Egyptian Elections: Faith or No Faith? That is the Question

Date: May 2012

Magdy Amin

But not in the way the media might lead you to think – the real issue long term is not – religion. It’s faith in democracy.

This feels familiar to me as an Indian. We were blessed with a strongly secular, mostly democratic, independence party – the Congress. But only now, 60 years later, are we getting a modern opposition, and still mostly at the state level with enlightened politicians like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar.

Egypt hasn’t been so lucky. The stakeholders in this complex Presidential landscape include revolutionary youth, Islamists, secularists, the army with its loyalists and the business sector. This election represents the struggle for the political, social and religious soul of Egypt. Democracy, secularism and a free market economy are all, seemingly, up for grabs.

The three primary candidates are appealing to three voter blocks: Secularists, centrists and Islamists.

Amr Moussa, 75 and former foreign minister under Mubarak, headed the Arab League. He represents conservatives on the liberal, democratic and secular spectrum. For some voters, he is considered too close to Mubarak, his former boss and he does not flaunt his faith as a badge.

Mr.Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh, 60, a doctor, and a student rebel from the 1970’s, occupies the liberal end of Islamism. A leader for 30 years in the Muslim Brotherhood, he was expelled by the Muslim Brotherhood for breaking rank to run for president independently last year. A renegade, he runs the risk of being neither secular nor Islamist enough to win votes.

Mohammad Morsi, a California educated engineer, is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. He campaigns on the market/mosque duality that Muslims embrace via the slogan: “Islam is the Solution.” Yet, an analysis of the parliamentary elections in December 2011 identifies that the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong organizational base and lack of corruption delivered the vote– not ideology or religion.

Iman BibarsMy friend, Imam Bibars, VP of Ashoka in Cairo and an astute observer of political machinations in Egypt says: “I am worried about the elections. The problem is that many believe Abou el Fatouh to be a liberal and more among them will vote for him because they think Amr Moussa (the Minister of Foreign Affairs) is a protege of the old regime. I disagree – