Egypt and Pakistan have a lot in common, and different as well. Like Pakistan’s famous Indus civilization, Egypt has the ancient Nile. Anne Patterson, previously the Ambassador of Pakistan, is now the US envoy for Egypt. The country has acute energy shortages and financial crisis similar to Pakistan, and both nations are negotiating with IMF for economic assistance. The most stark similarity relates to the armed forces of both countries that have stood as bastion of western influence in these nations. At the same time, they serve to offset the conservative, liberal and nationalist societal forces.
Then there is the ideology of Ikhwan-ul-Muslemeen that over the years has spread throughout the Islamic world, including Pakistan. Muslim Brotherhood (MB) influenced parties in Pakistan have been part of numerous political coalitions but have never formed a national government. Their agenda has been exploited more, and their leaders have allowed this to happen on more than one occasion with a parallel loss of authenticity.
However, in Egypt a different story has played out. After decades of struggle and years of persecution at the hands of the state, MB finally gained enough backing to form the government in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak. Though just after a year in power, Mohamed Mursi’s government was overthrown in a military coupe last week and the country once again appears to be on the verge of a civil war. The scary thing is it’s not just Egypt but the whole region, which seems to be heading towards a confrontation due to the societal imbalance and inability to peacefully resolve the battle for supermacy between the secular, nationalist, conservative and religious influences.
(Another version of this analysis was published in Pakistan Today on July 8, 2013)
The Societal Balance of Power
Despite state harassment and ideological differences with factions that propagated total revolt against the perceived un-Islamic system, MB worked with in it to finally arrive at the helm of power. Moreover, Israeli apprehension proved to be a fallacy that once in power the Ikhwans will undo the peace treaty. Then what really happened?
While most of the focus has remained on the internal causes and mismanagement of MB that may have led to Mursi’s overthrow, there are obviously wider patterns to consider as the struggle between status quo and change continues in Egypt and the wider Islamic world.
Since the end of World War II, the liberals, socialists, nationalists, and a mix of conservatives and religious influences, have had their ups and downs in the region. For the most part, their political maneuvering was the outcome of tensions between the socialist and capitalist models that were playing out globally.
For example, it resulted in the creation of the Arab Socialist Baath Party in 1947; a coming together of nationalist and socialist forces against western imperialism that called for an Arab unification. It later split in to Iraqi and Syrian factions. These same influences were also acting out in Egypt, causing Gamal Abdul Nasser to play a leading role in the formation of the Non-Aligned movement and nationalization of the Suez Canal Company.
Generally, the nationalists in the Arab world were more accepting of socialist influences emanating from the Soviet Union. The conservative and religious influences, on the other hand, have had an uncomfortable political existence. They were looked upon with distrust, as waiting for their chance to revive the Ummah and the Khilafat. This in turn impacted the strategies of nationalists and liberals, who exploited the fear of global powers from the conservatives and religious segments.
The Role of Military
The military has usually played a pivotal role in balancing these different influences, and continues to in places like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan. In Turkey, the army was the protector of secularism that was adopted under Ataturk. In Egypt and Pakistan, the military seems to choreograph the secular, nationalist and conservative responses, so that they don’t get significantly out of line from what would be globally accepted. However, due to factors like the war on terror, corruption, and lack of governance, the political landscape has changed dramatically. The conservative quarters have gained considerably while secular block appears to be receding.
The failure of secular governments and autocratic rulers to govern and provide better opportunities for the growing Muslim masses has also speed up the change in ground reality. While the communism was no more, these leaders used the war on terror to gain western legitimacy. This has been most prominent in Pakistan, where even the democratic system has failed to live up to the aspiration of the people. While high marks are being given to the smooth transition of government, or the process so to say, the performance of these governments was quite dismal.
Consider the following example: the PML-N government won the elections on a conservative platform with affinity towards some religious groups. Once in power, it has quickly distance itself from that posture and its present trajectory appears no different or better than Musharraf or Zardari. This misrepresentation also discredits the system in the long run. Without dealing with the security situation, the economic miracle simply will not happen and is it is disingenuous to claim so.
In short, the system in these states continues to revert towards status quo, when dramatic changes are required to adapt to the ground reality. In this context, the military coupe in Egypt is a dangerous reversal. It has given an opportunity to the extremists to convince even the moderate Islamists that there is no use in working with in the system to gain power.
With the help of the military, the seculars may have pushed back the Islamists in Egypt. However, subsequent demonstrations have shown the MB was not totally without support. As mentioned above, the conservative and Islamist influences are gaining throughout the Islamic world. How much have they penetrated the armed forces of these nations is a touchy question. It is imperative for the militaries of these nations to not tread to far from the pulse of the society, as they’ll do so on their own peril. With polarization at its pinnacle, it may mean staying neutral and not interfere in favor of one group or the other.