Five days of protests in Egypt, with dozens of people killed and entire cities in turmoil, have revealed a whopping deficit of public trust in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group that dominates the leadership of this young democracy of the Arab Spring.
In cities like Port Said, the protesters have displayed an open defiance of President Mohamed Morsi’s orders on a curfew and state of emergency. Egypt’s Army chief warns of the state collapsing. And indeed, many Egyptians now talk of splitting up the Arab world’s most populous state.
The triggers for this upheaval were the second anniversary of the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a court sentencing 21 people for the deaths of 74 people after a soccer match last year. But below the surface of this dissent lies a deeper struggle. It is one trying to define the source of legitimacy for Egypt’s new leaders, or the kind of sentiment that cements trust between a government and its people.
As it has slowly risen to power in the past two years, the Muslim Brotherhood has broken many promises about the role it would play in representative government. Its flip-flops and power grabs in forming a new regime have only added to a worry among democracy advocates that Mr. Morsi would define his authority from Islam, or sharia law, rather than from constitutional rights and secular pluralism.
Even within the Brotherhood, a decades-long debate on reconciling Islam as a revealed religion with liberal democracy has yet to be settled, resulting in splits and high-level defections. A younger generation in the group wants to rely on persuasion to gain support while an old guard sticks to al-sama’ wa’l-ta’a, or “hearing and obeying.”
Now an Islamic movement founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher in 1928 faces the kind of protests that brought down a secular dictator. Protesters even chant the same word used in 2011: “Leave.”
Many Egyptians, or at least those in major cities, appear to be worried that their country might follow the path of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which Islamic leaders cite holy writ for secular authority more than they do public polls or election results.
The current protests show Egyptians trust democracy itself but they want more checks and balances on the power of elected leaders. Distrust is built into any democracy as a way to prevent the abuse of power by a few even if the system itself requires public trust.
“Trust is a kind of shorthand for a whole range of expectations and emotions about the content of our public life,” writes British philosopher Marek Kohn in a 2008 book, “Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good.”
As in personal relations, trust in government requires a great deal of openness and equality. Those traits are not well practiced within the Brotherhood’s strict hierarchy. It will need to adjust quickly if it wants to win back the support of Egyptians.