Egypt’s Struggle Between Democracy and Secularism

May 9, 2012 Updated: May 13, 2012
Newly elected speaker of the Egyptian Parliament, Saad al-Katatni
Newly elected speaker of the Egyptian Parliament, Saad al-Katatni, of the Muslim Brotherhood, addresses the first Egyptian Parliament session after the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, Jan. 23 in Cairo, Egypt. (Asmma Waguih/Getty Images)

CAIRO—With presidential elections in Egypt just two weeks away—assuming they happen at all—Egyptian liberals and secularists are finding themselves at odds with the democracy they fought so hard to attain. For those who filled Tahrir Square in the Jan. 25 revolution, saving Egypt’s identity as a secular state may mean having to derail the democratic process where majority rule would give the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) entitlement to govern Egypt.

“What the revolution brought the Egyptian people is the right to choose and the right to elect their leaders. Not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but all Egyptians are unified under this request,” says Dr. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party foreign relations spokesperson.

Islamist parties won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in January, taking 72 percent of the seats, split two-thirds for the MB and one-third for the Islamist Salafis. The 100-member Constituent Assembly appointed by Parliament to write Egypt’s new constitution, is likewise dominated by Islamists.

In late March, more than 20 Assembly members including liberals, secularists, and Coptic Christians walked out to protest that it was dominated by Islamists.

We are confronted with a “political monopoly, which the Islamists are pursuing thus undermining prospects for democracy in Egypt and threatening to intensify political instability,” says Mona Makram-Ebeid, one of the constitutional assembly members who walked out. She is also a member of the Advisory Council to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

In addition to the walkout, several prominent lawyers launched a lawsuit challenging the process of forming the Constituent Assembly on the basis that a parliament appointed assembly violates Egypt’s separation of judicial and executive powers, according to a 1994 Supreme Constitutional Court ruling.

The courts have now frozen the Assembly in light of the lawsuit, putting Egypt in constitutional limbo and making it unlikely that the country will have a new constitution before scheduled presidential elections on May 23 and 24. Since SCAF has stipulated there must be a new constitution before elections, this could delay the vote.

Egypt’s democratic process is thus effectively on ice—a process which would likely give the country an Islamist constitution and a potentially Islamist president in addition to its Islamist dominated Parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood accuses SCAF and the liberals and secularists of trying to undermine the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, and push an anti-Islamic agenda.

“The current agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood is to listen to its members, but do what the majority of Egyptians want. It is the elites that are trying to scare people away from the Brothers and instead trying to promote their own agendas and ideologies … due to rejecting Islam,” says Al-Qazzaz.

Banning Through the Box

In a move also seen as an attempt to disrupt the elections, and an Islamist victory, in mid-April Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) banned the top 10 presidential candidates, including the most popular two—the Freedom and Justice Party’s Khairat el-Shater and Salifist candidate Hazem Saleh Abu-Ismail.

The decision, seen as a blatant attempt to prolong military rule, resulted in intensified demonstrations on May 4 in Tahrir Square by all parties.

Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour
Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nourr speaks during a presidential candidates' debate in Cairo on June 4, 2011. In April 2012, he was disqualified from running for president in what were widely seen as political reasons. (Mohammed Khalil/AFP/Getty Images)

Al-Qazzaz says the MB is not questioning the legitimacy of the electoral commission—since it derives its power from the popular referendum in March 2011—but it does take issue with the commission’s members and practices.

“Out of good faith we accepted who they are, but now in the first encounter we see they are subject to pressure and surrendering to this pressure. We see that they did not exercise good judgment in the nominations,” says Al-Qazzaz.

Popular liberal politician and long-standing opposition leader Ayman Nour was one of the 10 presidential candidates banned for having a recent criminal record. Nour was the first challenge to former President Hosni Mubarak, running against him in 2005. Soon after, he was imprisoned for allegedly forging signatures on his party’s registration paper—an allegation widely considered to be politically motivated.

For Nour, the commission should not be allowed to ban anyone. He says it should be up to Egyptian voters to “ban through the box.”

“Let the voters ban whoever they do not want, not the rules and decisions [of a committee],” said Nour through a translator.

Nour, a lawyer, and head of the disqualified Ghad El-Thawra (Tomorrow) party, accused the commission of playing politics. He says the reasoning behind his disqualifications was “full of lies” and had no legal basis.

Shaping Egypt’s Future

Despite the Brotherhood’s strong popular support—forged through decades of charitable works and working at the grassroots—Makram-Ebeid complains they are not what the revolution was about.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is intent on monopolizing everything. This is also very depressing when you think of the extraordinary revolution that had the world transfixed by the courage and determination of young Egyptian men and women,” she said.

What’s at stake, according to Makram-Ebeid, is the identity of the Egyptian state and whether it will be a civil state that dates back to Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, or a theocratic state as “proposed by over-reaching Islamists.”

Most of the Brotherhood’s support is outside the cities and among the country’s poor. In Egypt, about 20 percent live below the poverty line and roughly 30 percent are illiterate.

“Unfortunately, the majority of these illiterate people have a totally distorted idea of real Islam, which is tolerance, pluralism, and so on,” she said.

Building a civil and economically viable state in Egypt that reflects the goals of the revolution is a challenge.

In contrast, Makram-Ebeid says that for the Muslim Brotherhood, “there is no need for them to rebuild the Egyptian state from the ground up in order to pursue their main goal, which is their Islamizing agenda.”

“We are very close to a complete democratic transition that all Egyptians will safeguard, not only the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party,” said al-Qazzaz.

With the constitutional impasse, Makram-Ebeid sees two possible scenarios. The first is a confrontation between the Brotherhood and SCAF.

The disqualifications were already proof enough for the Brotherhood that SCAF is trying to engineer a way to stay in power. “There is an inclination from the ruling military council to either prolong or derail entirely the democratic transition to a civilian state,” says al-Qazzaz.

Muslim Brotherhood in Parliament
A view of some of the Muslim Brotherhood members who currently occupy 47 percent of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament. (Asmma Waguih-Pool/Getty Images)

The Freedom and Justice Party’s key goal now, he says, is to maintain public pressure to make sure “the election should not be manipulated or delayed.”

What the Muslim Brotherhood does not want is a secular government where the spread of Islamic ideology is suppressed and the Muslim Brotherhood is again a target of persecution as it was under former Egyptian governments, including Mubarak’s. However, a push to win ultimate governance of Egypt would incite a likely confrontation with the current military government.

Whether the final outcome is an Islamist majority-run Egypt or a secular government, “the military will not be running the country much longer but will remain a powerful player,” says Makram-Ebeid.

Indeed, reining in the military is one theme all parties agree on. “Various political parties and groups are united in their opposition to the military, despite being divided among themselves,” notes Makram-Ebeid.

Perhaps the best Egypt can expect, says Makram-Ebeid, is that the SCAF and Brotherhood back off without a confrontation. This would move Egypt in the direction of the Turkish model of 20 years ago.

She says such a government would include a politically “disruptive and undemocratic” military, and a popular Islamist party that would move society slowly in its direction, unobstructed by weak opposition. Certainly this is not what the liberals and secularists want either.

Despite the tensions over shaping the future, what’s clear is that Egypt is a very different place today. “Since Jan. 25, the ordinary people’s awareness has risen to such an extent that it is unbelievable,” notes Makram-Ebeid. “There isn’t a chauffer or a worker that doesn’t talk about politics today.”

“Freedom is worth [all this],” said Ayman Nour. Although not everything that’s happening is positive, Nour and others remain optimistic and that Egypt will pass through this crisis.

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