Towards the renaissance

Towards the renaissance
The Muslim Brotherhood’s success in Egypt’s parliamentary elections is based on its honesty, diligence and appeal as a mirror of Islamic heritage, writes Essam El-Erian*

Reform in Egypt has been delayed for a long time. When its propitious signs first appeared on the horizon, some were filled with legitimate anxiety and fear the sources of which are understood. In my opinion, however, this reaction should not impede the fetter-free advancement of reform so that its process can be completed. I believe that such fears will dissipate like mist once the sun of freedom and reform rises.

What is taking place in Egypt today has taken place repeatedly in many other countries that have faced the same circumstances. Major transformations in the history of nations are not far removed from us: Britain, America, France, Russia, China, Japan and India are all examples. What we have wanted in the Muslim Brotherhood for the last three quarters of a century is for the process of transformation and change to take place gradually and peacefully with the greatest degree of calm and ease possible in order to create an appropriate psychological, cultural and intellectual atmosphere. To quote the Quran, “Verily God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves.” This is a divine and universally relevant tradition.

Once such conditions are met, what we want for our country and our region will be actualised — a formidable renaissance that will come to light on the basis of grand Islam, a civilisation and culture of all citizens, Muslim and Christian, who have participated for centuries in the creation of previous renaissances in our shared history. This renaissance will renew the flourishing of Arab-Islamic civilisation — a civilisation that seeks protection in the belief in God and Judgement Day, returns to humans their psychological balance, actualises their lost selves, and re-builds their place in the vast universe. This civilisation governed the world for nearly 1,000 years, and all peoples from sea to sea contributed to it — Arabs and Persians, Turks and Kurds, black Africans and Berbers. This renaissance and civilisation merge the material needs of humans with the spiritual and moral values they believe in. In it, politics are practised on a moral basis.

Today Egypt is entering a new stage in its history and is establishing a new legitimacy after its previous forms have been worn out, whether the legitimacy brought by the July 1952 Revolution or the October 1973 War. This new legitimacy will be based on respect for the people’s culture and creed and compliance with its will; what political literature calls constitutional democracy.

Egypt is capable of overcoming this stage of anxiety among the many stages of transformation. It is capable of resisting political tyranny, financial and administrative corruption, intellectual backwardness and the moral decay that have caused public life to stagnate over decades past. In the near future in fact Egypt will be able to lead the steam engine of transformation in the entire region in order to reconsider the meaning of pan-Arabism and revive the hope of Arab unity on a peaceful, popular basis, by way of democracy. At that time, Arabs will look forward to resurrecting aspirations of gathering the scattered Islamic nation and reviving its international entity so as to secure its place among the nations of the world and contribute towards building a global human civilisation to create balance in this world of unbridled globalisation, side by side with the world’s nations in China, India, the West, and Latin America.

These expansive hopes and large-scale dreams may evoke anxieties but require the dissipation of fears. Some may view them as impossible dreams, but the realities of today were yesterday’s dreams and the dreams of today are tomorrow’s realities.

I believe that we began late, and that we started from the wrong point. We should have begun with general freedoms and implanted them in society as culture, behaviour, measures and organisation. Then we should have built sound democratic institutions within the framework of a new constitution that would preserve the Arab-Islamic identity of Egypt and the basic values of society. This constitution would provide guarantees for general freedoms, secure a balance between powers, and clearly define the role of the armed forces as a shield to protect the nation from outside aggression. It would safeguard constitutional institutions from collapsing and ensure complete and total independence for the judiciary. Following that would have been transparent regular elections on the basis of firm rules, to make it possible to hold governments accountable and for power to be rotated easily and calmly.

It is strange that we’ve put the cart before the horse. Is it because until now there has not appeared to have been clear signs of a definitive political will for bringing about democratic transformation and building a state based on law and institutions? Or has the recent responsiveness come as a result of intense external pressures and increasing popular pressure following the scorching summer in Egypt and the serious transformations that have taken place in the Arab region around us? Or is the shadow of the issue of inheritance confounding all the calculations and spreading immense doubt as to the seriousness in following the path of reform to its end? Such a scenario increases anxiety when rumours are spread that everything taking place is merely faux décor or something cooked up in advance so that everything will be under control.

The surprise that added to this confusion and which some believe was a primary source of anxiety, contrary to facts on the ground, is the results the Muslim Brotherhood garnered in the first and second rounds of the parliamentary elections. Is this a source of anxiety? I firmly believe the opposite. The Brotherhood’s participation in the elections and the results it has brought is in fact a source of relief, because if we are serious about pushing forward the process of reform, actualising democratic transformation and building a development renaissance on all fronts, there must be popular participation and real competition in society. The Brotherhood has been a pioneer in this.

The Brotherhood put forth a very good showing in the elections and all were witness to this. It presented an electoral campaign that people differed over, which is a natural right and in fact a desired situation. It employed a strong electoral machine of high-level performance and used the most modern electronic tools. Its organisational abilities were first-rate and effective and it had a creative and well-developed style. It was able to review itself during the fierce electoral competition and offered more at every stage in order to bring the best results. That was all accompanied by clear and decisive political, social and cultural public addresses that were neither double-crossing nor flattering. Instead, they truthfully expressed what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in terms of giving the people the responsibility of reform. They did not present it as peaches and cream but rather as a clear vision for the basis of a renaissance.

If we want the process of reform to continue, we must establish and respect a number of fundamentals and values that we have agreed on in principle but whose results always surprise us when applied in reality.

