Saturday, January 26, 2013

Islam, liberalism and Egypt


What's going on in Egypt? I keep receiving questions about events in Egypt and not only from non-Arabs. Saudis and Egyptian expatriates are confused, too.

Among the most frequent questions: Is it true the Islamists have hijacked the revolution? Is the constitution ideological and backward? Will religion rule all aspects of public life, and negatively influence civility? Will liberals, women and non-Sunni Muslims lose in the new era? Are we going to see the rule of one party, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan)? Why are the Gulf countries not supporting the new Islamic leadership? Is it because of old suspicions of the Ikhwan? Has the West lost Egypt? Will an Islamist government honor the peace agreements with Israel, even if Salafis achieve greater influence in the government?

I wish there was a way to see the future, or read the minds and hearts of political players. However, reading their statements and observing their actions is enough to enable political analysts to explain what is going on and to venture some predictions.

Let’s start by saying this is not a civil war — yet. It is a political fight between two camps - an Islamic government and a liberal opposition.

The first is the representative of the majority. It has won in every democratic competition, so far, starting with parliamentarian and presidential elections, up to the constitutional referendum.

I have no doubt that future elections will follow suit. The vast majority of Egyptians are religiously moderate and socially conservative. That is not going to change anytime soon. The Ikhwans and Salafis won because they were organized, but the real winner is Islamic rule.  No party has a monopoly on that, and the arena is open to all.

The action in the streets now is a war of survival between winners and losers. Liberals and pro-Mubarak and anti-Islamist forces are joining hands in a loosely organized Front to Save the Revolution. The fact of the matter is that they are fighting to save their own interests. What unites them is suspicion of the new order. Those who benefited under the Mubarak regime in the judiciary, security, business community, media and entertainment industries are afraid of the approaching Day of Judgment.

The least they expect is that the new regime will not favor them. More strict, transparent and conservative laws will certainly go against their privileges and in favor of a new and different class of players.

Will an Islamic government maintain peace accords with Israel? They have already demonstrated that. However, they may not be buddies with the Israelis unless they are able to achieve peace for the Palestinians. They have demonstrated that too during the recent Gaza War. Israel will have to deal with a new Egypt similar to Islamist Turkey. Respect is the name of the game.

Has the West lost Egypt? Not unless they forget that they must now deal with the “people of  Egypt,” instead of the “one and only” dictator.

Democratic partnerships will certainly work with Egyptians. The US, in particular, must get used to new rules of communication. No more orders and threats from the the US Congress, CIA, Pentagon and State Department. The US president should be careful in his statements, as he already is, in order to accommodate public sentiments and sensitivity. Mubarak is no longer there to suppress resentment and opposition.

Are Gulf countries against the new rule in Egypt? I could count one for and one against. Qatari officials have shown support for Morsi and his party, while some Emiratis have expressed doubts about the Ikhwans’ intentions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, other GCC states and their Council are being neutral with regard to internal events, while supporting Egypt’s economy and maintaining good relations with its leadership.

Is the constitution backward and ideological? It had been agreed upon and signed by all parties, including those now fighting against it. It was about to be voted on when they suddenly decided to withdraw. The phrasing of 12 articles (out of 200) which they objected to can easily be rephrased in the new Parliament.

It won’t make much difference, anyway. Take for example the article that says all citizens are equal under the law. The opposition wants to specify “men and women.” A second article says that all criminal cases must be seen by civilian courts, except the ones that harm the military. The Front insists on no exceptions.

A third said the government must uphold Egyptian family traditions. The Front felt that was an excuse to interfere in private lives.

So all in all, the constitution is fine. What the opposition is fighting against is what comes next. They don’t expect to win a majority in the parliament. The government then will be strong enough to go on to the next stage - cleaning up corruption. Ladies and Gentlemen: That is what the fight is all about.

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