The future of Egyptian democracy:

Not secularism vs. Islamism

posted by John Voll

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the new Nasser, according to many Egyptians. The image of the military strong man currently leading Egypt is frequently put beside the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a group of younger military officers in taking control of Egypt in 1952. The new government presents itself as saving Egypt from the religious fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Nasser liberated Egypt from imperialists and conservative forces. Since many secularists and self-identified liberals supported Sisi’s takeover of the government in July 2013, the subsequent political conflicts can appear to be a continuation of the battles between advocates of a secular modern polity and religious fundamentalists. However, viewing the current turmoil as being basically a conflict between religious and secular forces in the public arena can lead to conclusions that make real conflict resolutions more difficult. “Secular” versus “religious” is not the major battle. The goals of the protesters have been more basic: to gain control over their lives through improved economic opportunity and freedom from the surveillance and control of a dominating police state, whether that state is secular or religious.

The comparison of Sisi with Nasser raises questions that go beyond the immediate issues of the suppression of a politically active religious organization. Both Nasser and Sisi came to power as the result of military intervention in politics. The similarity raises the question of what the political role of the military should be. This issue was debated in the 1950s and 1960s and is being raised again in discussions of Egyptian politics. Writing from prison, Ahmed Maher, one of the leaders in the original Tahrir protests, argues that the current regime “has confirmed citizens’ fears of a military dictatorship.” Opposition to military rule is one theme in the current political conflicts.

A more general opposition to authoritarian rule, whether military or not, is a second important theme in populist Egyptian political activism. This provided much of the dynamism for the initial movement of protest, the Tahrir movement, which forced Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. A third theme has been opposition to religious fanaticism and the possibility of theocratic rule. This theme became an important part of the conceptual repertoire of the second round of popular protests, which opposed the government created by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in the elections following the overthrow of Mubarak.

While there are religious dimensions in the protest repertoires of the three rounds of opposition—against authoritarian rule, against possible theocracy, and now against direct military rule—none of them is clearly definable as a clash between secular and religious forces in the public political arena. The common elements in these three movements of populist protest are opposition to an intrusive state, whether religious or secular, and demands for greater freedom in lifestyle and improved economic opportunities. In many ways, the protests are generational, with the younger generations expressing their frustration with the conditions created by decades of authoritarian rule.

The popular opposition to the Mubarak regime that was manifested in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 was anti-authoritarian in the broad sense. It arose out of profound discontent with economic conditions and police state oppression. The April 6 Movement, which was an important participant in Tahrir, was initially a Facebook-based group supporting a strike in a major industrial center in 2008. Another Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said” (Kullena Khaled Said), mobilized participation in the Tahrir protests. Its message was a reference to the outrage over the death of Khaled Said, a young computer programmer, who was beaten to death by police outside an Internet café.

By the twenty-first century, Mubarak’s regime was not a simple military dictatorship. He created a power elite that relied more on security police than on the military for domestic control. This elite dominated the economy and created highly visible economic inequalities. It was this authoritarian regime that was the target of the protests.

Religion played little direct role in the Tahrir protests. The organizers of various aspects of the demonstrations were neither secular in viewpoint nor were they advocates of particular religious programs. The founder of “We are all Khaled Said,” Wael Ghonim, had previously created a website, IslamWay.com, which was an effort to provide Muslims with a broad spectrum of moderate Muslim views on a wide range of subjects. Some, like Ahmed Maher, who was a co-founder of the April 6 Movement, supported Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the post-Tahrir elections, rather than vote for someone who had connections with the old regime.

Religious issues were clearly involved in the second round of protests, as the Morsi government moved rapidly ahead with its own political program rather than working with other major political forces. Soon the political opposition began to speak about the dangers of an emerging theocracy. This challenge coalesced around the demand for the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood to relinquish power and for the elected president to leave office. A giant petition campaign organized by a group called Tamarod led to a major public demonstration on June 30, 2013. This popular protest was followed by the political intervention of the military, removing Morsi from his office and subsequently outlawing the Brotherhood itself. These actions may have used fear of theocracy as a slogan, but the real target of the protests was the Muslim Brotherhood, not Islamists in general. Radical Egyptian Islamists, as represented by the Nour Party, in fact joined in the opposition to the Brotherhood and then became part of the coalition of groups supporting the military takeover of the government. The overthrow of President Morsi was not a victory of secularism over Islamism; it was a victory of a heterogeneous coalition of anti-Brotherhood groups ranging from the military and old elite capitalists to secularist intellectuals and Islamists. The broad popular support for this second round of protests continued to be based on the non-ideological visions of the Tahrir movement: freedom from an intrusive authoritarian regime and better opportunities for a good life.

In the public political arena now controlled by the military, a major polarization exists. The Tamarod group has split between those who have been jailed for criticizing the military’s suppression of opposition voices (whether Islamist or secularist) and those who support the consolidation of the authoritarian military regime as the only alternative to a Brotherhood-led theocracy. Similar divisions have emerged among other major interest groups as well.

In the current political situation, disagreements (and conflicts) between secularists and Islamists have little impact on actual political developments. The old debates over secularism seem like archaic remnants of past struggles. The real battles regarding religion and politics—both in the debates framing the wording in the various constitutions that have been recently written, and on the streets—are over the control of religious institutions and loyalties.