Firstly, popular participation must be encouraged and average people must be urged to enter the risk-laden field of politics and take interest in public concerns, either through the establishment of political parties or non-governmental organisations, by participating in public activities such as demonstrations, symposia and celebrations, or by voting in general, syndicate, and other elections. On this point I must comment on the controversy surrounding the percentage of participation in the current 2005 elections, which until now has been close to 25 per cent.

If we all concede that the voter registers do not represent the true identity of the electorate, and this is a point of concurrence, then the measured percentage of participation by numbers in the registers is surely a grave mistake. If we took out the deceased and the repeated, false names and collective restrictions, we might reach a percentage of participation exceeding 50 per cent, and this may even rise to 60 per cent. This is the first time that voting cards have not been blacked out or ballot boxes locked, and thus it is a logical percentage.

I must also comment on the limitations placed on the formation of parties and associations, in addition to the paralysis of professional syndicates, the nationalisation of workers’ unions and the prohibition of student elections. It is essential to respect popular will and bow down to the people’s desires and respect its culture and ideas. It is also necessary to accept different opinions, respect religious, cultural, political and scholarly pluralism, and to respect the results of elections following their honourable conclusion.

Secondly, we need general national congruity and to build strong bridges of trust between all political groups and all colours of the public spectrum in Egypt on all fronts so that no one is distanced or removed from the arena. There must be continual dialogue, coordination and cooperation, alliances and blocs, and honourable competition set by clear rules to win the trust of the people.

Finally, we need to build a state of truth and law, justice and equality, and strong institutions, so that no one, no matter who they are, can tyrannise the people or hold all powers in their hands, embodying unlimited authority that surely leads to unlimited corruption. Over the last half a century we have suffered from personalising the state in Egypt. The time has come to abstract the matter, for we belong to a monotheistic creed and there is no god but the one sole God and no authority but in the nation, which is the source of all authorities.

Since preparing for these elections for more than a year, the Muslim Brotherhood has been intent on dissipating fears and relieving anxiety. It put forth an initiative for reform for general discussion on 3 March 2004. The Brotherhood sought to build a widely based national coalition as it stressed that the burden of reform cannot be shouldered by one faction, or even the government, alone. It therefore met the major parties and other political powers.

The Brotherhood later joined the United National Front for Change in hope of overcoming the animosity that took place after other parties met alone with the ruling party and refused to join the national coalition the Muslim Brotherhood had built with other popular forces.

The Muslim Brotherhood committed itself to electoral coordination after already having prepared its lists months before the announcement of the coalition. This coordination was successful by over 75 per cent, and the Muslim Brotherhood nominated only about 150 candidates from 250 the Brotherhood base had brought forward and the political department had prepared for strong competition. It did so to show its good intentions and to make way for others, as well as determination to not appear monopolising or seeking conflict. It did so in hope of reassuring all, and so that the process of reform could continue.

The Muslim Brotherhood announced a general electoral platform and it agreed on and complied with the platform announced by the Front for Constitutional and Political Reform. Its candidates also presented local platforms to their governorates and districts. Intellectuals criticised this platform and the Brotherhood benefited from this criticism. The Brotherhood summarised its ideas and platform in the slogan “Islam is the solution”, which was used alongside dozens of other slogans. Criticism was only directed at this particular slogan, but the judiciary ruled it legitimate as electoral campaigning and not a violation of the constitution or law.

The Brotherhood made it very clear in its platforms and speeches that Coptic brethren are partners in the homeland and in the context of full citizenship have complete equality in rights and duties before the constitution and before law. It also stressed that women are legally competent and have full rights in education, work, nomination to posts, and participation in parliament. It announced that the nation is the source of authority and stressed respect for partisan plurality, free elections, and the rotation of power through regular elections. It did all of this to dispel fears and relieve legitimate anxiety.

We are not before a transfer to power, but we want to participate in constitutional and political reform as a necessary and essential start and as a complement to the comprehensive reform the Brotherhood views as incapable of urging unless it is based on the fundaments of Islam. Political reform will not succeed unless the nation’s creed and culture are respected. Nor will it continue unless comprehensive development, Arab unity, and humanistic civilised Islamic affiliation are realised.

The Muslim Brotherhood is now entering a new stage, that of serious participation in the reform of the government and critical revision of the regime after it has succeeded in reforming itself, building stable households and spreading throughout society. It has participated in securing the independence of the homeland and is now working to safeguard this independence from foreign intervention in domestic affairs and serious threats facing national security caused by the corruption of rule and administration and political tyranny that has led to a serious deterioration of values and morals.

This stage requires the granting of a legal umbrella to the concrete entity of the Muslim Brotherhood and for the Brotherhood itself to settle this legal situation. I believe that we in the Brotherhood have agreed upon separating the functions of preaching from politics. The Muslim Brotherhood is a general Islamic organisation fully concerned with Islam, preaching, education and guidance and thus can act alongside the primary authority of Al-Azhar and to participate with other Islamic groups that work in the field of preaching as a popular Islamic authority.

As for political activity, it undertakes it as a civil party with an Islamic authority that is open to all citizens, Muslims and Christians, and with a political platform that competes in elections according to firm rules. This has happened in many states such as Jordan and Morocco and is taking place now in Iraq. Outside of the Arab world, this has occurred in places such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Such a party will be conservative in nature, civil in practice, and political in style. It will eliminate the obscurity the government has imposed on the Brotherhood due to its legal ban and which has, more than anything else, caused anxiety and fear. It will allow all to know the party and its platforms and participate in its membership and activities. It will be a new model added to traditional party models, for it is not entirely an ideological party, not a party of interests or mere services. Rather, it combines this all, mixing idealism with realism and balancing between principles and interests.

* The writer is a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood