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A Tale Of Two Brotherhoods: The Rajapaksa And The Muslim

2013 Jul 15

Rajan Philips

There is no direct comparison between what began as a High Noon drama in Egypt two weeks ago, and what has been going on for quite a while in Colombo as a low level street theatre involving 13A.  The comparison, if at all, lies in the main orchestrators and actors in the Egyptian showdown and their counterparts in Sri Lanka.  In Egypt, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood and their extremist variants, and the vocally united but otherwise hopelessly divided secular opposition are all in play, in full public view, on the political stage that is the state itself.  The Sri Lankan situation is less dramatic but more insidious.  There are also striking contrasts while a parallel might be seen in the preoccupation with constitution making in both Egypt and Sri Lanka.

There is a brotherhood of a different kind in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa brotherhood constitutes the regime, controls the army, and orchestrates the extremists among the Sinhalese, who without the regime’s support and protection will be run out of town in no time by the real majority of the Sinhalese people. The opposition to the regime in Sri Lanka is nowhere near the opposition in Egypt by any measure. Remarkably, it is the opposition in Egypt that gave the Egyptian army the justification to dismiss the regime of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. But one must be crazily out of touch with reality to envisage a parallel development in Sri Lanka. The thrust of my argument, however, is that Sri Lanka is heading towards a situation that Egypt is trying to escape from.        

A Coup by some other name

The Egyptian army removal of President Morsi has been described as a “coup by acclamation.”  The US has officially avoided the “C” word to avoid the legal trap, as the US government cannot give aid to a country where a democratically elected government has been removed by a military coup.  That would mean stopping the annual aid of $1.6 billion that Egypt receives from the US, the second largest beneficiary of US munificence after Israel. There is also the hearsay coming out of Cairo, that the army had the West’s blessing to remove Morsi provided there was a civilian face to the removal and replacement.

President Morsi cooked his own goose through sheer ineptitude even as the Muslim Brotherhood lost a golden opportunity to use its electoral victory to win real legitimacy in the broader Egyptian society.  While clutching at the straws of formal legitimacy, Morsi and the Brotherhood lost every ounce of governing credibility by running down the economy, creating a constitution that was not acceptable to anyone outside the world of political Islam, and clamping down on dissent and criticism with the same ferocity that they have suffered under military rulers in the past. In the end President Morsi had to go but not exactly the way he was forced to go.  What comes to mind is what Fidel Castro said of Alexander Dubcek and the Soviet invasion of the then Czechoslovakia 45 years ago to snuff out the short lived Prague Spring (that Dubcek led to reform the Communist Party). Said Castro, ‘Dubcek got what he deserved, but what the Soviet Union did was wrong’!

The Egyptian conundrum is that the Army cannot eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood who have survived six decades of repression starting from the rule of Nasser, through Sadat, to Mubarak. At the same time the Brotherhood cannot become an acceptable governing party without modifying political Islam to accommodate secular Egyptians and Christian minorities in a governing coalition. President Morsi could have and should have followed the Turkish model but he did not even make a worthwhile attempt.  Many would say he was personally incapable of achieving a successful synthesis of secularism and Islam, the way it is being done in Turkey by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdagon.

Erdagon is a product of Islamist Welfare Party, the Turkish version of the Brotherhood, founded by Necmettin Erbakan. But Erdagon moved away from his guru and Islamic fundamentalist roots to found the more moderate Justice and Democratic Party (AKP) and achieve a successful governing coalition of Political Islamists and Secular Liberals. So far the coalition has neutralized the Secular Authoritarians, the traditional ruling bloc of Turkey, comprising the Kemalists (followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey) and the Turkish Army.

Just recently, Erdagon showed his own authoritarian streak by trying to bulldoze away a popular park in Istanbul to build a shopping mall and condominiums. He was stopped in his tracks by the spontaneous backlash of the city’s residents who love that park. This was an instance when popular opposition was able to push back an elected government to change course without waiting for elections and without overthrowing it by the army. In Egypt, Morsi would not change course and got overthrown.

The post-Morsi prospects have been complicated by the army’s killing of Brotherhood protesters, more than fifty in one incident alone in Cairo, and the widespread attacks on Christian minorities by Islamic extremists. The government established after General Abd-al-Fattah al-Sisi suspended the constitution has now an interim President in Adly Mansour, who has in turn appointed liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as his Prime Minister. Mansour has also set out a tight timetable for drafting a new constitution, holding a referendum on the constitution, parliamentary elections, followed by presidential election – all to be achieved by early 2014.

