Islamist-secular rift threatens Egypt’s emerging democracy

Friday’s protests represented a possible climax in the deepening rift between Egypt’s secularists and Islamists that has developed post-Mubarak. With the Muslim Brotherhood warning the masses against participating – and leftists, liberals and nationalists fully backing the rally – political forces have failed to reach a consensus over the details of the transition period. Many voices warn that the split could bode ill for the prospect of successful democratic transition.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is the only beneficiary of this division,” says Emad Gad, political scientist with Al-Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies. “Now there is no united bloc monitoring the implementation of the revolutionary demands. If political forces were united, they could pressure [the SCAF] to achieve these demands.”

In the meantime, Gad, who is also a founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, blames Islamists for the growing gap.  

“It’s hard to heal this rift because the Brotherhood is dealing with the situation as if it were a golden opportunity for them to hijack power and gain a [parliamentary] majority,” he says.

During Egypt’s 18-day uprising, Egypt’s myriad opposition groups surmounted their differences. But in recent months, the Islamist-secular divide has dominated headlines.

The two camps disagree on the timing of the parliamentary elections, the process of drafting a new constitution, the role of religion in politics and the proper limitations to SCAF’s power during the transitional period.

The Brotherhood insists on abiding by the results of the March referendum, in which a majority endorsed the road map suggested by the military. Under the plan, parliamentary elections should be held this fall, with presidential elections later. The new parliament is expected to elect a 100-member assembly to draft the new constitution. Until all elections are concluded, the SCAF would continue to control the country.

The secular forces, trying to find a way around the plan approved in referendum, continue to demand that parliamentary elections be postponed until a new constitution is drafted. They argue that while Islamists and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party will most likely dominated the new parliament, these two forces should not also monopolize the writing of the new constitution, they contend.

Some groups also demand that the SCAF cede power to a predominantly civilian presidential council until all elections are concluded.  

The SCAF has ignored such calls, insisting on holding parliamentary elections in September and sticking to the plan approved by the referendum. This reaction prompted some liberals to allege that the military forged a deal with the Brotherhood, whereby Islamists would be allowed a larger role in the next parliament in return for not interfering in military affairs.

Last Friday, secular forces sought to mobilize people to press their demands. While most groups called for a protest to pressure the SCAF to hold serious and public trials of the former regime officials, appoint new governors, and reshuffle the cabinet, others echoed more controversial demands to postpone the elections, draft a new constitution before the parliamentary poll and form a presidential council.

The nation’s oldest Islamist organization boycotted the protest and launched a smear campaign against those who made the call.

Through their official website, the Brotherhood accused the protests’ leaders of “driving wedges” between the military and the people. In another statement, the group sought to denigrate the groups by emphasizing their secular nature and accusing them of being “communist.” Both secularism and communism carry negative connotations of atheism in Egyptian society.

In response, secularists launched their own verbal war against the Brotherhood in the local media, accusing them of political opportunism and deploying similar tactics of the Mubarak regime.

The growing animosity might discredit both groups in the eyes of the public, according to Ammar Ali Hassan, columnist and political commentator.

The polarization “might make Egyptians turn away from both civil and Islamist groups and swear allegiance to the military,” warns Hassan, explaining that such a scenario might entice the military to remain in power. “Here, the military can turn from a partner and guardian of the revolution into an owner of it.”

The local press recently began to feature columns urging compromise. In the independent daily newspaper Al-Shorouk earlier this week, prominent columnist Diaa Rashwan proposed postponing elections until December so that nascent non-Islamist parties would have time to build support bases and hold “immediate” and “serious” talks among all groups to reach a consensus over the constitution. The outcome of these talks would serve as guidelines for the new assembly that would later draft the constitution.

Hassan says the Brotherhood could be convinced to have the constitution drafted before parliamentary elections. “Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders who oppose the idea oppose it because they fear being excluded from the process and not because they want to monopolize the new constitution’s drafting,” says Hassan, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hassan and Rashwan might be too optimistic about achieving a compromise. Speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Essam al-Erian, vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s would-be Freedom and Justice Party, expresses the group’s vehement opposition to writing the constitution first, and dismisses such proposals as an attempt to “circumvent” the results of the referendum.

“Is it possible to ignore people’s will? What would guarantee that their choices would be respected in presidential and parliamentary elections later on?” Erian asks rhetorically.

As to resolving contentious issues before drafting the constitution, the group has already refused to engage in the military-backed National Accord Conference, where different political factions were invited to discuss the fundamentals of the new constitution.

The group insisted that such discussions should be left to the assembly that the new Parliament is supposed to elect.

In the meantime, Erian intimated that such talks were unnecessary and argues that the Brotherhood already agrees with most other groups about what the constitution should look like in a broad sense. He affirmed his group’s commitment to democracy and the state’s civil nature, but most secularists refuse to take the pledge seriously. Doubts were exacerbated in recent weeks after some Brotherhood leaders made incendiary statements implying their plan to Islamize the state if they reach power.

Although the rivalry might seem irreparable, some expect Islamists to eventually settle for a compromise.

According to Akram Ismail, a founder of the secular Association of Progressive Revolutionary Youth, rapprochement with secular forces is in the Brotherhood’s best interests.

“They have a lust for controlling everything but they know that such an attitude might antagonize other forces and eventually these forces will call upon the army to intervene,” says Ismail.

In this case, Islamists fear a repeat of the Algerian scenario where the army crushed Islamists after their sweeping electoral victory in the early 1990s, Ismail continues.

In fact, the Brotherhood is careful not to risk sealing its fate by monopolizing power. This fear seems to shape the group’s discourse and tactics.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the Gazan and Algerian scenarios. When Islamists there reached power quickly, the military establishment turned against them,” the influential Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater told a local paper in April when asked why the group would not field a presidential candidate.

As a sign of goodwill, the group had announced that it would not field any presidential candidate and would compete for no more than 50 percent of parliamentary seats.

Ismail contends that secular fears of Islamists hijacking the revolution and instating a religious state are overblown. First, there are large segments in Egyptian society that would not bend to an Islamic state. Second, the military would not accept such radical change, which could easily jeopardize ties with the West, explains Ismail.

The Supreme Council sent a warning to Islamists while also reassuring seculars and the West when it stated that Egypt would not turn into another Iran or Gaza.

Ismail believes that it is about time for secularists to stop emphasizing the secular-Islamist divide and get prepared for the parliamentary race.

“The [non-Islamist] forces should overcome their fears, become effective on the ground, and accept defeats. Politics is a serious job that’s not for fearful people,” Ismail concludes.

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