Egyptian government not honouring contract with the people

Co-opting one faction of Islamists and using them for security purposes was a mistake.


2017/02/12 Issue: 93 Page: 9


The Arab Weekly
Ahmed Abou Douh



Up to now, Egyptians have accepted and condoned their authorities’ view of the Islamists. This popular blessing is the only legitimising source for Egyptian authorities.

Today, the regime in Egypt seems at its weakest. It is true that the country is facing tremendous economic and social challenges, including galloping inflation, un­precedented unemployment, rock­eting debt and negligible foreign investment in the local economy.

Economic reforms, however, have never been used before as a cover for political legitimacy.

In Egypt, the authorities have always faced serious problems whenever they insulted the people by not honouring their contract with them. This is what is known as popular legitimacy which, in Egypt, is independent from political or institutional legitimacy.

When people took to the streets to protest against the Muslim Brotherhood, they were extending legitimacy to the government on condition that the latter fights the Islamists. People were far from im­agining that the government would one day classify these Islamists into friends and foes of the state.

The Egyptian government ap­proached the question of reforming religious discourse in the country in the same manner a lazy em­ployee approaches his job. The employee goes to work just to make his presence known so he gets paid at the end of the month. The government seemingly could not find a better way to reform extremist religious discourse than by entrusting the task to a bunch of extremist Islamists from al-Azhar University.

The government knew very well the backgrounds of many of the members of the Council of Senior Scholars at al-Azhar. Some of them publicly and openly supported the Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi even after he had been de­posed as president.

It is hardly fighting terrorism when the government chooses to work with one faction of the Islam­ists. It is just plain negligence.

Today, the Egyptian government is paying for its mistakes. It was a mistake to accept and forgive the Salafists, who constituted the main force of the Islamists’ occupation of Rabaa Square. Co-opting a faction of the Islamists and using them for security purposes was a mistake and allowing the situation inside al- Azhar to fester was also a mistake.

It is true that al-Azhar is more than 1,000 years old. It is older than most countries. In the end, however, it is a religious institu­tion and must remain so. Under European colonisation of Egypt, the country’s elite and nationalist leaders came from al-Azhar but we do not see why today the Azharites should become a religious elite not subjected to any accountability.

Al-Azhar has changed tremen­dously. At the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, the head of al-Azhar, Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, engaged in an ideological debate with Iran’s Shia scholar Grand Aya­tollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi. They were trying to bridge the ideological gap between Shia and Sunni ideologies.

Today, al-Azhar is trying to find and highlight ideological differ­ences with Shias. At the same time, it is trying to ensure for itself a sacrosanct position that only its members seem to recognise.

Examples of al-Azhar’s trespass­ing are numerous. Its scholars publicly trashed the motion picture Mawlana and vilified its makers without having seen one scene of the film. Al-Azhar helped send Islam al-Buhairi to jail because he dared challenge it to condemn its own jihadist ideology and refrain from claiming to be God’s repre­sentative on Earth. Al-Azhar was behind placing Ibrahim Issa under house arrest because he was con­stantly criticising the government’s laxity towards extremist Salafists.

If the comedy taking place in Egypt today persists, it is very like­ly that the people will start calling for a revision of their contract with the government, the one in which the government agreed to rid them of the Islamists. If the govern­ment could not accomplish what it promised to do at the height of its strength after the events of January 30th, 2013, what would it be able to accomplish now in its weakened state?


Ahmed Abou Douh is an Egyptian writer. His article was translated and adapted from the Arabic. It was initially published by the London-based Al Arab newspaper.


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