“An Egyptian Tragedy” by Raja Kamal, PhD

Vol. V Issue 1, April 2013

“An Egyptian Tragedy”

By Raja Kamal, PhD

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In the Arab world, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Egypt is a case in point, as the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by another. President Mohamed Mursi has become a Mubarak with an Islamic twist: a dictator under the auspices of Islam. Mursi was initially viewed as an “out of the box” leader, a man who would lead the Egyptian people out of the darkness of three decades of Mubarak’s police state. Yet Mursi has quickly consolidated his power and advanced his political agenda and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he proudly championed. Within months of assuming presidential responsibilities, Mursi began to aggrandize virtually unlimited powers to “protect” the nation.

Mursi’s key accomplishment thus far has been the enactment of a new constitution that reflects the agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic groups in Egypt. This unfortunate mistake will haunt Egypt for years to come. The constitution of any country is its most important document and the source of its government’s legitimacy. It codifies the fundamental laws and principles from which a government derives its authority, and prescribes the nature, functions, and limits of that authority. A wise and forward-looking constitution is well considered, broadly applicable, and organically connected to the needs and aspirations of all groups of the nation’s citizenry. Not in Egypt. The new Egyptian constitution, which was completed and ratified in record speed, appears to cement the new order according to Mursi: Islamic dominance and interpretation. Minorities, seculars and women have been the clear losers in the new constitution. Moreover, freedom of expression is now eroding. An example is the situation of Bassem Youssef.

Youssef is a popular Egyptian satirist who hosts a television show modeled on the American Daily Show with Jon Stewart. On his show, Youssef has been poking fun at President Mursi and the new political establishment. In response, Egypt’s prosecutor-general issued an arrest warrant for Youssef based on the allegations that he had insulted Islam and the President. After turning himself in, Youssef was released upon posting bail of $2200. The comedian is accused, among other things, of undermining the standing of President Mursi. The prosecutor-general issued the warrant after at least four legal complaints filed by Mursi supporters. Many Egypt observers view the Youssef case as the critical test of the legal right to freedom of expression in the young democracy. Will the human rights and freedom of expression for which Egyptians struggled so valiantly during the Arab Spring survive the new constitution and the consolidated powers that Mursi has been able to institute? Unfortunately, all indications suggest that the future of these hard-won freedoms is in serious jeopardy.

There is a parallel between the Mubarak and Mursi governments in their approach to human rights and freedom of expression. In 2007, I coauthored a commentary in The Washington Post about an Egyptian college student named Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman. Soliman, then 22, was a student at the Al-Azhar University. As a blogger, he was expelled from the university for sharply criticizing its rigid curriculum and for faulting religious extremism. He was ordered to appear before a public prosecutor on charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims,” and “insulting the President.” Soliman was detained pending an investigation, and the detention was renewed four times. He did not have consistent access to lawyers or to his family. Eventually, a court convicted him and sentenced him to serve three years for insulting Islam and inciting sedition, and one year for insulting President Mubarak. He was released from prison in November 2010. Although Soliman and Youssef used different media to reach their audiences, the similarities between their cases are striking – in both; prosecutors have relied on the insult to Islam argument as the most effective means to silence them and other thoughtful critics of the government.

Unlike Soliman, Bassem Youssef has the recognition and clout to allow him to survive – at least in the short run – his encounter with the court system. He has become a regional celebrity, and news stories about his show have been featured all over the world. Sending Youssef to jail would not be well received either at home or abroad. Prosecuting him might very well backfire and embarrass the government. Therefore, the regime will have to think twice about imprisoning him, at least for now. It would be a foolish miscalculation if the authorities were to rush to prosecute Youssef for mocking the president in a satiric manner – and trump the charges up with the insult to Islam canard – thus giving credence to the critics’ position that true freedom of expression will not be tolerated.

