Secularists face life in the margins
There is a consensus that Egypt’s Islamists represent the majority
The political opposition in Egypt has many fans in the West as a result of its principled stance against the pro-Islamist constitution, backed by President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s because of what that document says or does not say about the rights of women, Coptic Christians and free speech.
Nevertheless, Egyptians have now voted several times since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from the presidency nearly two years ago. Every ballot has resulted in a decisive victory for the Islamists. Each time out they have received between 64 and 70 per cent of the vote.
Whether those spoken with agree or disagree with the result, there is a broad consensus in Egypt that the Islamists represent a clear majority of the population. Even voters who detest the Islamists — and there are lots of them — fairly quickly concede the point.
So it seems rather pointless — as well as undemocratic — for the losers to have alleged widespread fraud in the constitutional vote and they did after voting ended last Saturday. Sure, there may have been cheating. But whatever trickery took place would not have altered the result.
The opposition has made much of the fact the voter turnout was down during both two rounds of constitutional voting this month. They have suggested that this shows support for Morsi and the Islamists is flagging. Based on my observations after nearly a month in Cairo shortly before Christmas and what I saw and heard during several trips there over the past two years, Morsi and the Brotherhood are not as popular as they used to be. But it is equally likely that many voters did not turn out to vote on the constitution this month because it was a foregone conclusion that the Islamists would win.
Whether staged by the secularists, the Coptic Christians or the Islamists, the protests that have gripped Egypt for many months now have had a numbing sameness to them. Every time there has been violence, the secularists openly express their hope that the army will intervene. Forgotten, apparently, is that the main point of the Egyptian revolution was to throw the generals out of power.
But the political ground has shifted dramatically in Egypt over the last two years. The Islamists, having finally tasted elected power after something like 80 years on the outside, will never quietly accept a military coup. If there is a miscalculation by any party it could trigger a tragedy in the Arab world’s most populous nation akin to the madness now seizing Syria or the violence that rent post-Saddam Iraq or Lebanon during its savage 15-year civil war.
There are no obvious solutions for Egypt’s agony. However, there is one unexplored path that might lead to a truce between the moderate Islam that the Muslim Brotherhood claims to represent and the secularists, who until now have been shockingly unable to unify their cause or to rally around a single unifying leader.
The Brotherhood’s greatest enemies are probably not secularists but hard-line, ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis or Salafists whose ideas on women, Christians and free speech are medieval. The Brotherhood have, until now, relied on support from these Salafis to maintain their majority. But, at the same time, they fear being outflanked by their political partners. Salafis won 28 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections and are part of what is arguably the most rapidly growing Islamist movement in the world.
If the complex, uneasy relationship between the Brotherhood and the Salafis shatters, the only place left that Morsi could turn in order to stay in power is the secularists. There is no evidence yet that Morsi, the Brotherhood or the secularists and Christians are willing to make the compromises necessary to create a new alliance, although one advantage of such an arrangement is that it would have the blessing of the army, which has so far shown no appetite for a coup and would obviously prefer any group to the Salafis.
To get from here to there would require a lot more common sense than the Brotherhood, the secularists and the Copts have demonstrated so far. As it is, the Brotherhood and the Salafis will almost certainly form a coalition after fresh parliamentary elections in February. No matter how many noisy, self-congratulatory demonstrations the opposition continue to stage in Cairo or how much sympathy their plight attracts in the West, secularists will soon be doomed to life on Egypt’s political margins unless they suddenly become creative pragmatists.