The Myth of Political Islam
Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow
What to make of the huge turnout for protests against President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt – the most populous Arab country and the bedrock of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence? The myth of Islamist political ideology as a solution to all political and economic woes has been shattered.
Political Islamists throughout the Arab world were forced into the background of political life, or to go underground, during the years that most Arab governments were busy steadily discrediting their right to participate in political life. But the fact that these Arab regimes were often corrupt, basing their support on crony capitalism and sham elections, actually helped Islamists. Repression empowered them, ironically, as it let them stand as champions of virtue, clean government, social welfare, and justice. With the single slogan “Islam is the solution,” they effectively captured the imagination and hope of millions in the Arab world, making people believe that they had an alternative to tyranny.
Under Mr. Morsi, no new economic or political ideas were brought to the political table. Yes, the Egyptian “deep state” of Hosni Mubarak-era cronies prevented change, particularly in the judiciary and elements of the public sector. But Islamists had no real solution to the everyday problems of Egyptians such as traffic, garbage, insecurity, unemployment and the sheer chaos that characterizes the mundane lives people lead. Like his predecessors, Mr. Morsi tried to court foreign capital, international donors, and international creditors such as the International Monetary Fund. In essence, Mr. Morsi's economic policies were business as usual.
Undoubtedly Mr. Morsi inherited an economic mess and a system rife with corruption that would take more than a year to weed out. Also, one could argue that like all countries, Egypt must play by the international economic rules, and has taken an economic beating with a depreciating exchange rate and rising debt burdens. Islamists are also capitalists themselves, albeit small- to medium-sized business owners and not national oligarchs – so Islamists are not likely to shake the economic system underpinning Egypt.
But the point here is that Islamists never claimed governing was hard; in essence they simplified good governance to a single and effective slogan: “Islam is the solution!” To many Egyptians this is now an empty slogan and there is a demand for real policy ideas. This is a good thing as it sets the stage for political parties to mature beyond rhetoric and develop policy platforms.
Islamists will continue to command respect simply for having cleaner hands than those associated with the Mubarak regime, but Egyptians, and perhaps Arab electorates in other countries in the midst of transition, will demand more. In a devout region, the religious credentials of political parties will increasingly matter less than their ability to offer specific solutions to life's mundane problems.