The latest eruption of violence in Egypt, in which the army has cracked down on pro-Morsi protesters, has raised the question of whether the country's "secular" army is any better than the "religious" Muslim Brotherhood that ran the country rather dysfunctionally for about a year, before being overthrown in a coup. While pundits argue about whether the U.S should withdraw support from the army, I am going to discuss the question of whether we are looking through the wrong lens, that of Islamism, to understand the country's political landscape of Egypt. What's happening in Egypt is being driven by the country's material and economic conditions — Islamism is a secondary phenomenon.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of modern Egypt will realize that Islamism in Egypt has actually worked to build a culture of participation in civil society and formed a bulwark against the authoritarian regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. One can argue that this has been one of the most important and significant contributions of Muslim Brotherhood, a party that has come to represent Islamism in Egypt, and by default the Muslim world. As several anthropologists and sociologists such as Janine Clark have pointed out, the social infrastructure in the form of clinics, schools, and health care centers that the Brotherhood has provided fulfills a genuine need that the state is often unable to fulfill.
Even before the Arab Spring and the Tahrir Square protests, there was an understanding across the region that unless the issue of economic disparities and unemployment was addressed, it was going to become a time-bomb which would eventually explode. And explode it did. Projects such as shabab inclusion and other initiatives across the Middle East and North Africa point to the gravity of this problem, which the Mubarak regime did not address sufficiently in Egypt. With historically high unemployment rates, pegged at over 25%, this is still the biggest issue in the country and the broader MENA region. As the report points out, there are over 100 million youth between 15 and 29 years old, who now represent 30% of the region’s total population. Unlike the rentier states in the Persian Gulf that buy off their citizens' loyalty through their model of providing subsidies and economic incentives, the poorer countries in North Africa do not have the oil wealth to do so. Hence the popular uprisings in which ordinary citizens have demanded greater opportunities, justice, and opportunities to participate in the public sphere.
From a purely sociological perspective, even though the Muslim Brotherhood tried to push through an agenda dominated by its Islamist ideology, I believe that the very people who voted the party into power believed they'd be getting an efficient, functional government that delivered on basic public goods such as a growing economy and stable public sector. As Daniel Levy pointed out in a recent op-ed, “We have also been told that democracy and political Islam are incompatible. But the proof from Egypt and elsewhere is far from conclusive, in fact the Brotherhood have on balance probably been better democrats than the more Westernized secular political forces. It is the bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood which threatens to make the incompatibility argument a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Eventually, what people need are jobs, a stable economy, and a country that takes care of their needs. Unless this happens, the citizens of the country will use all tools at their disposal to achieve their ends, even if happens to be religion. In Egypt, this is precisely what has occurred.