While the transition government has the support of Morsi’s opponents including the Salafist Nour party, the conservative and the second largest Islamic Party after the Brotherhood, nothing consensual can be achieved if the Muslim Brotherhood boycotts the process.  The drafting of the new constitution may provoke another fierce debate between Egypt’s secularists and the Islamists. A new constitution adopted even by a majority of Egyptians will lack credibility if the Muslim Brotherhood is not part of the process of constitution making, just as the now suspended constitution exclusively prepared by the Brotherhood leadership lacked credibility outside the organization. Additionally, a marginalized or defeated Brotherhood, or sections of it, may decide to leave the open political arena and resort to underground and anti-systemic politics.  There is increasing pressure on the Egyptian Army – from the US and Germany, not mention the massive protest demonstrations by Morsi supporters last Friday  - to release Morsi from his house arrest. The Army despite all its powers is caught between two irreconcilable forces of secularism and religious populism.

Egypt’s future is treacherously uncertain. Its current predicaments, on the other hand, illustrate the difficulties of a political society that is deeply divided between secularists and asecularists and is trying to come out of a militarized and repressive past into a system of constitutional democracy.  As I said at the outset, the tensions and conflicts between the different power blocs – the army, the Brotherhood, other Islamists, secular parties, Christian minorities – are all out in the open and literally on the streets.  Egypt is desperately in search of a system that will channel these tensions and help resolve conflicts peacefully and democratically in a representative forum and not in Cairo’s Tahrir Square .

Sri Lankan situation

Sri Lanka is in a different situation but my contention is that it is being blindly led towards a predicament that Egypt is struggling to get out of.  For most commentators Sri Lanka’s slide began with the 1972 Republican Constitution and gained huge momentum after the 1978 Constitution. I would argue that the slide took a particularly dangerous turn after 2005. The directional change can be seen in the character of the regime, the creeping militarization of institutions, the cynical cultivation of Buddhist extremism by the political masters, and never ending constitutional shenanigans.

In Egypt, the military is all powerful. Whatever constitutional change occurs and regardless of who gets to form the next government, the Army will have its ‘pound of flesh’ viz., primacy given to defence and national security; allocation of $1.2b out of $1.6b of the US grant for military expenditure; and continuation of the Army’s economic activities accounting for 20% of the GDP. The status of the Sri Lankan military is not at all comparable to that of the Egyptian Army, but look at the recent changes in the role and influence of the military in Sri Lanka. Military-style encampment and training is now the lot of university entrants and school principals. The military is now being assigned various civilian tasks such as urban upgrades in Colombo and other construction work. The military has also been ventured into commercial activities such as marketing goods and services from selling vegetables to marketing tourism.

How the Egyptian army got to where it is today has a 60 year history behind it. Should Sri Lanka let its army go in that direction after successfully thwarting the only coup attempt in 1962 is the question Sri Lankans need to ask themselves and ask their parliamentary representatives.  Why should such creeping militarization that no previous Sri Lankan government would ever have contemplated be carried out by the present government? The answer is partly in the brotherhood character of the regime and partly in the total inability of parliament to check a rampant executive. The government has also placed the military in total control of the Northern Province and made it the ultimate power bloc in the Eastern Province.

It is not only the military that is being transformed by the present regime. There is the even more disturbing trend of the regime arousing and supporting Buddhist fundamentalist groups among the Sinhalese. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Egypt under specific conditions in Egypt and the Middle East characterized first by colonial rule, and later by military dictatorships or repressive monarchies.  Where is the necessity for organizations like the JHU and the BSS in Sri Lanka, where the two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, more than represent the majority of the Sinhalese and do so through open, democratic process?

One of the founding functions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Arab countries has been to provide welfare, health promotion, and education to the mass of the people who did not get such services from the state. Sri Lanka has been a model welfare state among developing countries from the 1930s. Do we need the JHU and BBS to provide welfare to the people? They are the spoilt beneficiaries of the country’s welfare system. They serve no purpose other than being storm troopers for the regime, socially targeting minority Muslims and Christians and politically undermining constitutional initiatives accommodating the Tamils and the Muslims.

Egypt is struggling to produce for itself a democratic constitution for the first time in its history. On the other hand, Sri Lanka that has a long tradition of constitutional government, is now having its constitutional system turned on its head. No previous Sri Lankan government has made so much mockery of the constitution as the present government. The separation of powers and checks and balances have been wantonly cast aside. The government’s sole pre-occupation now is to diminish or repeal the Thirteenth Amendment even though it cannot mobilize the required two-third majority in parliament for that purpose. But the government is not interested in reaffirming or enhancing 13A even though a two-third majority can be easily secured for such a purpose with the help of opposition MPs if only President Rajapaksa could make up his mind to do so.  That would be too easy!

Egypt is desperate to find a way out of the mess created by its modern history. The Rajapaksa brotherhood regime seems desperate to drag Sri Lanka into an unholy and wholly unnecessary mess, and may well succeed thanks to the opposition’s default.

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