Egypt and the Death of the 'Arab Spring'

The country's new constitution puts the final nail in the coffin of Egyptian democracy.

Nearly two years after the “Arab Spring”  began in Egypt, the nation’s Muslim Brotherhood president has arrogated to himself dictatorial powers, and is ramming through a new constitution that will effectively extinguish the last vestiges of Egyptian democracy and establish Egypt as a Sharia state. Just as I said back in January 2011, when the uprisings against Mubarak began, for the people in Egypt who had real power to affect change, the “Arab Spring” was never about democracy and pluralism, despite the ululations of the Western press; it was always about imposing Islamic law upon Egypt. And now, with the new constitution, here we are.

The Associated Press reported that the draft constitution “largely reflects the conservative vision of the Islamists, with articles that rights activists, liberals and Christians fear will lead to restrictions on the rights of women and minorities and civil liberties in general.” They have every reason to fear, for the constitution reflects in numerous particulars Sharia restrictions on their rights.

AP reports that the constitution’s wording “could give Islamists the tool for insisting on stricter implementation of rulings of Shariah,” and that “a new article states that Egypt’s most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah, a measure critics fear will lead to oversight of legislation by clerics.”

Al-Azhar is the foremost exponent of Sunni orthodoxy. Its characterization of what constitutes that orthodoxy carries immense weight in the Islamic world. It hews to age-old formulations of Islamic law mandating second-class dhimmi status for non-Muslims, institutionalized discrimination against women, and sharp restrictions on the freedom of speech, particularly in regard to Islam. Al-Azhar’s having a role in the government of Egypt and its administration of Sharia spells the end of any remaining freedom in Egyptian society.

Notably, the constitution omits an article banning slavery. While it may not at first glance seem necessary for a constitution drafted in 2012 to contain such a ban, in Islamic countries this is still an issue. Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly observed several years that in neighboring Sudan, “slavery, sanctioned by religious zealots, ravaged the southern parts of the country and much of the west as well.”

“Religious zealots” indeed: anti-slavery crusaders never made much headway in the Islamic world, because slavery is rooted in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example. Muhammad owned slaves, and like the Bible, the Qur’an takes the existence of slavery for granted. The Qur’an even gives a man permission to have sexual relations with his slave girls as well as with his wives: “The believers must (eventually) win through, those who humble themselves in their prayers; who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who abstain from sex, except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess, for (in their case) they are free from blame…” (23:1-6). A Muslim is not to have sexual relations with a woman who is married to someone else – except a slave girl: “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you” (4:24).

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have noted the problem of Islamic slavery. In light of this, for the Egyptian constitution not to ban it bodes ill.

And that is by no means all. According to AP, “the draft contains no article specifically establishing equality between men and women because of disputes over the phrasing. However, it maintains that a woman must balance her duties toward family and outside work, suggesting that she can be held accountable if her public role conflicts with her family duties. No such article is mentioned for men.”

The implications for women’s rights are as obvious as they are unsurprising in light of Sharia’s reduction of women to the status of virtual slaves of men, little more than commodities.

Then there are numerous articles heralding the introduction of Sharia restrictions on the freedom of speech. Islamic law forbids criticism of Islam, Muhammad and the Qur’an, and the constitution duly contains an article that “bans insulting or defaming the prophet and messengers.” But the constitution doesn’t stop there. Another article bans “insulting humans,” suggesting authoritarian restrictions on criticism of political leaders, and yet another “underlines that the state will protect ‘the true nature of the Egyptian family ... and promote its morals and values,’” about which AP notes: “phrasing that is vague and suggests state control over the contents of such arts forms as books and films.”

Finally, still another article “maintains that the state supports the arts, science and literature and works to implement them in a way that serves society. That has raised concerns that some arts deemed not in the service of society may be restricted or censored.”

Egypt always faced a Hobson’s choice: Mubarak’s repressive regime, or the stifling oppression of Sharia. The Western analysts who hailed the “Arab Spring” were always whistling in the dark. The new constitution realizes what was always the destiny of the uprising against Mubarak, though hardly any Western commentators realized it at the time, and those who did were dismissed as “fearmongers.”

It isn’t “fearmongering” if the threat you’re warning about is real.

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