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India and a secular Egypt

India should resist condoning any electoral democracy in West Asia whose governance philosophy is the very antithesis of a plural secular statehood

Zorawar Daulet Singh 

Zorawar Daulet Singh

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.

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 Pakistan'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, the bureaucratic elite, appear to have supported the military's intervention to remove the Islamist President Mohamed 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 his 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, Mr Erdogan's rise and the ascendance of political Islam has been systematically challenging Turkey's secular identity. Unsurprisingly, Mr Erdogan is threatened by the Egyptian military's anti-Islamic 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 and kept Islamic forces at arms' length. No sober analyst can argue that Rawalpindi has been a defender of secular principles. In Egypt and Turkey, the military have traditionally been staunch defenders of secularism. India should recognise these differences when it searches for an interpretation of regional dynamics.

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.

It seems obvious that 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 radicalisation 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 Mr 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 and now sense a blowback from Syria and Egypt turning on these monarchies themselves. Syria's Assad regime would also welcome Mr Morsi's downfall - who, a month ago 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.

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 legitimatised via electoral success but one that rides roughshod over human rights, minority protection or fundamental secular principles cannot be in India's interests. 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.

The writer is a research scholar at King's College London

First Published: Sat, July 13 2013. 21:36 IST