Egypt and the West: the Liberal-Islamist Paradox

08/09/2013 12:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013

One of the gatekeepers at the protest encampment in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi outside the Raba'a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion.

But then when he caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for -- on the advice of fellow hacks, I had not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of journalists being attacked and beaten up -- his manner shifted perceptibly, welcoming me warmly and ushering me in promptly.

And he was not alone. Once I began to interview one young man, a crowd formed around me, all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, and express their support for the deposed president. "I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office," Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Quite a number were convinced that Morsi's unseating was a Western conspiracy, yet they were keen for me to communicate their message to the West.

What was behind this? Part of the reason is simple pragmatism and real politick. Despite U.S. pro-democracy rhetoric, it is generally accepted round these parts, and often true, that few leaders last long -- or can be reinstated -- without Washington's approval. That explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to reassure and even court the U.S. and its Western allies.

Another factor is the relatively sympathetic hearing the Muslim Brotherhood has received in the European and American media, especially the more progressive and liberal segments. This is a far cry from the anti-Morsi hostility, even demonization, pervading Egyptian society, though there are some segments of the independent media trying to give Morsi and the Brotherhood the fair hearing the Islamist media denied secularists.

Some might see a contradiction in how people who believe in freedom and equality, especially for women and minorities, are now throwing their weight behind a man and movement who have spared few efforts to promote inequality, especially for women and minorities.

What is behind this paradoxical Western liberal-Egyptian Islamist union? After much reflection, analysis and debate, I have come up with a number of explanations. In some segments of the mainstream media, especially those closely aligned to government, there is also a question of pragmatism, and "protecting U.S. interests" involved returning Morsi to power, since Washington tends to prefer "stability" over principle.

In the liberal/progressive reaches where principle matters most, there has been confusion over which principles take priority, mixed in with a profound misunderstanding (sometimes willful) of Egypt's political reality.

This is clearly illustrated in the fixation on democratic process over undemocratic reality, that the ballot box should be respected even when its outcome is undemocratic. Yes, it is true that Morsi was elected democratically, but the sheer scale of protests against him acted effectively as a popular impeachment.

Moreover, Morsi was no democrat and he did not preside over a democracy. This is reflected in the undue influence the military exercised over Egyptian politics. In fact, those who are convinced that the army re-entered politics with Morsi's ouster should be made aware that the generals never actually left.

Over and above this, the office of president remained far too powerful, which enabled Morsi to temporarily grant himself superhuman powers to push through a troublingly undemocratic constitution. Then there was the clamping down on protests, the intimidating of opponents, not to mention the attempts to push through legislation to limit protest and to pass NGO laws that were "more draconian" than Hosni Mubarak's.

Such behavior would have probably led to the prosecution of the president in a country with more robust and independent checks and balances.

Beyond this is the fact that Morsi's behavior did not fit into the liberal discourse on moderate Islamism. Partly in reaction to the ugly discrimination and bigotry unleashed by George W. Bush's "War on Terror" and the prevalent rightwing idea that Islam and democracy don't mix, I was among those who said that the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamists could survive in a democracy, despite the inherent tensions in reconciling "God's law" with man's.

Sadly, Morsi and his entourage behaved as though they were a poorly acted parody of anti-Muslim stereotypes. Faced with Morsi's project to become Egypt's first democratically elected dictator and to establish a theocracy, millions took to the streets in protests at least as large as those which ousted Mubarak.

Yet numerous liberal and leftist observers chose to gloss over this. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this reticence to the fullest. While their representatives speak at length about "democratic legitimacy" to the outside world, protesters at pro-Morsi rallies chant for Shari'a and the downfall of secularism. "Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn't secular," a song playing all over the Raba'a encampment said in no uncertain terms.

But why would people committed to democracy, human rights and equality take such counter-intuitive stances. Part of the problem is that the world is a complex, morally ambiguous place which throws tricky conundrums at us.

Many Western progressives are used to seeing Muslims as the underdogs, either as vulnerable minorities in the West or as the victims of Western aggression. It is true that in Europe and the United States the issue is about providing members of a religious minority with the space and respect to exercise their faith freely. But in Egypt, where Muslims are free to practice every tenet of their religion, the Muslim Brotherhood project is about imposing their conservative religious vision on society as a whole.

But this does not, as some liberals wary of criticizing the Brotherhood might feel, in any way imply that Islam or Muslims are incompatible with democracy, only the current Brotherhood project is. The majority of Egyptians are pious Muslims and yet they have risked their lives and livelihoods for nearly three years, toppling three dictators along the way (Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Morsi), for the sake of democracy, freedom and socioeconomic justice.

In Tunisia, where they have Islamists with more commonsense and tolerance, the Ennahda party has, despite opposition and controversy, steered a fairly pluralistic route. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they wasted no time on the question of Shari'a, even though the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of it. "The values of justice, liberty and equality are Islamic values, and they are in the constitution," explains Rached Ghannouchi, the party's chief.

And contrary to the popular legend, the clash in Egypt is not between a secular elite and the conservative masses. Morsi's opponents include pious and liberal, rich and poor, young and old, men and especially women. It brings together those who wish to keep religion out of politics with those who felt Morsi was serving just the Brotherhood and had ruined the country further, rather than rebuilt it.

Of course, some outsiders express support for Morsi as the lesser of two evils, with the Brotherhood cast as being better than the army. Though I share a similar aversion to the junta, for millions of Egyptians who caught a glimpse of the Islamist abyss ahead, they decided that taking their chances with the military was safer.

That is not to say that Egyptians generally prefer dictatorship over democracy, as some have asserted. Egyptians still want democracy more than ever, but they trust the military to deliver it more than they do the Brotherhood and other Islamists. This trust is very likely to prove unfounded, as it did during the first transition.

But many Egyptians feel that gaining their freedom from men with guns will be easier than trying to wrest it from men who claim to have God on their side.