Saturday, June 30, 2012

Morsi: Looking Beyond the Islamist Identity

by Mohammed Dajani

For the next decade, think tanks in the United States and Europe will be analyzing why an Islamist won the Egyptian presidential elections. To save them the trouble, I will give them the simple answer: the Egyptian voters did not vote for Mohammed Morsi as an individual or for his election platform. They did not watch his interviews to see where he stands on Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, women, Christians, etc. Those were the concerns of the West, but they were not the concerns of the Egyptian voters. The Egyptian voters did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood nor did they care what it stood for. The Muslim Brotherhood was and still is, like Hamas in Gaza, a small minority which has no mass appeal. Then how one can explain why they won? Quite simply, the Egyptian voter voted for Islam. The West is being perceived as waging a war against Islam, and so the response is to empower those who are carrying the banner of Islam.

The voting behavior of the Arab voter is emotional rather than rational. Campbell et al. in their book, The American Voter (1960), argued that ignorance and unreliability dominated the American (swing) voters. Likewise, this theory was true for the Palestinian elections of 2006 and the Egyptian elections of 2012, and accurately reflects the reality on the ground with regards to both elections. The Egyptian voter, like the Palestinian voter before him, is neither highly educated, nor is he a sophisticated rational voter. The West gave both voters more credit than they deserved. For instance, Western analysts explained the victory of Hamas as a rejection vote against the corruption of Fatah while in reality, that was far from the minds of the Palestinian voters. The Palestinian voters voted for Hamas because in their mind, they perceived themselves as voting for Islam and for those who were perceived as carrying the banners of Islam.

The new ruling elite of Egypt are far from being elite. They belong to the lower classes, which are poor, uneducated, and have no prior experience in government and diplomatic affairs. Power will intoxicate them and money will corrupt them as it did to their colleagues in Gaza. But the important thing is not to put pressure on them to abide by a Western scale. Sporadic incidents may take place against Christians or women, but those incidents should be disassociated with official policy. Radicals will attempt to pull the new government to a confrontation with the West and Israel to draw it away from the middle. Here, it is advisable to keep moderate Islam as the reference point and to empower it in the face of radical Islamists.

The best advice for the West is not to treat Mohammed Morsi as an Islamist, but as the elected democratic president of Egypt. Thinking of him as an Islamist, and getting obsessed with his party as a ruler of Egypt would only lead the West down the slope of a deteriorating relationship. If the West insists on thinking of Morsi as an Islamist, and treats him as such, then it will be a self-fulfilled prophesy come true and he will behave like one. However, if they perceive him as democrat leading his country out of its misery to a new future then they may give him a chance to rule as a democrat.

Dr. Mohammed Dajani is the head of the American Studies Program at al-Quds University in Jerusalem and founder of the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam.

One Response to “Morsi: Looking Beyond the Islamist Identity”

  1. Robert Satloff says:
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    I agree with my friend Mohammad Dajani’s analysis and disagree with his prescriptions.
    He is right, in my view, to suggest that the majority of Egyptians did not vote for Mohammad Morsi because they ascribe to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda. Indeed, with fewer than a million “card-carrying” members of the Brotherhood, the more than ten-million other Morsi voters most likely had less specific motivations, such as endorsing the most “Muslim,” the least “fulul,” or the most “anti-Mubarak” candidate on the ballot. As such, it would be an error to cast all Morsi voters as members, supporters, or even sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood agenda.

    But history is full of examples of leaders of narrowly based parties reaping the political benefits of a broader mass appeal and then proceeding to implement the ideas, ideology, and program of their party. After all, that’s what capturing the “independent vote” is all about. So while Morsi’s majority may not be Ikhwani, he himself is a doctrinaire Ikhwani enforcer, who may very well seek to take advantage of the opportunity presented by his election victory to implement the Ikhwan’s long-term, deeply held political agenda.

    So, yes, Morsi will be the new president of Egypt and U.S. expectations of him, and U.S. relations with him, should be guided by that fact. That means an interest-based relationship — i.e., a respectful relationship in which U.S. support for Egypt should ultimately be guided by the extent to which Mr. Morsi is willing to accommodate U.S. interests. I define these five primary interests as: political pluralism and religious tolerance at home; security cooperation, counterterrorism coordination, and fidelity to Egypt-Israel peace abroad. But there can be no escaping the fact that Mr. Morsi’s past actions and past rhetoric compel us to set a high bar on all of these issues. After all, it is not as though he has a sterling record on any of them. In that respect, his being an Islamist has considerable bearing on how the United States needs to approach the redefinition of our bilateral relationship. There can be no escaping that reality, especially since Mr. Morsi’s own actions and rhetoric are sure to remind us of that fact almost every day.

    Dr. Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Howard Berkowitz Chair in U.S. Middle East Policy.

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