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Poland 1989 and Egypt 2011

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Credit: bi.gazeta.plBy Patrycja Sasnal*
IDN-InDepth News Viewpoint**

MONTPELLIER (IDN) - Most sober Middle East analysts have already put the Muslim Brotherhood in the 'losers' basket. Part of this has been in response to the exaggerated threat of 'radicalism' purported by the mainstream media.

But based on the Polish experience of religion's role in political transition, one cannot help thinking that we have not seen the last of the Muslim Brotherhood yet. Quite the contrary: if it acts cautiously, the movement can win more hearts and minds in the short run before it starts losing credibility among a brand new generation of Egyptians. Here's why.

The comparisons between Polish transition in 1989 and Egyptian revolution 2011 have not been given much thought. Like apples and oranges, they are different but they are both fruit: deeply religious societies that managed to dismantle oppressive systems in a peaceful manner.

In Poland it happened at the Round Table in 1989 where the opposition sat down with regime representatives in the presence of the Catholic Church to agree on semi-free parliamentary elections. In Egypt a popular movement that included all breeds of political and social forces ousted the president and invested their pro-democratic aspirations in the army.

Despite all the differences the reasons behind both revolutions share similarities. The main internal factor of change in Poland was the tragic condition of the economy: "We want bread and freedom" was the demonstrators' slogan in the 1980s (think of the Egyptian bread riots in the 1970s). There was literally nothing in the stores but they remained open.

My only childhood memory of chocolate is my mother's inexplicable invention of a substance resembling the original only in colour and texture.

But in the late 1980s the Polish regime tried to reform, unsuccessfully. The level of social rage grew constantly. Precisely the same has happened in Egypt over the past decade. Although the Egyptian economy is not centrally planned in its entirety, the level of impoverishment and social anger paralleled the Polish example in spite of the economic reforms.

Egyptians, like my mother and all Poles, wanted their dignity back.

In part, both societies' religiosity and politicisation of religion inspired that quest. I do not mean to compare the Catholic Church and the Muslim Brotherhood per se. Neither do I ignore the obvious differences between Christianity and Islam: but there are some parallels and interesting questions that arise.

Roots and riots

Ninety-five percent of Poles declare themselves religious (and Catholic) compared to 98 percent of Egyptians. Both regimes then, in Poland and Egypt, feared the power of religion. In Egypt it was concealed behind a facade of embracing official Islam via Al-Azhar (though the prominent Mosque rarely engaged politically and openly served the state) and amid repression of the politically-active Muslim Brotherhood.

The division by the late French orientalist Maxime Rodinson between official Islam (controlled by the state) and the popular one (expressed by the people themselves) is tricky in Egypt. The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is that it has managed to stay between the two realms.

It found a way to operate within the system, winning a significant number of seats in parliament, and at the same time never ceased to epitomise the anti-regime struggle. This in-between status gives its policies greater flexibility, which is an advantage in any tumultuous time.

In Poland for the most part of the Communist era the Catholic Church, albeit in opposition to the regime, was able to function fairly autonomously until it engaged in political and social debate, mainly after 1978 when a Pole became pope.

Out of the wave of workers' protests in 1980 emerged Solidarnosc – a peculiar amalgam that included trade unionists, leftists and people associated with the Catholic church. Later, the Egyptian 'Kefaya' - a grassroots movement of mostly leftist and Islamist activists - would parallel the birth of Solidarnosc.

In the Polish mindset, Catholicism lay at the roots of the notion of the Polish nation: it linked Solidarity with the 'good old times' of pre-war Poland. The country regained independence in 1918 after 123 years of non-existence. Egypt waited 121 years after Napoleon's invasion until the 1919 revolution to get rid of British colonial rule.

It may be too simplistic an analogy, but certainly the idea of being the de facto 'leader of the Muslim world' was already imprinted in the Egyptian national psyche.

Religious roots go deep. Even though today the majority of Egyptians do not seem to accept the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology, they do not openly criticise it, primarily because it would put them on a par with the regime and because the brotherhood enjoys high esteem.

Similarly, in Poland the respect and political engagement on behalf of the opposition let the Catholic Church play an important part in the transitional period. It joined the Round Table (as an observer) and supported the subsequent reforms. It also gave the revolution a moral flavor. After the brief moment of anti-regime unity, however, a more pluralist political scene evolved.

1989 versus 2011

At first, transitional-period democracy naturally evokes conflict. Old associations break up, groups take care of their own business. The new, inexperienced parties usually play on basic social discomforts.

In Poland living conditions deteriorated drastically after 1989. We went from virtually zero unemployment to 11 percent in 1991 and to 250 percent inflation in only one year's time. In the short run we can certainly expect even greater economic hardship in Egypt. In fact, we are already witnessing it. Egyptian socio-demographic problems are far greater than those of Poland in 1989.

The danger here is that politicised religion thrives on the dispossessed. The disappointed look to the 'good old times' – some may even support the post-Mubarak NDP party just as many Poles clung to the post-Communist elite. But some will choose the Muslim Brotherhood, given the fluidity and pro-social character of their policies. In Poland even the radical catholic Christian National Union, a marginal offshoot of Solidarity, won 8.7 percent votes in 1991.

This matters in the immediate future in Egypt because the nature of the country's legal and educational systems will come up for debate (according to 66 percent of Egyptians shari'a must be the only source of state legislation).

These are the most divisive secularisation-related issues. In Poland they were quickly dealt with. In 1990, Catholic religion was introduced in public schools, with two classes a week for a duration of 12 years. In 1993 abortion was made illegal. These were the immediate gains for the church as a result of its political and social influence.

In Egypt religious gains in the realm of politics will depend on the interaction between Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two have traditionally been in conflict. Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the imam of Al-Azhar, faces a daunting task of restoring the institution's status. If he manages to do so – and he does have a window of opportunity in the transitional period – it would counterbalance the Muslim Brotherhood, giving the religious scene a healthy pluralistic tone.

It is the laymen who insulate politics from religion. Crippled by decades of marginalisation, the secular opposition needs to mobilise and organise quickly. In Poland, post-transformation gutter politics saw a split in the Solidarnosc movement, the emergence of hundreds of tiny political parties, a nasty blame game and populism. The phenomenon of a politicised church also grew into extreme forms: the popularity of Radio Maryja, a chauvinist, anti-Semitic Catholic radio station, is a perfect example.

Money and literacy

But as Polish society modernised and got richer with time in the late 1990s and 2000s, the Catholic Church struggled to find its place in the public sphere. What Egypt badly needs now is a fast-working technocratic team which could at least partially avert public discontent. That might eventually be the best shield against a growing politicisation of religion. Later on, with improved living conditions, yet another generation will emerge in public life, one that may be more secular.

But for the time being Egyptians are becoming more and more religious. Unsurprisingly perhaps since the literacy rate in Egypt does not exceed 66 percent (it was 99 percent in 1989 in Poland). The strength of secular forces might be further weakened by the reaction of external actors. The Yes-No-Maybe response of US President Barack Obama to the protests made Egyptians feel deprived of Western support. Poles were convinced that the US and the West were behind them, be it true or not.

Apart from Turkey, who can the Egyptians count on? At first Egyptians are likely to count on the Muslim Brotherhood. Should we make bets on the secular character of Egyptian politics just because young people use Facebook?

If Poland is to serve as a precedent, as a country which really wanted to Westernise but which ended up struggling with its own religiosity, it seems that in Egypt religion will not only stay in the public sphere and in political life, but will thrive there, at least initially.

* Patrycja Sasnal is a Middle East analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs and a Fulbright scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

**Parts of this article – first published on EU Observer – were included in a presentation she made at the International Conference 'Policymakers' Responsibility in a Changing World. The Mediterranean: The Waves of Change' organised by the New Policy Forum (Gorbachev Forum) on Nov. 24-25, 2011 in Montpellier, France. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 25, 2011]

Picture: Patrycja Sasnal | Credit: bi.gazeta.pl

2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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