Bleak prospects for uniting Egypt’s fractured political spectrum
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Mohamed Morsi march through the streets of Cairo on November 8, 2013. © Gianluigi Guercia - AFP/File
Bleak prospects for uniting Egypt’s fractured political spectrum
Last updated: December 2, 2013
Bleak prospects for uniting Egypt’s fractured political spectrum

“All they demand is that if you want to secularize Egypt you must do so through the ballot box”

Banner Icon The Egyptian pro-democracy movement isn't anti-secular and neither are the Egyptian people. If you want to obstruct or oppose the Islamists you must do so through the ballot box, writes Karim Adel El-Sayed.

Out of the oven, and into the frying pan. After the end of three months of emergency law in Egypt, General Sisi’s interim President Adly Mansour has issued a new “anti-protest” law. The law requires protestors to give the notorious Interior Ministry three days’ notice before holding public meetings and electoral gatherings, both public and private, consisting of more than ten people. Violations of this provision can lead to up to seven years in prison or hefty fines of up to $1,500. Human rights groups, as well as Islamist and non-Islamist movements have universally condemned the law.

Last week, secular liberal-leftist activists protested against the very regime they enthusiastically propelled into office and were, unsurprisingly, met by tear gas, water canons and arbitrary detentions. After five months of silence and justifications with regards to the mass arrests and massacres endured by opponents of the new regime, the non-Islamist currents in Egypt finally arrived at the conclusion that what had happened was in fact a military coup.

Cynics argued that this sudden change of heart reeked of double standards. Spiteful slurs were traded on social media, focusing in particular on Ahmed Maher, founder of the 6thApril Youth Movement, and Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a prominent activist, who both supported the June 30 protests and whose arrests were both ordered last week.

Yet amongst these frenzied exchanges and with January 25, 2014 creeping into sight, some have argued for reconciliation – including Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s own father. But with secularists still unwilling to accept that the toppling of Morsi was undemocratic and with pro-democracy protesters still imbued with a sense of betrayal over the military coup, it seems unlikely that – for the moment at least – calls for a reunification will trickle down from the leaderships to the masses on either side.

Nevertheless, the general argument put forward is that both the anti-coup and anti-Islamist protestors have to accept the distasteful reality that neither of them alone have the support to force the military out of power – but together, anything is possible. However, those thinking that the recent attacks and arrests will lead to a unification of the split revolutionary alliance with the Islamists misunderstand what the division is to begin with.

"As of yet, this message still hasn't pierced the thick, egocentric and frankly classist mindset of Egyptian secularism."

Egypt's fundamental problem is that Egyptian secularists still refuse to accept the right of Islamists to re-Islamize Egypt through the ballot box whilst simultaneously demanding the right to secularize Egypt with or without the ballot box. It is this internal contradiction which is stalling political progress in Egypt.

The secular liberal-left need to overcome the ideologically obtuse idea that only they are capable of revolution and that either they lead or no-one leads. The fact is that their protests draw tellingly feeble numbers – further proving the case that those in the streets on June 30 were largely ex-regime supporters. They didn't have any support at the ballot box and so unsurprisingly they don't have any support on the streets. It is time these non-Islamist currents appreciated their size and realized that they are secondary agents as far as influential political powers in Egypt go.

As much as they virulently attempt to deny it, the fact is that the nationwide and sustained anti-coup protests, often led by students and women – the two main groups secularists claim to represent – are the only serious challenge to this regime. The people in these protests are unapologetically pro-Morsi, not as a man or a politician or an ideology, but as the principle that only ordinary people have the right to decide what role religion should play in the public sphere. Many of the people in these protests have never voted Muslim Brotherhood before, and a good few probably don't intend to in the future. They are a coalition of Islamists and independents whose primary desire is for their voices to count.

Thus, those saying that the current liberal-leftist fury is some kind of breakthrough are mistaken. So long as Egyptian secularists are openly saying that democracy is secondary to “the aims of the revolution” and that they have the right to bring down democratically elected governments through means other than the ballot box if it conflicts with their ideology, then their values are fundamentally out of sync with those of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt. This movement sees democracy as an ends in itself as opposed to a means to an end, in the sense that as long as it is achieved through the ballot box, then the people should get what they vote for.

Why on earth would any Egyptian citizen risk their life to push out Sisi only to bring in somebody else who wants the same unconditional right to rule Egypt because they have decided that they are best placed to govern? Letting in an unreformed and autocratic secular movement will only delay the fundamental battle being played out on Egypt’s streets about who has the right to determine Egypt’s political future: the people or the elites. If the Islamists are re-elected, what is to stop an opposition, with an – at best – ambivalent attitude towards popular participation in politics, re-uniting with remnants of the ex-regime to once again topple the newly elected government?

The Egyptian pro-democracy movement isn't anti-secular and neither are the Egyptian people. All they demand is that if you want to secularize Egypt you must do so through the ballot box, and if you want to obstruct or oppose the Islamists you must also do so through the ballot box. As of yet, this message still hasn't pierced the thick, egocentric and frankly classist mindset of Egyptian secularism.

And until it does there won't be a unification of the revolutionary line. And nor should there be.

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