In Egypt before the Arab Spring, as in most Arab countries, human rights were marginalized, to say the least. Leaders justified the iron fist policy with the timeworn excuse of national security and reverence for Islam. The Arab Spring was supposed to change that, but recent events indicate that the change has not taken root – and is not likely to anytime soon. Mursi has replaced Mubarak, but the country still functions the same way. While Bassem Youssef may have enough leverage in the short run to avoid prison, in the longer run Mursi will likely crack down on opposition from any quarter and not tolerate even relatively benign public criticism. By adding insult to Islam as a charge, the authorities in Egypt will raise the bar to justify the silencing of critics. This is a dangerous policy that will undermine Egypt’s economic development. Indeed, it is already paying the price.

Economically, Egypt is contracting rapidly. Among its youth, unemployment is high and climbing. Officially, the unemployment rate is around 12.5%, but many international economists put the figure at 25%. The tourism industry, which was one of the main sources of revenue, is now hurting badly. The turmoil in the Middle East generally, and in Egypt in particular, has prompted Western tourists to stay away. The stock market index is down by 40%. Tourism, which traditionally accounts for one in seven jobs, is down by a third. With the Islamization of the country, Egyptian Christians are in a precarious position. Christians make up only 10% of the population, yet their contributions to the economy and the social fabric of the country are immeasurable. An exodus of the Christian population would be a severe blow to the already anemic economy.

One need only look at the example of Iran to see the devastating effects of large-scale expatriation. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, many of the Iranian cultural elites left the country, creating a devastating brain drain that continues to haunt the country some 30 years later. Today in Egypt, important segments of the population are feeling increasingly hopeless about the future of their country, and many are considering relocation to more promising regions. As if these issues weren’t enough, the new regime in Egypt has created other problems for distinct groups of its people as well. It has declared minorities such as the Christian Copts and seculars to be second-class citizens. It has further demeaned the role of women in Egyptian society – Egyptian women used to be among the most progressive in the Arab world. If the Mursi regime’s march toward greater Islamization proceeds unchecked under the new regressive constitution, Egyptian women could find themselves in a position similar to women in Saudi Arabia – erasing much of the progress they have made.

Egyptian leaders should take a clear-eyed look at Iran’s mistakes and learn quickly. An Iranian-style regime in Egypt would yield devastating results. While the Iranian revolution may be approaching the end of its life cycle, Egypt shouldn’t have to wait 30 years to realize that fundamentalist Islamic government will fail.

President Mursi’s behavior sharply diminishes Egypt’s standing in the Middle East and around the world. At a time when Arabs and Muslims need all the public relations help they can get, Mursi’s authoritarian leadership detracts from many far more critical regional Arab issues, such as the Syrian conflict and the economic challenges many Arab nations face. How can European and American observers be expected to take the Arab and Muslim worlds seriously when a leader like Mursi pushes his country in regressive and undemocratic directions? Egypt certainly deserves better, more competent and forward-looking leadership.

As the recipient of substantial financial aid from the U.S. and European countries, Egypt’s new government must be held to higher standards of human rights and freedom of expression. The Western democracies should not subsidize a dictator willing to treat minorities as second-class citizens. And, Mursi must be warned that another Iranian-style government will not be tolerated by the international community.

About 150 years ago, the great American president Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test man’s character, give him power.” The wisdom of this quote has stood the test of time and resonates in Egypt today. Mursi’s character has been tested, and he has repeatedly failed.

About the Author

Raja Kamal is the Senior Vice President at the Buck Institute for Aging Research. Previously, Dr. Kamal was the Senior Associate Dean at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Prior to that position, Dr. Kamal was Director of New Initiatives and International Development at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. During his sixteen years at Harvard, Dr. Kamal successfully internationalized the activities of the Kennedy School and negotiated dozens of programs with governments and leading private sector organizations in the United States and around the world.

An economist by training, Dr. Kamal was an adjunct professor of economics and international business at Boston University and previously at Wheelock College. He holds advanced graduate degrees in economics, mass communication, and administrative sciences and is a frequent contributor to newspapers in the United States and abroad. He contributed editorials on global affairs to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Providence Journal, The Scotsman, The Union Leader, Times of Japan, Middle East Times, The Daily Star, and San Diego Union Tribune among many others. His work has also been published in Arabic, Chinese, German, French, Russian, and Spanish newspapers.

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