The brotherhood`s democracy: not for women?

By: Jon Nordenson (@jnor), University of Oslo.

Much have been said and much will be said about the Muslim Brotherhood`s rise to power in Egypt and their relationship with democracy, not least following the often cited Turkish example of AKP`s response to the current demonstrations. Though the confusing and chaotic situation in Egypt renders clear cut positions in this debate somewhat difficult, their actions and statements speak volumes when it comes to women`s freedom and participation in society. This, in turn, raises the rather intriguing question of whether or not the brotherhood, even under ideal circumstances, could or should be regarded as “democratic”, whatever that entails.

To be perfectly clear: this is not an attempt to provide any definite answer to this debate, nor is it an attempt to describe what the often problematic and vague concept of “democracy” should look like in Egypt. It is not an attempt to describe the brotherhood’s view on women, and it is not an attempt to tell anyone what should be the brotherhood’s view on women, participation and democracy. It is, however, an attempt to exemplify statements and views many would find undemocratic, and to ask the question of whether or not there is any meaning left to “democracy” should these views be taken literally. Lastly, I do not claim that “democracy” is something static you may or may not arrive at/accomplish, and that a regime never can become more, or less, democratic over time.

To begin with the basics; President Mohammed Morsy was elected by the Egyptian people last year. All though the Carter Center expressed concerns with the military`s involvement and the democratization process as a whole, the brotherhood`s candidate did win the elections. Moreover, the alliance of their political party, the FJP, won 44, 9 % of the seats in the people`s assembly (lower house), and a clear majority of the elected seats (though voter turnout was extremely low) to the upper house. The lower house has since been dissolved, and the legitimacy of the upper house is contested by many given the low turn out and the circumstances of the elections. Moreover, the constitutional court has recently declared the basis for its election, together with the constitutional committee which wrote the constitution, as illegal, though it is unclear what the consequences of this ruling will be.

As for the President, the argument is often that he – through undemocratic behavior – has lost his legitimacy rather than never actually having gained it in the elections. This alleged undemocratic behavior involves not only the President but also the FJP and the brotherhood, and includes attack/lawsuits/arrests on/against/of journalists, detention and mistreatment of activists (“he goes after those who brought him to power”), lack of reform of the police and the ministry of interior, un-inclusive leadership, ignoring the rights of minorities, failing to heed his promises (of, for instance, including representatives of various groups on his team), imposing martial law, as well as brotherhood violence against others (for example in front of the Presidential palace and the brotherhood HQ). Moreover, the opposition accuses the President of not being inclusive and abusing his powers, most famously through the “constitutional declaration”.

For their part, the President, the Government and the FJP/Brotherhood accuses the opposition of being un-cooperative, of being more concerned with positions than with Egypt`s best, of instigating violence, of taking part in conspiracies with foreigners/the old regime/bullies/the interior (or all the aforementioned), of being un-democratic by not accepting the election results or state institutions, of being anti-islamist, and so on.

Neither side seems to be wrong in everything. The President and/or the FJP have attacked journalists publicly, and “unknown people” have attacked them physically. The police is still using torture and unlawful detentions, and any reform of the interior is still difficult to spot (which, of course, might be because the President is unable, not necessarily unwilling, to do so). The President is certainly not surrounded by people from all kinds of groups, and the constitutional process was certainly not rooted in all parts of society. Moreover, the brotherhood has demonstrated their willingness to use violence against their opponents both in front of the Presidential palace, in Tahrir and in front of their HQ. On a similar note, various islamist, perhaps most prominently Hazem Abu Ismail, are allowed to threaten their opponents on live television, something said opponents hardly would get away with.

As for the opposition, they can hardly be called cooperative. Lashing out at the President and the brotherhood is far more visible than constructive, political work on Egypt`s many, many problems. Some people in various demonstrations have undoubtedly used violence, and not only in self-defense. The attacks on the Presidential palace with Molotov’s did take place, and though the attackers might not be representative for the opposition as such (no-one is), the condemnation of these acts from the opposition is not forthcoming. The accusation that the opposition is mostly concerned with positions is also fueled by the focus on the presidency rather than political issues, and incidents such as when the NSF within days demanded early presidential elections and denounced parliamentary elections (the time was “not right”).

