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Egypt’s Zia ul Haq?

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has been dubbed Egypt’s new pharaoh, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Cincinnatus, Benito Mussolini, Abraham Lincoln, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even another Hosni Mubarak. Comparisons and juxtapositions are being thrown in left, right and centre as Morsi hogs the global limelight as arguably the most influential Muslim leader in the world today – a fact vindicated by his role as the chief arbiter in the Israel-Gaza accord. Even though Morsi has revoked some of the powers that he decreed upon himself on November 22, the Egyptian leader’s pursuit of absolute power is undeniable and well documented.

Even so, whether his manoeuvres are intended to seize dictatorial clout or to shield the elected government from a ‘runaway judiciary’ remains to be seen. Either way, his Islamist links, North Sinai’s comparisons with Tora Bora in terms of being safe havens for terrorists, and the overall rise of religious fanaticism in Egypt have drawn parallels between Pakistan and Egypt. One could hence be tempted to dub Morsi as Egypt’s Ziaul Haq for his dictatorial tendencies and giving way to the rise of Salafism.

One merely needs a peek at the draft of the new Egyptian constitution to perceive why the country is becoming the breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, and a nightmare for human rights proponents. A referendum on the draft constitution might have been ordered but the National Salvation Force – anchored by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party – are ‘campaigning’ to ensure that the lion’s share of voters give the constitution the thumbs up.

And this is an uncanny throwback to Ziaul Haq’s referendum and constitutional dealings. Zia’s social and constitutional reforms were marred by extremist tendencies, which in turn gave birth to and nourished the Taliban and their kin in Pakistan. Along similar lines, last month’s meeting of the constituent assembly in Cairo virtually acquiesced to the demands of religious extremists in the country who are fighting tooth and nail to enforce their Islamic fundamentalism.

Just like Pakistan has had examples of students being expelled for trimming beards, allegations of blasphemy over misplacement of dots in the recent past, among other more noteworthy examples, Egypt has had a young man stabbed for hanging out with his fiancée and a teacher cutting a schoolgirl’s hair because it wasn’t covered.

The same is the case for religious minorities; Egyptian Christians fear for their lives, just like the minorities in Pakistan are apprehensive about their survival. And it’s not only restricted to the Christians in Egypt, even the moderate Muslims fear the wrath of Salafists who are hell-bent on establishing the ‘true’ brand of Islam and have no qualms about stampeding over whosoever aims to impede them.

The Salafist elements had a substantial presence before Morsi took over the helm at Cairo as well, but violence in the name of religion has undoubtedly escalated following Morsi’s election. Making his state the hub of terrorism and everything else that it incorporates is also something that Morsi shares with Zia.

The rough terrain of the Senai Desert in Egypt is comparable to North Waziristan, and terrorist groups are openly indulging in smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking and gunrunning.

The extremists of the late 70s and 80s in Pakistan had ‘infidel’ Russia as target, while the Sinai jihadists have Israel as the butt of their antagonistic vigour. Jihad was the pretence under which the extremists carried forward crime and terrorism as part of Zia’s legacy, and Morsi is precipitously incorporating those elements into his own nascent epoch.

Zia’s legacy was relatively built from scratch, while Morsi has inherited fundamentalist elements and given them a channel to expound their terror. Another commonality that they share is their US pleasing endeavours in a bid to earn American gratitude, which in turn translates into billions of dollars received ostensibly to cater to the fragility of respective domestic economies.

Both have religion as the driving force in their domestic and foreign policies; even though Morsi’s pragmatism in international diplomacy – a notable example being his dealings with the US and Israel – is something Zia or most other Pakistani leaders, for that matter could only have dreamt of.

As Al-Qaeda and related terrorism groups continue to hijack the Arab spring, Egypt is being touted as the Pakistan of the Middle East. Religious extremism is now ubiquitous in Egypt, with Tahrir Square protests against Morsi gaining momentum with every passing day. Zia’s legacy still reverberates in Pakistan with every act of atrocity and violence committed in the name of religion, Morsi needs to tame down the radicals or his tenure would be remembered as Zia’s is, 20 years down the line.

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. Email: khulduneshahid@gmail.com, Twitter:@khuldune.

Khuldune Shahid, "Egypt’s Zia ul Haq?," The News. 2012-12-14.