What to make of huge turnout for protests against President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt – the most populous Arab country and bedrock of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence? The myth of Islamist political ideology as a solution to all political and economic woes has been broken.
Political Islamists throughout the Arab world had been forced into the background of political life – or the underground – in the years when most Arab governments discredited their right to participate in political life. But these Arab regimes were often corrupt and based their support on crony capitalism and sham elections. This helped Islamists, ironically, to be the champions of virtue, clean government, social welfare, and justice. With the single slogan “Islam is the solution,” they effectively captured the imagination and hope of millions in the Arab world, making people believe that they had an alternative to tyranny.
This first year under the Morsi government in Egypt – by far the largest pilot project ever staged for Islamists’ political ideology – has exposed the myth that Islamists have a real alternative.
Under Mr. Morsi, no new economic or political ideas were brought to the political table. Yes, the Egyptian “deep state” of Hosni Mubarak-era cronies prevented change, particularly in the judiciary and elements of the public sector. But Islamists had no real solution to the everyday problems of Egyptians such as traffic, garbage, insecurity, unemployment and the sheer chaos that characterizes the mundane life people lead. Like his predecessors, Mr. Morsi tried to court foreign capital, international donors, and international creditors such as the International Monetary Fund. In essence, Mr. Morsi's economic policies were business as usual.
Undoubtedly Mr. Morsi inherited an economic mess and a corrupted system that would take more than a year to weed out. Also, one could argue that like all countries, Egypt must play by the international economic rules, and has taken an economic beating with a depreciating exchange rate and rising debt burdens. The Islamists are also capitalists themselves, albeit small- to medium-sized businesses and not national oligarchs. So Islamists are not likely to shake the economic system underpinning Egypt.
But the point here is that Islamists never claimed governing was hard; in essence they simplified good governance to a single and effective slogan: “Islam is the solution!” To many Egyptians this is now an empty slogan and there is a demand for real policy ideas. This is a good thing as it sets the stage for political parties to mature beyond rhetoric into developing policy platforms.
Islamists will retain the respect of having cleaner hands than the Mubarak regime, but Egyptians and perhaps Arab electorates in other transition countries will also demand more. In a devout region, religious credentials will matter less than offering specific solutions to life's mundane problems.
Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and associate professor at the University of Waterloo.