The list of grievances mentioned above is not exhaustive. Moreover, it should be viewed within the chaotic context of present day Egypt. The polarization between islamists and the opposition is no doubt destructive, as is the lack of trust. A “winner-might-just-take-it-all” mood seems dominant, with the position and the opposition not trusting that the other will respect the length of terms granted by popular vote, or the change such vote might bring about. Moreover, an understanding of democracy as unhindered majority rule seems clear among the brotherhood, and perhaps also with the opposition. Importantly, the issues mentioned above are all blurred by this situation, making any judgment call on democratic or undemocratic stances difficult. That is not to say they should be disregarded (or to clear any party of the charges against them). On the contrary, all this issues are of obvious importance to the future of Egypt`s political system. However, for now, I would suggest that on the issue of women`s participation, the statements and actions of the brotherhood and their islamist allies are quite clearly not compatible with common perceptions of democracy, that is, a more concrete example of the more general allegations. Moreover, this issue stems from political differences between the islamists and many other parties, raising the issue of what should be considered as just political differences, and what should be considered as more or less a different, and in many peoples view, an undemocratic, system.

For one thing, the new constitution has been harshly criticized for, among other things, failing to provide the rights of women. Though gender equality is guaranteed, other articles (such as article 10) seem contradictory to this, as pointed out by Amnesty International and others (although the nature of these contradictions is debated). Moreover, the representation of women in the political process and the political institutions is marginal. This is not solely the responsibility of the brotherhood (the opposition has not done any better), but as winners of every election after the revolution and the current power holders they have failed to include women in formal politics. Then there was the debate in the upper house on sexual violence and the attacks on female protesters in Tahrir. Although the most horrendous statements came from islamists outside the FJP (“women are 100 % responsible” just by being there), their own members also left something wanting. While condemning the attacks, as well as blaming them on the opposition, it was stated that the lack of segregation was the problem (see also NYTimes). In other words, if women are to participate, they cannot do so on equal footing, but only within the framework set by (a political system controlled by) men. The crime isn`t the problem, women who don`t take precautions while exercising their right to political participation is.

Then came the infamous statement from the brotherhood on the declaration of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In it, the brotherhood claims that if women are to be allowed to travel and work without their husband’s permission, this would ruin society. If women are given “sexual freedom”, if they are allowed to file legal complaints if they are raped by their husbands, if muslim women are allowed to marry non-Muslims, if they are to share responsibilities with their husbands on matters like child care and spending, well, then this would ruin society. Not only that, the document should be rejected and condemned.

Some of these issues are part of a quite old discussion on islamists and women’s rights, and I do not claim to raise a new subject for debate here. However, these are examples of how the brotherhood have acted following the revolution, taking part in what will hopefully become a democracy, and being in the position of power while this process takes place. This is not discussions on their program or statements made with no prospect of ever gaining power; this is what they do whilst in power. And whereas one might say that they are not able to make the police guarantee the security of protesters (for many reasons, including both lacking will within the interior and the fact that many protestors view the police as the enemy), they could say that they want to. But they don`t. And while the views commented upon here might not be representative for every and all member of the FJP, the brotherhood, or the President`s staff, it is what the brotherhood do and say from a position of power.

The other issues pertaining to democracy mentioned here, and many others, will prove crucial to Egypt`s further development. However, these issues are partially clouded by the situation in Egypt, and crucially, neither the brotherhood nor the opposition would agree to any of the accusations against them mentioned here. When it comes to women’s rights, the brotherhood states their view clearly, and demonstrates it in action. The brotherhood may of course revise their policies. And there is of course no reason to expect that Egyptian women will accept to be sidelined. But as it is today, women will not be granted basic freedoms and secured the right to political participation on equal grounds, that is, they can only participate on certain conditions imposed by men but not on men. Even though any road to democracy is bumpy, and democratic progress in Egypt certainly will be the result of various forces working with and against each other, all this still raises the question of whether or not the brotherhood, even under ideal circumstances, could lead Egypt to a political system that should be termed “democratic”. Whatever that entails.