Egypt's secularists and liberals seek redemption
- 9 October 2012
- From the section Middle East
The protests in Egypt sparked by the posting online of Innocence of Muslims - an amateur video made by a Coptic Christian in the US which mocks Islam - has raised renewed concerns over the role that Islamic extremism might play in the country's future.
While important - the unrest is a key test for the Muslim Brotherhood and its newly-elected President, Mohammed Mursi - the focus obscures the fact that Islam does not define every facet of social and political life.
In a country where the only serious opposition to Hosni Mubarak had been mounted by an Islamist movement - the Muslim Brotherhood - there was an expectation that people would seek to establish a theocratic state when protests broke out in the winter of 2011.
But religion was not their concern. Instead, the youth movements that first rose up - the Brotherhood remained outside the picture until it was sure a tipping point had been reached - demanded guaranteed rights to free speech, an end to corruption and emergency rule, presidential term limits and genuine elections.
Since Mubarak's resignation, however, secular and liberal groups have faced serious difficulties. Plagued by infighting, they failed to secure many seats in the parliamentary elections and were not represented by a candidate in the presidential run-off vote.
Yet the dissolution of the People's Assembly in June following a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling has provided a second chance. Can those who spearheaded the uprising against Mubarak reassert themselves?
History of activism
Despite their struggles, some Egyptians still want to preserve a role for liberalism and secularism in their society, but why?
Liberalism places individual freedom at the core of its outlook while a secular society is one in which decisions over what is and is not true - including choices about public policy - are guided by human reason rather than religious belief.
While they disagree on almost every other issue, a belief in secularism unites liberals with social democrats and socialists, who are more inclined to put the needs of the group ahead of the individual.
None of this is to say that liberalism and secularism offer perfect prescriptions, or that movements seeking to blend politics and religion pose some kind of threat. Liberal states have often acted illiberally, not only internationally but also towards their own citizens - witness the example of the United States.
And some of the worst crimes in history were carried out by regimes in China and the Soviet Union that professed an atheistic vision that put the community above all other concerns.
Even so, because they justify principles such as freedom and tolerance that are necessary for human flourishing, liberalism and secularism - and the groups that express a commitment to both - have the potential to make a positive contribution.
This is true even in the Middle East - and Egypt in particular - where there is a long history of indigenous liberal and secular activism, despite the view of detractors who view both as Western impositions.
Throughout the summer and in recent weeks, a range of groups and individuals - moderate liberals, social democrats and socialists - have been wheeling and dealing, trying to forge some kind of lasting partnership that can stand as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and its dominance. No fewer than four coalitions have been formed.
Providing the impetus has been the Supreme Constitutional Court, which in June ordered the dissolution of the lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly. It did so after deeming that last year's parliamentary elections were unconstitutional because they gave an unfair advantage to political parties by allowing them to contest seats set aside for individual candidates.
The result is that when new elections are held either later this year or in early 2013, liberals and secularists will have the chance to redeem themselves.
During the last vote, they came well behind the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour party, which together secured more than 70% of the total seats in the People's Assembly.
Whether they can succeed in patching together some kind of arrangement that can be successful remains to be seen. Yet they still have a chance if they can learn from one of their chief rivals.
It is certainly true that Islam plays a vital role in the lives of most Egyptians. However, this alone does not explain the Muslim Brotherhood's success.
Indeed, the social services performed by the organisation over the past decades - the running of health clinics, schools and providing food for the poor - helped it become the political force it is today.
Seeking to emulate this, the liberal Free Egyptians party has pledged itself to helping Egypt's unemployed find work. Other secular and liberal organisations are vowing to do the same.
This is a change in direction for movements that have traditionally been more interested in promoting the merits of democracy rather than immersing themselves in the kinds of practical activities that can have immediate impacts on people's lives.
If secular and liberal perspectives are to make political inroads and provide the population with a serious alterative to the Muslim Brotherhood - not to mention those calling for violence in the name of religion - this will need to continue.
It could also be the key to securing the survival of groups whose views offer much to a country still struggling to overcome the legacy of Mubarak's rule and the lack of political diversity that was one of its defining characteristics.
Peter Fragiskatos teaches at Western University in London, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @pfragiskatos