As we have noted before on this blog, the Financial Times appears to have comprehensively displaced The Times as the United Kingdom’s newspaper of record, with its unrivalled quality of precise reporting and stimulating comment proving that there is still space in today’s market for news in paper format. Yet a recent editorial – Morsi’s Mistake, from November 24th-25th’s FT Weekend – illustrated the broader problem of cultural presumptions that even the very best struggle to transcend. The editorial – correctly and rather uncontroversially – noted the disproportionate nature of the measures taken by the current President of Egypt, a bespectacled former assistant professor at California State University, to exempt his actions from judicial review via a decree issued on 22nd November 2012, a roundly-condemned legal stratagem that appears to have backfired spectacularly.
However, the FT then posited a bizarre corollary, namely that Mohamed Morsi’s government constitues ‘the test for whether democratic Islam has a future’. After some serious consideration of this ultimately broad claim, we would postulate the following:
1. The FJP ≠ Democratic Islam. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’) is but one of a great many political parties in OIC member states which claim or are claimed to represent a synthesis between Islam and democracy; moreover, it is a very new organisation, having only been legalised since 6th June 2011, and it is unclear how it will be perceived in a year or two’s time. To equate the FJP to the entire experience of democracy in the Islamic world is fundamentally mistaken.
2. Egypt ≠ the Centre of the Universe. With the historic events in Tahrir Square during Q1 2011 still fresh in the memory, it has become fashionable to regard Egypt as a pivotal country in the region and even the world at large. However, despite its large size and population, proximity to geopolitically prominent countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and close ties to the United States, Egypt is not a particularly important country in every context, not least that of Islam and democracy. States such as Indonesia, Turkey and Senegal have had far longer and qualitatively richer experiences in this domain and tell us much more about the interactions, overlaps and tensions between Islamic religious beliefs and democratic institutions than Egypt, although this may change in the future.
3. Democracy ≠ Institutions. Democracy cannot be reduced to formal institutions: the value people attribute to democracy is not always matched by their corresponding legislatures, judiciaries and executives. As we noted in our 1st February 2011 piece Reform in the Middle East: should we be surprised?, the gargantuan Gallup survey Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think found that the desire for democracy amongst lay populations in predominantly Muslim countries is high; within this context, the Arab Spring should not be viewed as a surprise.