Ottawa Citizen

Sec­u­lar­ists face life in the mar­gins

There is a con­sen­sus that Egypt’s Is­lamists rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity

- MATTHEW FISHER

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.

 ?? MO­HAMMED ASAD/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Chris­tian ac­tivist Mona Makram Obeid is one of many op­pos­ing Egypt’s Is­lamist government. There is no ev­i­dence yet that the Brother­hood or the sec­u­lar­ist and Chris­tian op­po­si­tion are will­ing to work to­ward a new al­liance.
MO­HAMMED ASAD/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Chris­tian ac­tivist Mona Makram Obeid is one of many op­pos­ing Egypt’s Is­lamist government. There is no ev­i­dence yet that the Brother­hood or the sec­u­lar­ist and Chris­tian op­po­si­tion are will­ing to work to­ward a new al­liance.
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