The Islamist/Secular Dichotomy in Egypt

Islamists will not need to moderate until after the political system is defined

In Egypt, they warn, the Muslim Brotherhood will overtake the young secular activists who bravely brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, they have claimed, Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship may be brutal, but it is a lesser evil than a Sunni majority that will oppress Christians, Shiites, and women. Such anxiety plays perfectly into the ruling rationale of the region’s secular sultans, who have resisted popular governance with the argument that it spells theocracy.

But such fear and false choices should be resisted. A stable Middle East will be achieved not through the suppression of religion but through its robust inclusion in politics.

Daniel Philpott, Timothy Shah, and Monica Toft argue that parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the variety of Salafi parties in Egypt will be required to moderate their potentially extremist positions when included in the political system. This is undoubtedly true. Hamas in Palestine, for example, was far more extreme before it took control of Gaza and, in Lebanon, Hezbollah defined itself in terms of resistance against Israel before it (somewhat) reformed itself upon inclusion into the Lebanese political system. In other words, the inclusion of religious groups in the political process certainly dampens what was previously extreme positions.

In Egypt, this theory faces an intimidating task. The examples of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Senegal and Turkey all had established political systems that allowed the participation of religious parties. Egypt, on the other hand, is a very religious society (as shown by the mass Islamist protest in Tahrir last week) that has no real history of democracy, is currently sitting without any system in place, and has no constitution. The moderating effect that the authors wrote about is most convincing in established political systems, not in the effort to construct a political system from scratch.

In other words, Egypt, a country in which over 60% of the population desires the implementation of Sharia law and 59% identified with fundamentalists, the struggle will not be how the Brotherhood or any one of the various Salafi parties will vote in some upcoming parliamentary vote. Rather, the real issue right now is how these groups see the foundation of the country’s political system. After decades of prosecution at the hands of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood is finally able to express itself and has more or less broken with the secular movements in the country. The various Salafi groups are, for the first time, interested in participating in Egyptian politics and transforming the country into an Islamic state.

How these Islamist parties treat secular groups and the Christian minority is less of a concern, therefore, than how they intend to shape the creation of the new political order. Should the secular and liberal groups ‘win’ (for lack of a better word) and a secular government is installed, the moderation effect described above is sure to take hold. However, if the Egyptian people decide that the government should resemble Iran, rather than Turkey, there will be much more leeway for Islamist groups to resist the moderating effect of political participation.

That being said, the Islamist groups should certainly be allowed to participate in any future government. Likely, the future government of Egypt will not be either extreme of the Islamist/secular dichotomy, but a mix of both and it is perhaps equally likely that the more extreme members of the more extreme Salafi groups will be forced to either retire from politics or move closer to the center. (A move to a Turkish style Islamic democracy will also be facilitated by the army.) However, it needs to be said that perhaps the most important aspect of the future Egyptian government is not whether these religious groups are allowed to participate, but how the Islamists and secular groups each define the foundations of the state. Religious groups, in other words, will only be susceptible to political participation’s moderating effect after they help define the future of the government.

Photo from Vlad Tepes

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