The Many Shades of Freedom: Political Islam in the Egyptian Revolution

Sayyid Qutb was a prominent Islamic thinker of the mid-20th century who espoused a strong adherence to the Quran in governance and everyday life. His most prominent work, Milestones,  was published in 1964 and laid out the guidelinesmilestones-special-edition for how to think, by his standards, in a truly Islamic way. By doing so, it would create a type of freedom that allows man to become unbounded from the shackles of the institutions of man and give everyone the ability to come to Allah. All other forms of freedom, whether derived from the Enlightenment thinkers or from the ancient institutions of Greece and Rome, are merely forms of enslavement. They are defined as such because they are not derived from Allah. By collapsing the definition of freedom into a simplistic subservient relationship to Allah, it juxtaposes itself  against every other definition as the only viable alternative.

This is antithetical to the world view that many people hold as being the gold standard for societal advancement. The West measures freedom largely by Lockean principles and values concepts like technological achievement and diversity of thought. This Western idea of freedom and Qutb’s idea of freedom  are mutually exclusive and cannot be shared in a productive way. When revolution gripped Egypt in 2011 disparate ideologies united for a brief time against the oppressive and dictatorial regime that had ruled for so long. After Mubarak stepped down, there was a power vacuum that demanded to be filled. The ideologies lost their sense of community, separating along political and religious lines, between the secular worldview of the youthful instigators of the demonstrations and the islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While Sayyid Qutb’s works remain the very essence of extreme Islamism, they nevertheless are the foundational basis for the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is admittedly less radical on the surface than the way Qutb presents his ideas but they are inherently connected in an expressed way. The influence of Sayyid Qutb’s work on the fundamental ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is clear, despite the difference in apparent radicalization. The key “pillars” of the Muslim Brotherhood, as stated on their English website, are as follows:

I. The introduction of the Islamic Shari`ah as the basis controlling the affairs of state and society.

II. Work to achieve unification among the Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberating them from foreign imperialism.

There is an implicit connection to Sayyid Qutb’s ideas which is interwoven into the most basic statement of purpose put out by the Brotherhood. While this is evident now, the election of Mohammed Morsi as the leader of Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood gave hope that perhaps, with Islam as a guiding force, a democratic Egypt could surface. This is largely a brand of idealism that only younger people could subscribe to and one that would be shattered as the new presidency took shape. So there was little surprise that when Egyptians were polled on their opinion of Mohammed Morsi’s victory in the election after he had assumed power, 50 percent of them were “concerned that it is a setback for Egypt.” Additionally, confidence in the presidency in 2013 was only measured at 27 percent. Compared to previous Egyptian presidents Morsi was listed as being just as not credible as Hosni Mubarak (71 and 77 percent ‘not credible’ respectively), beaten out only by Anwar Sadat at 93 percent credible and Abdul Gamal Nasser at 73 percent credible. (Zogby)

So the question becomes, given an overall dissatisfaction with the Morsi presidency, why was he elected in the first place? Granted he was only given 51.3 percent of the vote, a very slight majority. (BBC) This still alludes to a hopeful optimism that pervaded throughout the Egyptian people following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It is important to remember that 97 percent of the Egyptian population are Muslim, so it might be surmised that, perhaps they channeled their optimism through their faith. Morsi also remained moderate and inclusive throughout the election counting on the votes of Christians and Secularists alike. After he won the presidency, the rights of outlier groups began to become restricted in favor of groups he aligned himself with.  Mohammed-Morsi-1The underlying principles of the Muslim Brotherhood began to supersede the promise he made that “no entity will be above the constitution.” (Reuters) Over time after his election, he began to grant himself far reaching powers while simultaneously disenfranchising entire swaths of the population who did not directly support his goals. These actions dissolved the facade of the moderate Islamist. Many of the affected groups began to feel just how much power was being centralized in the presidency through sweeping reforms of the constitution in line with the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood. The new constitution guaranteed “the principles of Islamic law the main source of legislation,” which is mostly the same as the previous constitution. (Saleh) However, the new constitution defined Shariah law as being derived from Sunni jurisprudence strengthening the relationship between Islam and the laws of the state. This allowed for the legal suppression of minority voices and further consolidated control over the system in the highest levels of government–a stratification of power that would ultimately lead to protests across Egypt demanding the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from the presidency.

Removal came swiftly. A little more than a year following Morsi’s ascent to the presidency, a military coup, following massive anti-Morsi demonstrations across the country, resulted in him stepping down. Sayyid Qutb’s definition of freedom, while not expressed directly in the new 2012 constitution, was implicitly included. If anything was demonstrated by the apparent islamification of constitutional Egyptian law, it is that Sunni jurisprudence enforced by the president and the courts is not what Egypt had been waiting for. Freedom as defined by the Jahiliyya (i.e. the West) is apparently much more appealing to the Egyptian people than Qutb’s Islamified freedom, which freedom is truly a mockery of the word. The Egyptian people simply weren’t ready for that and, for their sakes, should never be. The draw of political Islam as an ideology is appealing to people of faith (which many of them are). However, this experiment in political Islam has shown its essential, namely that much as Qutb claims that life, liberty and property are not the foundation of human prosperity and that the alternative of a pure connection with Allah is, such a conception just cannot take root in a society where people demand human prosperity as defined by the rest of the world. Religious utopianism has a fanciful but largely unrealistic appeal that cannot be functionally installed as the basis for a prosperous and cooperative society in the modern world. The rejection of Morsi’s policies and practices show that the values of Egyptian society have evolved in such a way that warrants a demand for western freedom so that Egypt may prosper much in the way that the societies around them are able to.


Sources: (Zogby Poll) (BBC) (Reuters) (Saleh) (Qutb)