On Thursday night, I was at an event organised by Islamic Relief, which raises millions of pounds from Muslims to fight global hunger.
Ramadhan starts tomorrow, a month of fasting and giving, a good time for such charities and to reaffirm the best aspects of our faith. But events intervened as always, and instead of tranquillity and goodwill in the room, at many tables people were arguing heatedly about the crisis in Egypt, some supporting the military takeover, others lamenting the quick, callous demolition of a freely elected government.
Three men and a woman were so agitated they almost came to blows. In the toilet one Arab lady was sobbed and said her heart was in pieces. She supported the Muslim Brotherhood because, she told me, her old mother-in-law had been given free medical care by a doctor from the movement. “And now again, the army will torture and kill these good people.” Her fears have been brutally confirmed. By the time I write this, about 50 Morsi supporters have been killed by the army and the leaders of the Brotherhood are in prison or house arrest.
I myself have mixed feelings about the rapid deposal of the Islamic government after only a year in power. The political and moral lines dart about in my head, making crazy patterns, and ethical imperatives seem to be crashing into each other. I unconditionally abhor the deeply conservative, Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Cairo, after the fall of Mubarak, I saw almost no female hair and met some very aggressive men who asked me why I didn’t wear a headscarf. Though most Caireans were still warm and hospitable, they clearly felt under social pressure to conform to and display conspicuous religiosity. This was not the Cairo I had previously visited. Several dejected intellectuals told me the country would soon be like Iran. Morsi’s victory was a blow to them.
His rule, as we know, was pushing the Muslim Brotherhood ideology on to the citizenry; he grabbed control of the courts, manipulated the nascent political reform and rewrote the constitution. Torture, corruption and state thuggery were back and the economy was slowly collapsing. He used democracy but was no democrat. And yet, and yet, I cannot rejoice in Morsi’s downfall, the way his party is now hounded and this abrupt and swift abdication of fundamental democratic principles and practice. Democratic elections won’t always produce the results that true democrats want. That is the price humans pay for this imperfect but most inclusive political arrangement. To expel and exclude a popular Egyptian segment from power is wrong, as wrong as punishing Palestinians for voting in Hamas. The Brotherhood will turn away from the ballot box and Egypt will never be at peace again.
Good Egyptian friends, who have fought long to rid their nation of despotism, are euphoric and support the military coup, which is what it is, though they say it is not. They know their own nation better than I do, of course, and their opinions and feelings matter a good deal more than mine. But still, from a distance, Egypt’s spring seems to be turning dark, losing sight of its ideals, and I am nonplussed and fearful.
I reckon the UK, the US and rest of the world are finding it just as bewildering, though Western leaders preposterously posture and pronounce on the crisis, which they don’t and can’t possibly really understand or interpret. The colonial mindset never really receded; it is alert and ready, routinely invoked in Europe and North America. It may impertinent of me to question the great powers, being, as I am always reminded, an unwanted Muslim immigrant. So read this by Sir Simon Jenkins on our nation’s neo-colonial mentality: “The British craving to set the Muslim world to right is as old as history. It lurks in the genes of British politicians and diplomats, as if the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia still stalked Whitehall.” Only even Lawrence, multilingual, devious and culturally a white Arab, would not presume to summarise or politically interfere with the volatile situation in Egypt today.
How naive we all were when this Spring started with the first amazing fall of an Arab dictator in Tunisia in 2011, followed by uprisings in almost all Middle Eastern and North African Muslim nations. It was a new dawn for those millions who had only ever known oppression. For us spectators, it was the most thrilling show in town, better than any movie. Now Libya, our great “victory”, is divided and bloody; Syria is purgatory with no release in sight as Assad holds on to power, while sectarianism and fanaticism divide the opposition and make them into monsters, some as bad as the regime.
Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, the autocrats who have held on are more ruthless than ever. They are buying bigger and more brutal arms – from us. And the people are cowed, wishing none of this had ever happened, saying better the devils you know than chaos. All the West can and should now do is watch and hope Egypt returns to civilian rule. No other intervention, overt or covert, will help. It’s a mess. Only Egyptians can sort it and make theirs a nation for all its diverse citizens. I trust they will, or how will the world ever believe in progress again?