Good Government is the Issue
06 Mar 2014
President Morsi of Egypt won office by a majority vote in a free election. One year later, his removal had popular support. The reason, says Peter Welby, is that he failed to govern well.
We often hear of some great battle in the Middle East and North Africa between the ideologies of Islamism (the desire for government by Islamic principles) and secularism (the desire for religion to be constrained to the private sphere).
This is misleading. Of course, these ideological positions do exist (just look at the Muslim Brotherhood, or the government of Ben Ali in Tunisia, or Hamas in Gaza), but a movement derives its broad popular support from the desire for good government, not abstract ideology.
Let's narrow our focus, and look at Egypt: the most populous of the Arab nations, and a country I know well having lived there through the Arab Spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Egypt's population voted for an Islamic government, and yet many supported a coup that overthrew an Islamist president and an Islamic constitution. How did this happen?
The striking thing about those who are truly secular in Egypt is how unusual they are. As a Westerner, one finds them very easy to talk to, precisely because their views seem familiar. Given how comfortable a Westerner feels in the company of the secularist, it is no surprise that they get a greater hearing in our press.
But, in reality, they represent an educated, wealthy elite. In my experience, the average Islamist (that is, a member of an Islamist organisation) has views much closer to the majority of the Egyptian population. There are even many Christians would not support a secular state (currently Christian tradition in personal status matters has the force of law for Christians; this would not be the case if the state was secular).
There is plenty of evidence for Islamism's popular support. Polls show that 74 per cent of the Egyptian population feel that Sharia should be the law of the land; 55 per cent of the population believe it should apply to all citizens, regardless of faith (see, for example, Pew's 2013 report 'The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society'). Egyptian constitutions have borne Article Two – the stipulation that Sharia is "the principle source of legislation" – since 1981 (it had been one of various sources since 1971) without any significant dissent. In fact, the largest argument over that article came in 2012, and that was over how to define 'Sharia'. And if there remained any doubt, the Egyptians voted in three free elections in 2011 and 2012. In the parliamentary election, explicitly Islamist parties won 70 per cent of the seats. In the presidential election, explicitly Islamist candidates won 43 per cent of the vote in the first round – and, of course, a majority in the second. And in a referendum, the most Islamic constitution in Egyptian history was approved with 64 per cent of the vote.
I say 'explicitly' Islamist, because the majority of Egyptian voters would not identify themselves in this way. One might say that they are Islamists with a small "i". The majority are Quran-reading, mosque-going Muslims who recite the shahada in a crisis – but they also want Islamic provisions such as Article Two in the constitution. They are socially and religiously conservative, and are happy to give cultural norms the force of law. Secular, they are not.
With such popular support for Sharia law, and having shown their willingness to elect Islamists, Egyptians came out in force last June and apparently authorised the military to stage a coup. The reasons for this have nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with poor state management.
President Morsi had made four promises when he was elected: to restore security, to lower food prices, to clean the streets, and to ease the traffic. On every one of these promises, he failed, abjectly. His explanation was wrapped up, by him and his supporters, in Islamic rhetoric – he was doing God's work – and those who criticised his government were the enemies of Islam. To the majority of his opponents – devout Muslims who merely wanted him to fulfil his promises – this was unforgiveable. Even if the government's failures had not been presented in this way, the majority wanted a capable government (so long as it wasn't anti-Islamic) before one that was ideologically 'pure'. A Pew poll from 2012 ('Most Muslims Want Democracy, Personal Freedoms, and Islam in Political Life') should have given Morsi fair warning: 49 per cent of Egyptians felt that a strong economy was more important than a good democracy. Only 48 per cent felt the opposite.
These facts should worry Field Marshall Sisi, and whoever the next President is. Terrorism or the Muslim Brotherhood are problems that can be managed (in the latter case, one can only hope they can be managed by bringing them back into the political process), but if the government doesn't make Egyptian lives better, it will not keep the support of the people for long.
This is significant for Western politicians and policy makers. Don't worry about whether the secularists have popular support, or whether the Islamists are really democratic. Worry about who will improve the lot of the majority of the people – who will put bread on the table and fuel in the tank. In the long term, this is the side which will win.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to our Religion & Geopolitics Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.