Saturday, 5 February 2011

The "Useful" Bogeyman and the Liberal Response

The confrontation between the Mubarak regime and the people in Tahrir Square and the rest of the country is going through a relatively quiet phase. There wasn't any violence on the streets today. When a few tanks moved a few yards, it was news and everyone jumped to speculate whether they might move further. When there's a lull I sometimes just sit in front of the television and listen to what people have to say about the Egytian uprising. One thing that is beginning to irritate me quite intensely is the way interviewers don't think they have done their job properly unless they bring up 'fears' that free elections might work in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. Every informed commentator on Egypt and Tunisia for the past month and a half has noted that Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt used their Islamist opponents as an excuse for rigging elections and excluding a significant part of their populations from the political sphere. Ben Ali went further, driving the Nahdha under ground, into exile or into prison on fabricated charges. Mubarak tried a slightly different approach, leaving them just enough space to show that they had a constituency and were more powerful than the liberal democrats. In fact, Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, have had a heyday in recent days, saying or hinting that Brotherhood 'infiltrators' were the driving force behind the wave of protests, which anyone on the ground could see was a blatant misrepresentation. Some reporters have engaged in 'beard surveys' to assess their presence in the crowds, as though everyone with a beard were a rabid Islamist bent on jihad. It really is time that the media laid off and listened to what Muslim Brotherhood members and leaders say, instead of trying to read their minds or asking loaded questions that reinforce the preconceptions of their audience, pandering to their Islamophobic prejudices. When the Nahdha was active in Tunisia in the late 1980s, Nahdha leaders used to call this phenomenon a 'proces d'intention' - a trial on the basis of what one thinks or intends to do. Do let's recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a legitimate trend in Egyptian society and that, like any political movement, it is capable of adapting to new circumstances. It's not that I'm trying to defend the Brotherhood's views, with which I disagree, but I do believe that this obsession with the Brotherhood is unhealthy and runs the risk of perpetuating the same exclusionist approach practiced by Ben Ali and Mubarak. For decades, social liberals have hidden behind the authoritarian state to do the dirty work of keeping the Islamists out of politics. If there is be lasting change, the liberals have to take on the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology in the free marketplace of ideas,  instead of fretting and running for cover. That's what democracy is about. That's why the best democracies allows communists and fascists to run for office, in the confidence that a well-educated and well-informed public will not vote for them in large numbers. Sometimes people do vote for them, but that's because the liberals and secularists have not done their work properly. Many social liberals in the Arab world, especially in highly state-dominated countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, have not fully grasped the transformative power of functioning democracy, with open debate against a background of the rule of law . Democracy requires a certain courage and assertiveness, not hand-wringing and laments about the ignorance of the masses. For all these reasons, I plan to write as little as possible about the Brotherhood until they start to formulate policies for what hopefully will be a new era in Egyptians politics. Then we can start to judge those policies on their objective merits.                   

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