes and activism cannot be permanently removed from society as long as political, social and economic conditions remain as they are. The irony is that when the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen and other Arab countries in recent decades, they proved incompetent in responding to citizens’ grievances through good policy-making. In Egypt and Tunisia, their mismanagement of public policy, combined with their apparent thirst for permanent power by trying to dominate all major public offices, led to a backlash against them by millions of Egyptians and Tunisians, which led to their ouster.
Arab citizens who voted for Islamists on the basis of combined political-religious attitudes actually judged the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance in office on the basis of more pragmatic criteria related to whether Islamist-led governments responded to their practical needs. Religious sloganeering helped get the Brotherhood into office, but it could not maintain them there in the face of their poor performance as incumbents.
Banning and jailing the Muslim Brotherhood is a simplistic response to the complex public politics that define Arab societies today. The Brotherhood – like terrorism, mass emigration, corruption and criminal activity – is mostly a symptom of underlying and often chronic problems in society. As long as those problems persist, citizens will find a way to protest and seek change for the better. Events in Egypt have also shown that banning the Brotherhood opens a space for extremist and militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdas to attract adherents and use terror against the state and civilians.
The Muslim Brotherhood failed the test to deliver on the promise of a more productive, just society with equal opportunity for all. Its supporters and millions of other Arabs still seek a more effective way to harness the power of their religious values and their practical expectations as citizens. But banning the symptoms of an ailment is an unimpressive response to real national challenges. A better response would be to craft an inclusive, efficient and legitimate political process that allows all citizens to participate peacefully, leading to governments that can implement more effective public policies.
To date, both the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have failed that litmus test.

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