The efforts by the Brotherhood government to frame politics in the format of their particular version of Islamism could be identified by their opponents as the effort to create an Egyptian theocracy. While the military regime opposed this “theocracy,” the alternative that it has been creating is not a “secular” regime. Older established Islamic institutions in Egypt have often viewed the Brotherhood as a rival religious authority, and they provide support for the new military government. The military leaders mobilized prominent Islamic scholars like the former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa to issue fatwas and statements supporting the use of deadly force against Brotherhood protesters. The military itself declared the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization, and has assumed at least indirect control over religious institutions in Egypt. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, for example, has imposed “unified sermons” on mosques throughout the country, with punishments for imams who depart from the set sermons.

The emerging system in Egypt is one of state control over religious institutions, rather than separation of church and state. In this, Sisi’s policies are similar to those of Nasser. Nasser did not create a secular political system. Instead, he extended state control over religious institutions, even nationalizing the prestigious Islamic university, al-Azhar. The system of state control over religious institutions is, in important ways, the mirror image of a theocracy, in which the religious institutions control the state. The old label for the system of state domination of religion is “caesaropapism,” which has a long history going back to Roman and Byzantine imperial structures.

The Tahrir revolution opposed the old-style authoritarianism of Mubarak, and the June 30, 2013 movement opposed the possibility of an Egyptian theocracy. The current opposition faces a new style of military caesaropapism. In these conflicts, secularism plays a remarkably small role in shaping the attitudes and programs of the actors. The supporters of the Brotherhood and the new military regime are fighting out an important battle between religion-controlled state and state-controlled religion. Islamists and secularists are on both sides in this conflict.

This visible battle is between longstanding power interests in Egyptian politics and society. Organized Islamism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood has been in conflict with authoritarian military regimes in Egypt for more than half a century. While relations between religion and state are central to this struggle, the clash is not basically about secularism. However, in the context of the Arab Spring and the subsequent protests, this old struggle itself seems disconnected from the populist themes of the recent movements protesting against police state repression and lack of opportunity for a good life. The old combatants appear to have imposed their causes and terminologies on the newer populist revolutionary enthusiasms.

Egyptians and analysts who view the current political tensions in Egypt as being primarily a struggle between Islamists and secularists create obstacles to conflict resolution. The populist activism that was manifested in 2010-2011, in the Tahrir movement, is opposed to authoritarian rule—whether theocratic, caesaropapist or secular. As long as the situation is presented as a choice between theocratic and military rule, the younger generation will not find either alternative satisfactory. This important part of Egyptian society will continue to find ways of resisting efforts at authoritarian control of lifestyles. The fundamental problems of economic inequality and elite domination were identified by the demonstrators in Tahrir. Islamists can be suppressed and military regimes overthrown, but until these basic problems are resolved, opposition like that expressed in Tahrir will continue.

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2 Responses to “Not secularism vs. Islamism”

  1. avatar Sarah Gilkes says:

    I agree with Voll that, at their core, the successive rounds of opposition in Egypt – “against authoritarian rule, against possible theocracy, and now against direct military rule” – were driven by widespread economic inequality, the desire for a better quality of life, and fear of authoritarian leadership. As such, boiling the uprisings down to a simple tension between proponents of a secular modern state and a religious state misses something essential. Voll correctly notes that the protesters in all three waves of opposition have come from the full spectrum of Islamic belief, united in their opposition to an authoritarian and intrusive state. Thus, it is primarily this shared aversion to authoritarianism that both sparked and sustains popular opposition in Egypt.

    However, I disagree with Voll’s belief that secularism has played relatively little role in shaping the positions of the current actors. While not the primary motivation for the uprisings, tension over the appropriate role of religion has been a mainstay of the conflicts. In the most recent wave of opposition, this tension has manifested itself in a number of steps taken by Sisi to limit the influence that religion, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditionalist interpretation of Islam, has in the public sphere. First, in an effort to limit the influence of fundamentalist Islam and foster public peace, the Ministry of Endowments has imposed unified sermons throughout the country. Second, in the aftermath of the failed Muslim Brotherhood regime under Morsi, Sisi has recently outlawed all religious political parties.

    While taking a notably different form that secularism in the United States, it is evident that Sisi’s regime seeks to moderate the influence of religion in the public sphere, noting that religion – albeit only particular expressions of religion – can pose a threat to the maintenance of peace and stability in the country.

  2. avatar Tyler Smith says:

    I agree with the points Sarah raises in response to Voll’s belief that secularism has not played a role in shaping current political struggles, and I would like to briefly expand on her argument. Yes it is the case that the uprisings were primarily shaped not by religion by but an aversion to authoritarian rule. But to say that this issue is the only and primary concern of political actors is misleading. In the wake of the revolution and the responses to the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed rule, it seems the primary question, or at least an equally important issue, is the question of religion’s role in government and in society more generally.

    Voll seems to believe the question of secularism, when considered as a separation of church and state, is no longer relevant in today’s Egypt, and I think he is right on this point. But when as the separation of “church” and state ever been relevant in the Muslim world? Islam, by its nature, is a public religion that requires of its followers to publicly worship and actively promote the sacred. Questions of secularism in the Muslim world have never been an attempt to secularize in that western sense of privatization or separation. Instead, secular movements, in Tunisia in particular, are secular in a much different sense. They aim primarily to reconcile a civilly organized government with the tenets of Islam, and an active protection of religious rights. The debate then is over how exactly this should be done, and as Sarah points out, Sisi’s regime has taken a particular stance on the issue. But by no means is this a generally accepted solution, and debates about how to organize religion around a democratically ordered government are still in the forefront of political battles, along with the desire to promote democracy over authoritarianism.

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