For Egypt's Opposition, It’s Economy, Not Religion

Mass mobilization against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will not lead to effective change unless there are alternative policies to back it up.

al-monitor A man signs a Rebel document at Tahrir Square in Cairo, May 16, 2013, as part of a campaign calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and early presidential elections. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.
Yasmine Nagaty

Yasmine Nagaty


Topics covered

rebel movement in egypt, muslim, mubarak

Jun 6, 2013

As the first anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s assumption of the Egyptian presidency approaches, it has become evident that the economic and political conditions of the country are dire. While unemployment rises, foreign reserves dwindle and the Egyptian pound dips, two important dynamics appear to be steering the Egyptian political scene.

The first is the apparent Ikhwanization (“Brotherhoodization”) of the state, that is, as Kawa Hassan defines it, the process by which the Muslim Brotherhood “imposes its vision on the state and society by appointing its senior members to positions in state institutions.” As a result, the second feature of the current period is the growing mobilization of the Rebel, or Tamarod, campaign, a petition-based initiative seeking to collect signatures in support of a vote of no confidence in Morsi and which has started to organize mass rallies to take place on June 30. These two activities, and indeed the current state of affairs in general, serve to refute some of the common misperceptions about Morsi’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. More important, accurate assessment of them point illustrate the challenges facing Morsi’s opposition.

The most hotly debated question, and source of misperception, about the Morsi regime involves Ikhwanization versus Islamization of the state. The latter refers to the process through which Morsi’s policies are allegedly steadily creating a theocratic state. This view is backed by the hostile rhetoric toward Coptic and women’s rights as well as the rise of sentences for blasphemy and being offensive toward the president. For instance, Ahmed Duma, an activist, was sentenced on June 3 to six months in prison for criticizing Morsi on social networks.

The distinction between Islamization and Ikhwanization and the accompanying discourses is of critical importance, as it is the latter that provides a more accurate and contextual point of analysis of Morsi’s policies. Indeed, a most dangerous practice common among various writers and commentators on Egyptian politics is their use of the two terms interchangeably, thus resulting in misinformed critiques of Morsi and a certain unfounded romanticism of the Mubarak era.

For example, in an article in the Atlantic, Steven Cook claims that since Islamists have won political power, an Islamization of institutions, entailing the process in which “Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them” has taken place. He further argues, “[B]y grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.”

Cook, like others, seems to take for granted the idea that the occupation of state institutions by political Islamists by default means applying “Islamic laws” to the state. Moreover, it has become common for many critiques of Morsi and the Brotherhood to frame Morsi’s policies as inherently “Islamic” when in fact they are little more than a continuation of Mubarak’s.  

Internalizing and disseminating the notion that Morsi’s regime is all about the creation of a “religious state” in the most basic sense of the term in itself increases the risk of failing to recognize that it is in fact the government’s continued neoliberal economic policies that are responsible for the current conditions in the country.

Two recent articles on Coptic and women’s rights trace the parallels between the Mubarak and Morsi regimes, explaining them by the prevalence of neoliberal governance whereby the state has assumed the role of a market player rather than as a purveyor of public goods. For this reason, the Egyptian state has come to ignore its responsibility to protect various groups of its citizens who are unable to compete in the market. Such conduct was obvious under Mubarak and is now evident in Morsi’s manner of running the country.

This perspective does not, however, advocate ignoring the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious rhetoric. Indeed, there is a difference between attacking Morsi and the Brotherhood’s use of rhetoric that reflects their particular appropriation of Islam and taking for granted the notion that the Brotherhood represents “true Islam” or Islamic governance. Rather, attacks on the Brotherhood’s religious rhetoric should be backed by consciousness of the fact that it is actually a facade for an ongoing style of governance that oppresses Egyptian citizens. 

All this means that the most pressing critique that needs to be made of Morsi is one centered on political economy. Gilbert Achcar has made some well-founded points about the marriage of power and capital in Egypt, arguing that while the Brotherhood trafficked “the opium of the people,” whatever soporific power their rhetoric once had has since waned in the face of continued, and failed, economic policies.

The bases for critiques of Morsi will impact oppositional movements, whether Rebel or others. A commonly assessed feature of the movement is that it is not anchored in any particular political ideology, but rather is an all-encompassing effort to provide concrete opposition to Morsi based on popular support. Although that could count as an advantage, one must not forget that just as various political forces united in opposition to Mubarak, it is the same now in the face of Morsi. The success of any mass opposition movement will greatly depend on one essential question: What about Morsi’s policies is it opposing?

Yasmine Nagaty holds a degree in political science from the American University in Cairo and is currently employed at Misr al-Kheir, an Egyptian NGO. On Twitter: @yasmine_nagaty

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