A warning to John Kerry on Middle East trip: Egypt could become the next Iran

Take note, Secretary of State John Kerry: Under the rule of Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is in danger of becoming a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US must demand the protection of human rights and back rhetoric with action.

Egyptian Presidency/AP
Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, right, embraces Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the 12th summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, Egypt Feb. 6. As US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Egypt this weekend, op-ed contributor Nesreen Akhtarkhavari warns: 'Just as the revolution in Iran was hijacked by the Shiite clergy in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood is doing the same in Egypt now.'

As Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Egypt March 2 he should be wary of one concerning possibility: Under the rule of Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is in danger of becoming a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Opposition leaders’ refusal to meet with Mr. Kerry over what they perceive to be as unprincipled US support for Mr. Morsi should serve as a wake-up call and warning to Washington.

Morsi’s first step after winning the June 2012 presidential election was to create an alliance with other Islamic groups, and sideline seculars and liberals who could derail the establishment of a religious state. Next, he gave himself immunity from legal prosecution and managed to quickly hoard more power than deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak ever dreamed of having. After a number of maneuvers, Morsi pushed forward a constitution drafted mostly by Brotherhood members and their allies, ignoring the protests of secular opponents, Christians, women, and liberals against the discriminatory language and key articles placed in the new constitution.

The new constitution sets the legal ground for creating what could become an Islamic state. It restricts the role of the judicial and legislative branches and stipulates that laws and their interpretations are subject to Islamic jurisprudence. It further gives legal-oversight power on “matters related to the Islamic sharia” to Al-Azhar University, the oldest and highest Sunni religious institution in Egypt.

The new constitution and its wide implications for personal freedom and social justice should concern the international community. It explicitly recognizes only the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), and leaves other minorities, such as those of the Baha’i faith, without meaningful constitutional protection. Strict adherence to the concept of apostasy prevents Muslims from changing their religion, a crime punishable by death. Blasphemy laws restrict freedom of expression, especially on religious matters, with retributions as severe as death for comments related to the prophet Mohammed or the Koran.

According to Sunni jurisprudence, women are subject to male guardianship under which their personal freedoms, social life, and career choices are severely restricted. This restriction is not banned under Egypt’s new constitution. And because the new constitution fails to set a minimum age for marriage and does not criminalize sexual trafficking of minors, children, especially girls, could be forced into marriages at the age of nine with the approval of their male guardians.

During the last three decades, Iran, under the control of the Islamic Shiite clergy, was transformed into a religious state with endless human rights violations. In most cases, the world stood by watching. Egypt is learning from the Iranian experience. If the political conditions in Egypt remain the same, Egypt could soon follow Iran’s footsteps. 

In spite of the deep and highly politicized Sunni-Shiite divide, the Sunni-based Muslim Brotherhood doctrine recognizes Shiite Islam as a legitimate sect. Many Islamists in Egypt see their country as Iran’s equal Sunni counterpart and may perceive the collaboration between the two nations as another step toward Islamic world expansion.

With little regard to the controversy surrounding the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadeinejad’s recent visit to Egypt to participate in an Islamic summit, Morsi warmly welcomed him. He left the Sunni religious institution, Al-Azhar, and the flying shoe of a Syrian dissident to deliver condemnations of Iran’s Shiite expansion efforts in Arab-Sunni territories and their support of the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Morsi negotiated with the Iranian president about ways to improve political collaboration and economic partnership. Recently, Egypt and Iran signed an agreement to foster tourism between the two countries.

It is important that the international community carefully watches this newly forged alliance and takes steps to prevent the repeat of the Iranian experience. This is not a call against Islam, but against the establishment of a theocratic state that practices a wide range of human right abuses with impunity, under the banner of religion.

It is not enough that world leaders such as Secretary Kerry make clear in their public discourse that such practices will not be tolerated, but the rhetoric should be reinforced in private talks to demonstrate seriousness. International investments and funds to support Egypt’s economy should continue to be conditioned upon implementation of the rule of law and protection of human rights.

International human rights and civic organizations should be diligent in supporting similar organizations in Egypt. Having a strong and active “third sector” is the only way to ensure that state abuse, torture, and imprisonment are widely reported and actions are taken to support the victims and their families, and to bring perpetrators, including the state, to account.

It is critical that international trade unions continue their support of Egyptian trade unions. The current religious state sees these unions as a threat to its dominance and is enacting laws to control their independence, operation, and right to assemble and protest.

Just like the revolution in Iran was hijacked by the Shiite clergy in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood is doing the same in Egypt now.

Morsi and his government seem to have learned well from the Iranian regime about how to deal with opposition. The tens of thousands of disappointed activists, bloggers, seculars, liberals, trade union members, and frustrated Egyptians back in the streets in a “revolution of rage” calling for Morsi’s resignation, are brutally attacked, tortured, imprisoned, and killed as Iran did with the protestors of the Youth Green Movement in 2009. 

There is a fine line between interference in domestic affairs and the responsibility of the world community toward the protection of human rights and individual freedoms. Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration must remember this.

Recognizing that only Egyptians can determine the type of government they want, the protection of the rights of minorities and individuals is a global responsibility that we all share as nations, organizations, and people.

Dr. Nesreen Akhtarkhavari is director of Arabic Studies and an assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Her research focuses on Islamic law and minority and women’s rights. This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.

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