David's Harp / When Mohammed meets Keynes
Islam has what to contribute to politics but has nothing to say about economics as a discipline.
Is Egypt’s revolution over? A lot of Egyptians and many outside observers still insist it's alive, if not exactly well. Poring over last week’s election results, they are making the strained case that the majority of the country voted for the revolution by supporting anyone but the top two candidates who represent, respectively, the old regime - Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Islamism - the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi.
In fact, most didn’t vote at all. The turnout rate was less than 50%, surprisingly low for an event billed as the first free and fair election in Egypt in 5,000 years. You’d think more people would have wanted their little brush with history.
The Egyptian revolution is over. It lasted from the time the first crowds gathered in Tahrir Square until the generals pushed their boss out of power 18 days later. Since then, the real Egypt – the one that swivels between despotism and Islamic piety – has reasserted itself. Those few days in 2011 were a brief flicker lit by a small minority of Egyptians who have a Facebook account and the courage to protest against a dictatorship that briefly lost its nerve.
The Islamists are the real power. It’s not just that they won three-quarters of the vote in parliamentary elections; it's that poll after poll shows great majorities support the idea of an Islamic role in politics. For the great majority of Egyptians – not the ones typically interviewed by the Western press – Muslim practices and traditions guide their daily lives and frame their outlook on the world. They are not jihadists ready to make war on the West and Israel, but they would be happy just to have as little to do with either as possible. The two main Islamic presidential candidates may have garnered far fewer votes in the presidential elections than their secular rivals, but it is unlikely that more than a quarter of Egyptian voters lost their religion between last December (when 75% voted for Islamists) and this May (when only 41% did). Most simply stayed home.
As the biggest and most influential country in the region, Egypt of course is the poster boy for the Arab Spring. But in various forms the drama of Egyptian politics is being played out across the Middle East, not only in countries where the old regime is gone or threatened, but even in places where its grip on power remains strong. Nowhere, aside from the faint possibility of Tunisia, does a new era of democracy and freedom exist on the horizon. Given the spread of democracy to such far-flung places as Latin America, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the past three decades, this is a significant non-achievement for the Arab world.
It is interesting and unique to the Middle East that in the second decade of the 21st century, religion, and the rules and values it espouses, is the dominant contender for the role of guiding society. Religion is proffered as a panacea to every social and economic malady. The region certainly had plenty of those, in the form of violence, oppression, discrimination and poverty. But the solutions typically offered by Islamists are preoccupied with morality issues – putting women in proper dress, banning alcohol and extinguishing heresy.
The funny thing is that in most of the Arab world the Islamic solution is already practiced and often embodied in law. About the only relevant issue Islamists like to address is corruption.
But the fundamental problem that Egypt and the Arab world face is economic. There is an immediate one, namely that many of the non-oil countries are careening toward financial disaster. And there is a deeper one, that no Arab country has created an economy that can competitively produce anything other than oil. It’s not just that Egypt’s foreign reserves are running out or that Jordan has no way to pay its energy bills. The region's unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is the highest in the world. Populations are growing rapidly. Schools and universities fail to provide skills relevant to the modern economy. Harvests are shrinking. Even the oil-wealthy countries have failed, with their billions of dollars, to diversify their economies in any meaningful way.
The firmer application of Islam isn’t going to address these problems. Islam has nothing to say about economics as a discipline. Islamists have devised some rules and institutions, like Islamic banking, but these are modern creatures, meant not to be solutions to economic problems but to jury-rig modern life with sharia. What does Islam say about taking an International Monetary Fund loan, as Egypt and Jordan are both considering? What does it have to say about IMF conditions, like balancing the budget or creating better conditions for free markets? Should Egypt devalue the pound? Rein in the army’s business empire? Impose capital controls?
It’s not that Islam has to be a baleful influence on the politics of the Arab world. It has something to contribute. But for it to be the dominant factor distracts from urgent business.