Saturday 23 July 2011

Egypt & Tunisia: Why Seculars, Liberals & Islamists Are In More Agreement Than They Think

One of the biggest points of contention in the sphere of The Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions is the debate between Seculars, Liberals and Islamists, all the different ranges and forms of Each. What I've noticed, however, is that behind the fiery rhetoric and cursing that is often exchanged by the more passionate members of each side, which often gives you the feeling that there are huge distances between all three sides of the argument, there is an ironic massive common ground for agreement, perhaps in Egypt in particular. They key is to actually ignore the 'Labels' of each side and look at the content of each other's demands and concerns.

For a start, the grand majority of Egyptian Liberals and Seculars are by European standards Socially Conservative in personal behaviour. In fact, most Egyptian Liberals and Seculars I know are quite devout Muslims and Christians who do not miss a single religious ritual, and share many of the same interpretations of religious duties with the moderate wing of Islamist Movements. Even more, some 'Secular' Muslims I know are quite 'extremist' in their definition of what is religiously required of them on a personal level. But what makes them choose to define themselves as Secular or Liberal is either their actual belief in the non-existence of a theocratic state in Islam, their belief that we cannot ask the countries of the world to respect the rights of Muslims and Islam and while not doing the same for other religions and belief/non-belief systems as well, a belief that there are multiple interpretations of various matters of religious law and theology and that each person should have the right to "choose" whatever interpretation she or he chooses, or just a massive distrust of what power can do to people and the fear of giving massive power strengthened by a religious background to fallible human beings who are bound to abuse it (A Pragmatic Liberalism or Pragmatic Secularism). There are many other reasons as well. What they do desire is to make sure that Clerics and Sheikhs do not control the country, officially or unofficially, and try to enforce particular (main concern is Wahabi) interpretations of Islamic law on the people by force, erode women's rights and the rights of non-Sunni Muslims, push the country into brash military confrontations with Israel, create a violent bigoted rhetoric that would increase intolerance in a country where religion is a flashpoint issue, and just simply not turn Egypt into another Iran. In calling for that, they realise that the law must treat everyone equally, and thus these rights must apply to everyone else as well, regardless of ethnicity, gender or belief-system.

On the other hand, yes some Islamists do wish for a classic Theocratic Caliphate, publicly or privately, and/or some wish to transform Egypt to a more conservative an traditional society using the force of law, many of both have only accepted a civil state as a transitional phase towards such vision, but these are all a relative minority. The majority believe in a modern state with Separation of Powers, a Presidency and a Cabinet, Legislative Institutions, A Modern Judiciary, and so forth. Their main arguments or goals are in effect that, while some would like to push for a more conservative society, they just do not wish to "expand" liberties beyond what is actually practiced at the moment (which society has already learned to adapt to) or what is in the 1971 constitution already, and that they wish to maintain the Islamic Identity of the State and Article II of the Egyptian Constitution that defines Islam as the Official State Religion, with "Principles" of Islamic Shari'a as "the main source of legislating", and Arabic as the Official Langauge. Within the same argument, they want to continue official celebrations of Islamic feasts, official state support to Al Azhar official state support to Al Hajj and Al-Zakat, and other religious expressions of a national identity as already practiced. Also, they want Egypt to play a less mediatory role internationally in matters of important to Islam (e.g. The Palestinian issue), build stronger bonds with developing and States with Arab-speaking and Muslim majorities, a greater attention to Social Justice and the rights of the poor, and the end of the practice of detention of certain Islamist elements by a biased police state.

The point thus seems to be that both sides just are more worried about pushing the country further into the other direction rather than they are trying to pull it towards their own classic ideological direction.

Thus, what is interesting is that, setting aside "what should be", there is a wider area of agreement than is often imagined. One such bright area of agreement is the supposed unanimous agreement of all major political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding the full freedom of speech, opinion, safety from illegal detention, freedom of religious worship, and many basic rights that there seems to be a basic degree of agreement on. Selim Al Awwa, a Presidential hopeful and famous lawyer and writer with Islamist leanings, said that he is for full freedom of worship, but draws the line at openly trying to convert others to other faiths, saying that it would cause tension in a conservative society like Egypt. Abdul Mon'em AbulFotouh, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been consistently "liberal" and strong in his endorsement of such basic rights. The current Muslim Brotherhood guide has been very clear in his support of a "Modern Civil Democratic State" with basic human rights, supporting the existing rights already enshrined in the previous constitutions (but were suspended in the Police State) and he said that while the Brotherhood does not believe that a woman or a non-Muslim should become President or Prime Minister, they would never seek a law to ban anyone from running from the Presidency, and that the best they can do is tell the members of the brotherhood not vote for such a candidate (Note: other MB members, including Abul Fotouh have been much more quite liberal on this issue). Even Rashid Al Gahnnoushy, leader of the Al-Nahda Islamic Movement of Tunisia recently said that his movement is widely misunderstood, and that, for example, it is fully committed to maintaining the Touristic nature of Tunisia and that his movement would not seek to ban "Alcohol or Bikinis" and things of that kind.

Tunisia, of course, has many similarities and dissimilarities with the Egyptian case. The country was much more hostile to Islamists (imagine being even more hostile than the Mubarak Regime), outlawed the Hijab in public and educational institutions, and was arguably practicing a more hostile, pre-Erdogan Turkey-style Secularism. The right to be non-religious, Atheistic or Agnostic are more widely accepted in Tunisia, and Tunisia has a sizable Jewish population unlike most Arab nations. Unlike Egypt as well, Liberals and Seculars are a much bigger percentage of the population and are less constrained in their capacity to debate. The common ground that can be reached will mainly consist of furthering the rights of public religious expression, such as the Hijab, and the successful containment of previously repressed right wing groups which seek, much like the Salafis in Egypt, to be integrated into the public and political spheres, all while maintaining the existing Freedoms and current degree of Liberalism.

My point is that there is a massive centre of mutual accord between both sides, if they do choose to ignore the "labels" and "groupings" they belong to, and actually look into "content" and policy, rather than continue a mutual bashing that is hardly based on significant differences. They already agree on much more than what is apparent at first, although in some cases begrudgingly. The main question will be how free would people on the extremes of both sides actually be in their capability to call for stricter interpretations of their ideologies, whether pro freedom or pro traditionalism. How far will both societies (continue to) recognise and enshrine the rights to massively disagree with the the rest and voice what might be unpopular opinions as per sacred Constitutional Rights? One thing for sure, you cannot have a successful democracy without full freedom of speech and opinion that allows anything short of directly inciting violence, hatred or intolerance.

NOTE: Article was influenced by contributions, input, and debates with @Cairowire, @Libraliyya, @Saralabib, @Ahmed_Abrass, @Kairien, @NohaElShoky, @Karshaf, @Aida_safi

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Bassem Sabry is a Media Executive, Producer and Blogger who writes on Egypt, The Region, and Current Affairs.

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