Egypt: The Sharia debate... in 1985

Hosni Mubarak in 1985

Here is a little item from history worth reconsidering in light of the growing Islamist-secularist debate in Egypt over the future constitution and the application of Sharia (referenced in Ursula’s hilarious post yesterday). From a Wikileaks State Dept. cable dated from March 1985, we get a little insight in how the American Embassy in Cairo saw Egyptian politics: a democratizing Mubarak set against retrogade political foes.

¶2. BEGIN SUMMARY. MOMENTUM IS BEGINNING TO BUILD TOWARD A MAY DEBATE IN THE PEOPLES ASSEMBLY ON ISLAMIC SHARIA (KORANIC LAW). IN RECENT DAYS, KEY OPPOSITION FIGURES FUAD SIRAJ AL-DIN (CHAIRMAN OF THE NEW WAFD PARTY) AND OMAR TALMASSANI (GENERAL GUIDE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD) APPEARED BEFORE THE ASSEMBLY’S RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TO EXPRESS SUPPORT FOR PURGING OF EXISTING LEGISLATION NOT IN ACCORDANCE WITH SHARIA. THE SPEAKER OF THE ASSEMBLY, RIFAAT EL MAHGOUB, WHILE SUPPORTING THE OVERALL OBJECTIVE, LEFT DELIBERATELY VAGUE THE TIMING AND EXTENT OF THE PURGE. THE ADVOCATES DOUBTLESS KNOW THE PROCESS OF IMPLEMENTING “FULL SHARIA” WILL BE PROTRACTED; INDEED, MUBARAK IS PERCEIVED AS UNCOMPROMISING IN OPPOSITION TO “THE FULL IMPLEMENTATION OF SHARIA.” IN ADVANCE OF THE MAY DEBATE PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF, AND MANEUVERING ABOUT, SHARIA ISSUES IS ALREADY UNDERWAY. END SUMMARY.

¶3. WE RECENTLY REPORTED AT LENGTH ON MUBARAK’S EVOLVING DEMOCRACY – SEE CAIRO 5284. THE EGYPTIAN PUBLIC IN THE LAST FEW DAYS HAS WITNESSED A REMARKABLE DEMONSTRATION OF THIS DEMOCRACY IN ACTION, AS WAFD PARTY CHAIRMAN FUAD SIRAJ AL-DIN AND MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD GENERAL GUIDE OMAR TALMASSANI BOTH ATTENDED HEARINGS OF THE PEOPLES ASSEMBLY RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE. THEIR ATTENDANCE, PROMI- NENTLY REPORTED ON TELEVISION AND IN THE PRESS, WAS A SIGNAL OF RECONCILIATION BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND TWO OF THE CHIEF FOES OF FORMER PRESIDENTS NASSER AND SADAT.

A little context here: in 1984, an alliance of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd Party won a large bloc of seats in parliament (when elections were held in a PR system). Wafd leader Fouad Serageldin, who was already in politics during the monarchy, was a shrewd patrician traditionalist; Omar Tilmissani was arguably the most important leader of the group post-Nasser era, taking it away from radical/Qutbist inclinations of the 1960s and schisms of the 1970s. Sheikh al-Azhar at the time with Gad al-Haq, who held arch-conservative views perhaps close to today’s Salafists, more hardline than later occupiers of the position.

We get more approval of Mubarak’s methods in an April 1985 cable, when the Sharia debate is defused by a vague promise to review legislation over several years:

  1. THIS SCENARIO REFLECTS THE TACTICS OF PRESIDENT MUBARAK, ABLY SUPPORTED BY HIS SPEAKER OF THE PEOPLES ASSEMBLY, RIFAAT EL MAHGOUB; THEY ARE WILLING TO LET ISLAMIC SENTIMENT BE EXPRESSED FREELY, BUT NOT TO THE POINT OF THREATENING THE POLITICAL STATUS QUO. GOVERN- MENT AND NDP CIRCLES HAVE BEEN SPREADING THE WORD QUIETLY BUT FIRMLY THAT THE PRESIDENT HAS NO INTENTION OF LETTING THE SHARIA ISSUE GET OUT OF CONTROL. COMMENTING IN A PRESS INTERVIEW ON A DEMAND BY GAD AL-HAQ, THE GRAND SHEIKH OF AL-AZHAR (WHO OCCUPIES THE MOST PROMINENT ISLAMIC POST IN EGYPT), FOR THE APPLICATION OF ISLAMIC SHARIA, MUBARAK STATED THAT EGYPTIAN LAWS “DO NOT CONFLICT IN ANY WAY WITH THE ISLAMIC RELIGION AND ARE 99 PERCENT IN ACCORDANCE WITH ISLAMIC SHARIA.” MUBARAK DID NOT GET INTO THE SPECIFICS OF THE REMAINING “ONE PERCENT,” OR THE EXTENT OF CHANGES IN LAWS REGARDING SUCH MATTERS AS BANKING PRACTICES OR ISLAMIC PUNISHMENTS. (WE HEAR FROM OTHER SOURCES THAT “TINKERING” WITH EGYPTIAN LEGISLATION WILL FOCUS IN THE BANKING AREA, WITH THE SUBSTITUTION OF “FEES” AND “SHARED OWNERSHIP” FOR INTEREST; ISLAMIC PUNISHMENTS ARE SAID TO BE OUT OF THE QUESTION.) MUBARAK’S POINT, OF COURSE, IS THAT NOTHING MUCH NEEDS TO BE ALTERED.

