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Egypt’s New Pharaoh

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Posted on Dec 16, 2012

By Chris Hedges

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 14 years in exile on Feb. 1, 1979, he set out to destroy the secular opposition forces, including the Communist Party of Iran, which had been instrumental in bringing down the shah. Khomeini’s declaration of an Islamic government, supported by referendum, saw him rewrite the constitution, close opposition newspapers and ban opposition groups including the National Democratic Front and the Muslim People’s Republican Party. Dissidents who had spent years inside Iran’s notoriously brutal prison system under the shah were incarcerated once again by the new regime. Some returned to their cells to be greeted by their old jailers, who had offered their services to the new regime.

This is what is under way in Egypt. It is the story of most revolutions. The moderates, who are crucial to winning the support of the masses and many outside the country, become an impediment to the consolidation of autocratic power. Liberal democrats, intellectuals, the middle class, secularists and religious minorities including Coptic Christians were always seen by President Mohamed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party—Egypt’s de facto political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood—as “useful idiots.” These forces were essential to building a broad movement to topple the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. They permitted Western journalists to paint the opposition in their own image. But now they are a hindrance to single-party rule and are being crushed. 

The first of two days of voting on a new constitution was held Saturday. According to reports Sunday, the document is being approved. The second round of voting, next Saturday, includes rural districts that provide much of the Brotherhood’s base of support, and it is expected to end in the constitution being ratified by the required 50 percent or more of Egypt’s 51 million voters. Opposition forces charge that the first round was marred by polling irregularities including bribery, intimidation, erratic polling hours and polling officials who instructed voters how to cast ballots. A large number of the 13,000 polling stations will have had no independent monitors; many judges, in protest over the drafting process, have refused to oversee the voting.

The referendum masks the real center of power, which is in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The party has no intention of diluting or giving up that power. For example, when it appeared that the Supreme Constitutional Court would dissolve the panel—stacked with party members—that was drafting the new constitution, the Brotherhood locked the judges out of the court building. Three dozen members of the panel, including secularists, Coptic Christians, liberals and journalists, quit in protest. The remaining Islamists, in defiance of the judges, held an all-night session Nov. 29 and officially approved the 63-page document.

The draft constitution is filled with disturbingly vague language about democratic rights, civil liberties, the duties of women and the role of the press. It gives Islamic religious authorities control over the legislative process and many aspects of daily and personal life. One reason the constitution is expected to pass, apart from voting fraud, is because many liberals, secularists and Copts have walked away in disgust from electoral participation.

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The Brotherhood, ironically, was not part of the vanguard that led the 18 days of protests in February 2011 that brought down Mubarak. It was reluctant, after decades of being severely repressed, to throw its weight behind the protesters clogging Tahrir Square. It said at first that it would not compete in the presidential election or run a full slate of parliamentary candidates. But once it saw the chaos, squabbling and disarray among its secular opponents, who ran three competing presidential candidates, it seized the opportunity.

Passages in the proposed constitution such as “The state is keen to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family” and the state guarantees freedom of the press except “in times of war or public mobilization” are vague enough to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to severely curtail women’s rights and ruthlessly silence press criticism. Morsi’s imperial presidential declaration of Nov. 22, until he rescinded it last week after street protests, effectively placed him above the law. Rescission of the decree will not, however, prevent the party from attaining dictatorial power.

The Brotherhood does not shrink from the use of deadly force. The violent street clashes between thousands of pro- and anti-government demonstrators outside the presidential palace last week left 10 dead and about 700 wounded. Some anti-government protesters said they were beaten in a makeshift detention and torture center that the Brotherhood set up close to the palace. Morsi showed no remorse. He announced in a nationally televised broadcast that anti-government demonstrators had confessed to being “paid thugs.” And the new government, to curb further street protests, including those that took place in Alexandria this weekend, has authorized the military to arrest civilians.

The Muslim Brotherhood, like all revolutionary parties that replace an ancien régime, has inhabited the traditional structures of power. Government ministers and cabinets have been appointed. Parliamentarians have been elected. Judges have been named. But actual power is held, as in most post-revolutionary societies, by parallel party organizations. There are two systems of authority. One is public and ceremonial. The other is secret and unassailable. It is this realization—that the formal positions of power no longer mean anything—that led to the withdrawal of 30 percent of the Constituent Assembly, including several presidential advisers. Public figures in official roles are window dressing.

Successful revolutionaries, as Crane Brinton wrote, “combine, in varying degrees, very high ideals and a complete contempt for the inhibitions and principles which serve other men as ideals. They present a strange variant of Plato’s pleasant scheme: they are not philosopher-kings but philosopher-killers. They have the realistic, the practical touch very few of the moderate leaders had, and yet they have also enough of the prophet’s fire to hold followers who expect the New Jerusalem around the corner. They are practical men unfettered by common sense, Machiavellians in the service of the Beautiful and the Good.”


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