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Ahmad: A long view of current affairs in Egypt

{{youtube:medium|HI1UDU5XG2g, Ahmad considers constitutions, both in Egypt and in the United States.}}

The W&M News conducted this video interview with Ahmad Ahmad on Dec. 5, 2012.

Entering a dialogue on the current state of affairs in Egypt with Ahmad Ahmad is to let oneself in for a series of shocks. The shocks are about differences, about similarities, about abilities for present thought to translate histories and cultures.

Ahmad, the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Chair of Middle East Studies at William & Mary, has secured his academic reputation as a scholar of medieval Islamic jurisprudence and modern Egyptian law. He takes a long view—a centuries’-long view. His current research goes back to the 1860s and 1880s when the modern Egyptian legal system began to develop.

Concerning the recent political tensions surrounding Egypt’s fifth president, Mohamed Morsi, or that nation’s current constitutional dilemma, Ahmad sees Egypt slowly discovering its own authentic democracy.

“It seems people have experienced ‘buyer’s remorse’ with President Morsi,” Ahmad said. “This is the big question of democracy. It seems to come back all the time. When I have buyer’s remorse about [U.S. President] Bush in 2005, can I say ‘Get out’? I can’t. There’s a process. Otherwise I’m going to have elections every three or four months.”

Egypt, he predicts, will respect that process. His hope for the president is that he extends his base of support beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, which sponsored him for the office. Doing so is necessary in order to provide leadership in pluralistic Egypt, Ahmad believes.  “He needs to establish his independence. He needs to listen to independent advisors. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Council of Advisors is getting all power and no responsibility,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad points out that Egypt has had a series of constitutions. Significant is that written in 1954 after Gamal Nasser became Egypt’s second president and that adopted in 1971 after his death. It is the latter document that was amended by Egypt’s fourth president Hosni Mubarak in ways that provided for his remaining in power.

“With the new constitution, that is what people are trying to repent from,” Ahmad said. “They are trying to get out of this past of 2005.”

Concerning the constitution under current consideration in Egypt, Ahmad said that it, as were its predecessors, is “obviously a work of fiction.”

“It incorporates a Western model,” he said. “It includes ideas from Arabia. It is very hybrid. It has Islamic elements, and it has French elements, and it keeps accepting this hybridity, so it is acceptable from an Islamic point of view and from a Western point of view.”

Perhaps ironically, the corruption of, and the need to dispose of, elements within Egypt’s judiciary is a topic that seems to unite liberal and Islamist Egyptians, Ahmad suggested. He compared the judicial system to the post-World War II German system in which, he said, “lawyers had grown accustomed to making what looked like moral and legal arguments to support a very corrupt regime. If you are a lawyer who grew accustomed to doing this for 12 years, can you stop that?” 

At William & Mary, Ahmad enters his classrooms with a complex array of tools and insights. He is conscious of both the similarities and the differences between Egypt and the United States. “I look at Egypt and I see a lot of America. I look at America and I see a lot of Egypt. It is in the basic impulses,” he said. “Then, the scholar in me has to step in and insist on the differences.”

The differences are deep-rooted, hard to fathom and difficult to teach. Although he is impressed with the students he has encountered at the university—“Sometimes I just stop and listen to them,” he said; “I want to hear them finish their ideas”—he utilizes “shock” as a teaching tool: Shock when ideas do not cleanly intermesh; shock when worldviews are broadened.

“I tell my students that managing shocks is essential here,” Ahmad said. “As William & Mary students, you’re not going to abdicate responsibility here; you’re not going to say, ‘The world is too big for understanding.'” 

{{youtube:medium|-F0Udv9IxnA, Ahmad shares thoughts on democracy in Egypt and the place of President Mohamed Morsi.}}