A classic Mubarak move, in other words: allow the talk, but not any action. The analytical mistake made here is that the debate is taking place in a democratizing environment — although that was the thinking of many Egyptians at the time too. Add to it the regional context from an American perspective — the Cold War division of the Middle East (note the absence of interest for leftist views in the cable, particularly as Mubarak continued the Sadat policy of marginalizing leftists with American approval), the Iranian revolution, and a fragilized Camp David agreement emptied of its Palestinian component and made brittle by the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

If you look through other cables from Embassy Cairo, there are some interesting analyses of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In another cable reminiscent of the current moment, for instance, there is talk of the MB’s desire for “engagement” from the Americans after the first meeting between Brothers and embassy officials, in September 1986, four months after al-Tilmissani’s death:

¶6. IMPRESSIONS FROM THIS EXCHANGE:

(1) THE MB IS EAGER TO STEP UP CONTACTS WITH THE U.S. EMBASSY. WE CAN ONLY SURMISE THAT, APART FROM WHATEVER IDEOLOGICAL THINKING THIS DESIRE MAY REFLECT, ONE MOTIVE MAY BE TO ADD TO THE MB’S LEGITIMACY AS A POLITICAL ENTITY.

(2) THE SUCCESSOR LEADERSHIP IS MORE CONCERNED TO STAY CLEAR OF PROBLEMS WITH THE GOE. TALMASSANI HAD NOT REQUESTED PRIOR CLEARANCE, AT LEAST NOT VIA THIS EMBASSY, FOR HIS SEVERAL CONTACTS WITH EMBOFFS. A SEPARATE CONVERSATION BETWEEN POLOFF AND A JOURNALIST CONNECTED TO THE MB INDICATED THAT THE MB IS VERY CONCERNED OVER THE RECENT WELL-PUBLICIZED ARRESTS OF NON-MB FUNDAMENTALISTS. THIS APPARENT GOE CRACKDOWN ON NON-MB FUNDAMENTALISTS MAY BE ONE FACTOR BEHIND THE MB’S UNPRECEDENTED INSISTENCE UPON MININT CLEARANCE TO MEET WITH US.

(3) MB LEADERSHIP APPEARED TO LACK SELF CONFIDENCE AND COHESION. THIS MAY BE ANOTHER FACTOR BEHIND ITS CAUTION. ABUL NASR APPEARED PHYSICALLY FRAIL AND MORE A FIGUREHEAD THAN THE DOMINANT PRESENCE IN THE MEETING. HIS COMPLEXION WAS SALLOW AND HIS WESTERN BUSINESS SUIT HUNG ON HIM LOOSELY. HIS VOICE WAS RASPY AND UNSTEADY, AND HIS VERY THICK EYEGLASSES MAY INDICATE FAILING VISION. ALTHOUGH ABUL NASR SAT IN THE POSITION OF HONOR BEHIND A DESK, MASHHUR, ACROSS THE ROOM ON A COUCH, WAS THE MORE IMPOSING FIGURE. MASHHUR, APPARENTLY IN HIS MID-SIXTIES, WAS RESPECTFUL – HE DID NOT INTERRUPT ABUL NASR – BUT NOT DEFERENTIAL. HE CLEARLY DOMINATED THE CONVERSATION WITH STEADY VOICE AND EYECONTACT, AND THE MB NOTETAKER LOOKED REPEATEDLY TOWARD MASHHUR AS HE TRANSCRIBED THE CONVERSATION. MOREOVER, OUTER OFFICE MB STAFF COMMENTS TO POLOFF OF PROFOUND REGRET OVER LOSS OF TALMASSANI SEEMED INTENDED TO CONVEY PERCEPTIONS OF ABUL NASR’S INADEQUACY AS A SUCCESSOR.

Plus ça change…