Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Is Egypt on the road to theocracy or will it manage to build a secular, pluralist democracy?

Thursday 15 December 2011

The roller-coaster sensation of elation followed by deflation which I and millions of others felt in the early weeks of the revolution has been back recently. Dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured – anger and depression. Activists defiantly risk life and limb to launch part two of the revolution and demand the army returns to the barracks – admiration mixed with pride.

Generals ignore their demands and go ahead with faulty parliamentary elections – bitter disappointment. Millions turn out and queue for hours (miraculously for Egypt, in orderly lines) to make their vote count – delight. Islamists make the biggest gains in the first round – concern mixed with a little fright.

For those of a progressive and secular disposition, the preliminary results of the first phase of Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections make for sobering reading. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice party (FJP) list is unsurprisingly in pole position, with some 36% of the vote.

Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians).

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.

But is there cause for panic?

Of course, the Salafist vision for Egypt is not only terrifying to “godless” secularists, socialists and liberals but many aspects of it trouble pious Egyptians, even many of those who voted for the parties.

And sadly Salafism has regressed a long way from its original proponents. In the 19th century, “Salafis” were at the forefront of Egypt’s modernising drive and revival, which has come to be known as the “Egyptian Renaissance”. Muhammad Abdu, a reformist Azharite cleric, for example, once famously summed up his thought by saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

In his and other early reformers’ worldview, the West had successfully captured the ingredients of early Islamic greatness, and the only way for Islam to catch up and match this was to return to the spirit of the “Salaf”, the early generations of Muslims who innovatively and creatively interpreted their faith to suit the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the reactionary Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who believed that the graves of even pious “innovators” within religion was a “barren pit”, and spearheaded by such figures as Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of modern, radical Islamism, the contemporary brand of Salafism became not only hostile to the West but also to its values. In order to counteract Western hegemony, Salafists believe, Muslims must reject the West and live as the early Muslims did. This idealised view of the past has led many Islamists to interpret their religion rigidly and literally, at least the parts of it that suit them, and to get caught up in the minutiae of how the prophet walked, talked and even urinated.

An example of this is their fossilised attitude towards tourism. Although al-Nour’s economic platform has focused on reforming the banking sector along Islamic lines by outlawing interest (something that is bound to be popular among borrowers), it has steered cleverly away from delving too deeply into its position on tourism as being “un-Islamic”.

Salafists are well-known for their opposition to tourism for its “immorality” and “decadence” and many leading Salafi preachers call for it to be banned, while the violent extremists of the 1990s specifically targeted tourists, not only to undermine the government but also as a reflection of their rejection of the industry. One wacky manifestation of this opposition is the bizarre call by al-Da’awa al-Salafiyya (which founded al-Nour) to cover all Egypt’s ancient statues in wax veils.

But this kind of idol gesture is unlikely to go down well, since millions of Egyptians depend on tourism for their economic well-being and millions more are proud that their country – “the mother of the world”, as they call it – is the subject of such international fascination and reverence, and they love to say “Welcome” to foreigners.

But do the gains made by Salafists and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood indicate that Egypt is on the slippery slope to theocracy or can it still build a democracy, albeit one with a pronounced Islamic flavour?

Although this result would suggest Egypt is far from the secular, progressive society I and like-minded Egyptians dream of seeing emerge, it is far from being the unmitigated disaster that doomsayers have been warning about.

For a start, the fear that the Islamists will form some kind of unified bloc in parliament is possible but appears unlikely at this juncture. After all, the Brotherhood and the Salafists, though their worldviews may overlap on numerous issues, are bitter rivals and the al-Nour party was formed by a breakaway faction from the FJP alliance that was unhappy with the moderate, pluralist line the FJP was towing.

Moreover, the FJP did not actually collect 36% of the vote – it was the entire Democratic Alliance of 11 parties, mostly secular ones. As the dominant member, the FJP is estimated to account for some 60-70%, which means that it captured between 22% and 25% of the vote.

On the bright side, this means that, combined, the Islamist vote accounts for half the total and the secularist for the other half. On the downside, it means that the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists are neck and neck.

In addition, there is a good chance that the FJP will do more than pay lip service to its expressed commitment to secularism and pluralism in order to avoid spooking SCAF and the West and to avoid a replay of what occurred in Algeria. And after 90 years of oppression and inhabiting the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood finally wants a shot at some form of direct power.

And perhaps after all these decades, it’s time they actually got an official stake in running the country, partly because this is only fair, and partly because allowing the movement to join the mainstream in earnest would finally rob them of the luxury of criticising loudly from the sidelines without actually having any of their ideas and contradictions put to the test. In parliament, the electorate can judge them on their actual performance and not just their sloganeering and grandstanding. Then voters can truly learn whether Islam, at least the version of it they preach, is the solution or part of the problem.

Perhaps one reason behind al-Nour’s unexpected success actually has little to do with religion, but is related to the far more mundane and worldly reality of economic inequality. With the revolutionaries focusing all their efforts on what might seem to the average Egyptian like abstract issues of political reform and the liberal parties, particularly the neo-liberal FJP, refusing to countenance the idea of radical income redistribution, al-Nour’s calls for a “fair and equal distribution” of not only income but wealth is bound to appeal to Egypt’s oppressed and downtrodden masses, many of whom are forced to live on less than $2 a day.  And so the unexpected success of the Salafists may actually be more of a protest vote against the other parties than a vote of confidence in al-Nour.

Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.

But there is another bottom line that we have not yet explored. Will the new parliament have real legislative teeth, will it manage to challenge the “pharonic” powers of the eventual president, or will it be yet another rubberstamp assembly? There is a widespread fear among activists and revolutionaries that SCAF has no intention of ceding (at least ultimate) power to the people. Even if the army does ostensibly return to the barracks, there is the real and present danger that they will form a shadow government there that will exercise an ultimate veto over the civilian government.

And SCAF’s behaviour has done little to allay these concerns. Not only has it said that it will have final say over the country’s new constitution, it has also indicated that the new parliament will have no oversight over the military’s budget.

It also seems that the generals are unimaginatively following the well-trodden path of Egyptian leaders over the past three decades and playing with Islamists fire. It is true that the Islamists undoubtedly hold appeal to certain segments of the population and the nascent revolutionary groups’ failure to score significant electoral success so far is partly due to their disorganisation and disarray.

Nevertheless, all indications reveal that the dice were loaded in favour of the Islamists, as part of what appears to be a counterrevolution. Not only did the country’s provisional constitution make it difficult to form parties, which handicapped the secular activist who launched the revolution, the rule that bans the formation of religious parties does not seem to have been applied to the salafists for some mysterious reason.

In addition, the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.

And like Mubarak before them, Field Marshall Tantawi and his inner circle may be trying to put the fear of God, so to speak, into the hearts of Egyptian secularists and the Western powers alike – perhaps as a prelude to freezing, rolling back or delaying further reforms.

When all is said done, this is still only the first phase of the elections, and the staggered nature of the vote may actually work in favour of the secularists, whose poor showing so far may prod them to redouble their efforts to win over voters in the rest of the country. It may also focus the minds of voters and prompt them to deny the Islamists, particularly the salafists, further significant gains. At the very least, it might encourage more Egyptians to vote for the FJP as the only realistic bulwark against al-Nour.

That said, what effect would an Islamist-dominated parliament have on vulnerable groups, including women, Christians and other minorities, such as Baha’is, atheists and simply those with alternative interpretations of their faith?

Well, at a certain level, the Islamisation of Egypt culturally and socially has been taking place for decades. When the 1952 revolution failed to deliver on its promise of granting Egyptians their full political and social freedom, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser mercilessly stamped out both secular and Islamist opposition to his rule, the discrediting of secularism began in earnest. The crushing defeat of 1967, and the accompanying destruction of the pan-Arabist dream, dealt a decisive blow to secularism and empowered the Islamists.

Then, in the 1970s, Anwar al-Sadat openly and cynically (though, of course, he had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth) began embracing the conservative Islamic current to counterbalance the fierce secular opposition he was facing, which he crushed ruthlessly, and when the inevitable blowback came, it was too late for him to turn back the tide.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, tried to play both sides off against each other in a classic example of divide and rule. Under Mubarak’s leadership, the regime tried both to portray itself as the guarantor of secular freedoms and the defender of Islamic decency. Meanwhile, the sectarian tensions this awoke were ignored and swept under the carpet because it went against the prevalent discourse of national unity, until the ugly monster of sectarianism had grown to unmanageable proportions.

So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.

Liberal, pluralist secularism also became contaminated through its association with the exercise of Western hegemony in the region, which was often conducted cynically under the banner of spreading “freedom” and “democracy”.

The upshot of all this is that, without being in power, Islamists have exercised a powerful and stifling influence on Egyptian society for years, as reflected in the growing pre-eminence of the conservative religious dress and the hounding and persecution of those who criticise religion. Whereas in the 1950s-1970s, many intellectuals in Egypt and other secular republics, despite the (more tolerant) piety of the general population, held proudly sceptical and even hostile views of religion and were openly atheistic. Today, even mild criticism of religion can land you in hot water.

This has resulted in the growing marginalisation and ostracisation of Egyptians who do not fit the mainstream Islamic mould, whether they be secularists, Christians, Baha’is or non-believers, a minority that might outnumber Christians if Egypt did not turn an official blind eye to atheists and agnosts and if people were allowed to be fully open about their beliefs, some suggest.

However, that is not the entire story. The Egyptian revolution has revealed a trend that has been going on under the radar for years. Millions of Egyptians who hold a wide spectrum of socially and politically liberal and progressive views have come out into the open, while Egypt’s tattered and bedraggled secular forces are regrouping, discovering a new sense of confidence and assertiveness which they will not cede easily to the righteous bullying of the Islamists and other religious conservatives. In addition, mainstream Islamists have been undergoing a process which I call “secularism in a veil“.

This means that, rather than a theocratic Egypt, what we might well see emerge is a battle between two increasingly polarised trends: the reactionary religious and pluralistically secular. Moreover, as Islamism is truly put to the test, we may look back in the future on this period as the “high point” of the Islamist political movement, as the electorate quickly grows disillusioned when its vision too fails to deliver improvements and results.

Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since the 1952 revolution – faulty as they were – began on 28 November, our son’s second birthday. This led me to wonder whether the process this will unleash will be one that will create a new Egypt that will make him proud or ashamed of his Egyptian half. A truly democratic, free, tolerant and pluralistic Egypt – even if it is achieved politically – will probably take generations to implement socially, and will depend on decent education and economic prospects for all.

Here’s to hoping that our children and grandchildren will inherit an Egypt that they can live in and have a stake in.

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