Central & South Asia

India and a Secular Egypt


August 06, 2013 04:26 EDT

India should resist condoning any electoral democracy that is not secular.

States and civil societies usually perceive external events through their domestic values and histories. In recent years, India's discourse has highlighted the importance of democracy as a factor worth cherishing in its own right in different regions. Although Delhi has disavowed a foreign policy that promotes democracy, a position consistent with a plural acceptance of diverse regimes, sections of civil society unabashedly argue for India to take more active positions externally.

Not Only Democracy vs Authoritarianism

Many instinctively interpret Egypt's latest crisis through such a prism and are viewing these events as a binary of "democracy versus authoritarianism," with the choice of democracy as a moral and liberal necessity.

Often, the image and perceived lessons from Pakistan shape Indian perceptions. How can India condone a military coup anywhere when civil-military relations in Pakistan have left a ghastly stain on the nation's body politic and undermined regional security and stability?

For a start, that a very large section of the Egyptian polity, especially the urban, educated, and bureaucratic elite, appear to have supported the military's intervention to remove the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, from power makes simple binary interpretations problematic.

Regional reactions typically reflect domestic imperatives of different states.

Turkey, through its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been playing a dangerous game in the region by providing a springboard and haven for the Western-backed insurgency in Syria to strengthen its own political prospects within Turkey. Turkey's posture on Egypt, too, emanates from its domestic context. Until the early 2000s, Turkey's military had been an uncompromising guardian for the nation state's secular identity by keeping Islamic revivalism at bay. Over the past decade, Erdogan's rise and the ascendance of political Islam has been systematically challenging Turkey's secular state identity. Unsurprisingly, Erdogan’s use of political Islam is threatened by the Egyptian military's anti-Islamist coup.

Pakistan's case is very different from both Egypt and Turkey. In Pakistan, the military has for several decades, especially after the severing of East Pakistan and General Zia-ul-Haq's takeover in the late 1970s, forged a compact with radical Islam to regulate domestic politics and reinforce the very basis of Pakistan's identity and existence. In contrast, the military in Egypt and Turkey have historically been suspicious of Islamist forces and kept them at arms' length. No sober analyst can argue that Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani Armed forces and the real symbol of power within Pakistan, has been a defender of secular principles. In Egypt and Turkey, the military have traditionally been staunch defenders of secularism. India should recognize these differences when it searches for an interpretation of regional dynamics. Curiously, Washington has for decades accepted a supersized military-dominated state in Pakistan that is interdependent with radical Islam, but is vacillating in assisting the Egyptian military in its quest to subdue radical forces and stave off a civil war.

Arguably, the deeper political and ideational battle in West Asia is between secular forces and radical Sunni Islam. Syria is an ongoing and bloody battleground where this contest is being played out with regional actors and great powers, such as US and Russia, superimposing their own geopolitical interests and power in shaping the outcome of this contest.

Regional Reactions

Having struggled to counteract the ascendance of radical Islam on its own periphery, India's interests, both immediate and long-term, lie with the strengthening of secular forces wherever they might lie in the West Asian state apparatuses. This, of course, does not imply a conciliatory posture towards Rawalpindi, which has been playing with radical forces for over a generation and mostly at the expense of Indian security. Ironically, the military's intervention in Egypt seeks to stave off a radicalization of the body politic of Egypt akin to Pakistan's tragic reorientation in recent decades.

Some Arab monarchies have welcomed the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood primarily for cynical reasons of self-preservation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced an $8 billion aid package to Egypt shortly after Morsi's downfall. Qatar, on the other hand, had reportedly invested $8 billion in the Morsi regime. Doha also played a central role in financing the Syrian insurgency.

Despite intra-Arab differences, these dinosaur regimes that have been playing with fire since the Arab Spring now sense a blowback from Syria and Egypt turning on these monarchies themselves. Syria's Assad regime, unsurprisingly, has welcomed the downfall of Morsi, who in June had described the rebellion against Damascus as a legitimate jihad.

Israel is rediscovering the advantages of a stable West Asia, and Tel Aviv has encouraged Washington to maintain its $1.5 billion aid to Egypt's military, lest a weakened army is unable to contain the breakout of a civil war that could spill through the Sinai Peninsula and unravel Israel's security.

What India Needs To Do

Indian discourse needs to look beyond the one-size-fits-all image of democracy versus authoritarianism. It is the underlying values and identity of a state and its body politic that should inform Indian discourse and official pronouncements. For example, a radical Sunni dispensation legitimized via electoral success but one that rides roughshod over human rights, minority protection or fundamental secular principles, cannot be in India's interests or in the interests of the international community. In contrast, a quasi-authoritarian state, underpinned by secular principles and a defender of minority rights (i.e. Syria) may not conform to simplistic liberal sensibilities, but will ensure that more dangerous socio-political forces are kept at bay.

India should resist condoning any electoral democracy in West Asia that produces a governance philosophy that is the very antithesis of a plural secular statehood and negation of social equality and justice. The persistence of India's own democracy does not emerge from electoral voting machines but from values that are enshrined in the constitution and are defended by ideas and institutions, however compromised these might have become in recent years. If anything, the flux in West Asia should be juxtaposed with these core Indian values and not a superficial electoral stamp.

The deeper contest in West Asia is not between democracy and authoritarianism, but between secular principles and a conservative image of Islam that is seeking to fill the void after decades of failed governance and West-sponsored despotism across the region. A democratic tyranny of the majority that provides a veneer for an anti-secular, illiberal and sectarian ethos will produce an unstable West Asia for decades.

*[An earlier version of this article appeared in the Business Standard.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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