By Osama Diab
Egypt's secularists and Islamists agree on one thing: Mubarak must go. But when he does, how long will they stand united?
3 April 2010
The current political debate in Egypt can be summed up in one sentence: parties and activists of all political colours are campaigning to end almost 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak's rule and stop his son, Gamal, from inheriting power and returning Egypt to the dynastic era.
For the time being, the opposition is united by anti-Mubarakism, despite comprising elements that have traditionally been fierce rivals, such as Islamists, liberals and Nasserists. Umbrella movements like Kifaya and the 6 April Youth Movement are a good example of broad-based groups which draw Egyptians from different political, religious and social backgrounds.
In fact, the unity of the opposition is not a sign of love or matching ideologies but merely reflects the realisation that breaking Mubarak's stranglehold on power requires the kind of broad-based popular alliance last seen during Egypt's resistance to foreign occupation. The different parties also understand that the emergence of democracy in Egypt is their only realistic chance of reaching power through legitimate means and by way of a smooth transition.
This means that the current alliance's shelf-life is linked to the emergence of democracy. Once that is achieved, the gloves will come off and the traditional rivalries will float, once again, to the surface.
This poses an important question: when the time comes, what kind of post-Mubarak political scene will emerge?
Egypt's increasing religiosity has coincided with a globalised society in which modern concepts of human rights are being adopted by more and more Egyptians. This discrepancy will make it harder for secularists and Islamists to find common ground.
The negative view of secularism in the mind of the majority of Egyptians would be central to the future debate. In our religious society, people confuse secularism with Ataturk-style anti-religiosity and sometimes with atheism. Ironically, many practicing Muslims believe in the separation of religion and state without calling it secularism or even recognising that this makes them secular.
This misguided understanding of secularism in Egypt is a barrier to democracy. This is because, although most Egyptians profess to being religious, many fear the intolerance and potential totalitarianism of Islamic rule if Islamists, including the ostensibly “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood, gain power. For that reason, they prefer authoritarian secularism to a democratically elected Islamic government which they fear would transform Egypt into a radical theocracy.
Ismail Sherif, who is studying to become a filmmaker, thinks some people are resistant to change out of the fear that it might lead to unfavourable consequences. “Even though most people in the film industry would prefer a secular authoritarian regime to an elected Islamic government, we have to accept that risk in order for democracy to happen,” he says.
How can we overcome all this fear and resistance to change? In order for change in Egypt to be broadly supported, it should not be radical. While it is still fighting dictatorship and a state of emergency, the opposition in Egypt should keep one eye on the future and agree the framework they all want to work under.
The huge popular support for Mohamed Elbaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel peace prize winner, gives hope that change in Egypt doesn't have to be led by Islamists with questionable democratic credentials. In fact, it reveals that, despite the government's better efforts in recent decades to crush viable secular alternatives and present the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists as the only alternative to frighten secularists and the international community, secularism is far from dead in Egypt.
The Mubarak regime has a long history of stifling the emergence of a viable and popular secular opposition. Prior to ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, despite all the hurdles placed in his path, gave Mubarak a respectable run for his money during the 2005 presidential elections. Afterwards, he was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges. In addition to allaying the fear of Egyptians that the only alternative to Mubarak is an Islamist theocracy, secular Egyptians need to correct the misconceptions ordinary Egyptians have about secularism.
They need to explain that ilmaniya (Arabic for secularism) is different from antipathy to religion. For instance, Barack Obama is a proud Christian, yet he is also the president of a multifaith secular country.
Egyptian secularists also need to remind people that Egyptians were never as united as they were when they fought occupation and a monarchy under the slogan “Religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone”. Moreover, in order for Egypt's opposition to gain support and win ground internally and internationally, it has to be based on universal human rights and not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, etc. An Islamic regime won't provide this, but secularism based on e equality for all will.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 29 March 2010. Read the related discussion.
Published here with the author's permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.