Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Egypt cannot be a theocracy

Despite winning the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt must find balance in the relation between religion and the state, writes Ayman El-Amir

The nearly-concluded parliamentary elections have infused Egypt with a feeling of national pride but no sense of direction. Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, have emerged as clear winners. The liberal coalition of the Democratic Bloc, which came into existence less than six months ago, lagged behind. As a result, the outcome is far from representing the pluralistic political community Egypt is seeking. While some irregularities were committed and reported there was no massive fraud or coercion. Voters were coaxed to vote with their religious conscience rather than a carefully examined political agenda. With a widespread lack of political education, Egyptians voted into power the antithesis of the infamous Mubarak regime in the belief that this was sufficient to produce the freedom and social justice they craved for. Islamist parties got more than they expected and liberal democrats netted less than they deserved. With these skewed results Egypt will be looking forward to an uncertain political future.

For all the sacrifices they endured, the young people who marched and fought for the revolution went home after the ouster of Mubarak empty-handed. After the forced resignation of Mubarak they curled up their flags in the belief that they left the revolution in safe hands. Their elected representatives in the new parliament are numbered. They were replaced by a motley crowd of pseudo-revolutionary talking heads, opportunists, TV politicians, hired hoodlums and latecomer Islamists. The agenda of the 25 January Revolution changed hands many times over and ended up a pale shadow of the original demands of "bread, freedom and social justice".

The 25 January demonstrators did not leave their revolution to the wolves. They entrusted it to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that vowed to protect the interests of the people against the Mubarak regime and its thugs. However, for its nearly one year mandate as the protector of the people, the council proved to be more reactive than proactive. There was a sharp difference between the chaotic way the military conducted itself during the Maspero incident and the disciplined manner in which it secured the organisation of parliamentary elections. Few people believe that the military has a hidden political agenda of seizing power but the majority has no accolades to offer the military for their political acumen. The military wanted to conduct a safe revolution that would remove Mubarak and some of his prominent henchmen but leave the institutions of state power intact. In so doing, they encouraged the forces of the counterrevolution and alienated the true forces of the revolution, driving a minority of them to the dark realm of anarchy. In a delayed response to the early demand of establishing a presidential council, the military created the so-called Advisory Council as a way of putting a civilian mask on a military face.

Hesitancy and delayed action have spewed suspicion about the true intentions of the military. The snail-pace progress of the Mubarak trial, failure to establish security and the safety of ordinary people on the street in the face of bold crime, the selective crackdown on civil society, and the lack of progress on steps to establish social justice have created damaging distrust about where the military council is leading the country. The inescapable conclusion is that the military are managing the revolution, not leading it.

Where this current political scenario is leading the country is anyone's guess. The facts on the ground are that pro-Islamist parties, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, will muster the majority in the coming parliament. How much tolerance will they show towards other parties, whether liberal or hardline Salafis, remains to be seen. More important, what role the military will play in the new political system remains unresolved, although they are reportedly committed to withdraw from political life once a permanent constitution is voted on and a president is elected. Although the overwhelming victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has created apprehension among liberals and ordinary people about how they could change the diverse lifestyles of society in the name of religious piety, the Brotherhood are unlikely to gnash their teeth at the outset. The Salafis are more likely to adopt a strident religious tone that could set off a power struggle with the Brotherhood and the liberal democrats. While the role of the armed forces in the post-revolutionary era is yet to be determined, it will probably be spelt out in more general terms, like "the guardian of the revolution," which would be consistent with the general language of constitutional phraseology.

Despite the stunning victory of the pro-Islamist parties, the need for coalition building among different blocs is inevitable. It would not be in the best interest of the Brotherhood's party to exercise monopolistic, theocratic control over parliament. The place for theocracy is the mosque or a religious seminary, not the houses of parliament, where compromise and horse-trading is the name of the game. Legislation by the terror of the majority could divide society and is not conducive to genuine democracy. The majority has the obligation to protect the rights of the minority, because the power of a chain is best tested by its weakest link. And the minority, whether liberal, Coptic or independent, could break the whole chain if it snaps under pressure. Democracy does not flourish in a theocracy, no matter how often the name of God is invoked.

The Turkish and Tunisian experiences in the quest for democracy are examples to learn from. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the Turkish experience succinctly when he described himself, personally, as a devout and practicing Muslim who is also the prime minister of a secular state. He wanted to stress that there was no conflict between devotion to God and the conduct of the business of a secular state.

In Tunisia, the religious Al-Nahda Party mobilised its rank and file to sweep the elections for the Constituent Assembly. However, they are facing a rising liberal tide, particularly from the Tunisian Labour Union and other liberal-minded organisations to create a balance between religion and state. Tunisia has had a decades-old tradition of liberalism since it gained independence in 1956. It will eventually strike a balance between state and religion. And that is what the Islamist parties in Egypt will have to meld.

Since the collapse of Communist ideology and the former Soviet Union, the world has become a more complex place to rule or to live in. Iranian theocratic rule remains an anomaly looking for an exit. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, who have emerged from the long, dark rule of dictatorship, will have to strike an historic compromise that would reserve for religion its revered place in the hearts and minds of people and at the same time give them the breathing space politically that they had been deprived of under numerous pretences.

The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.

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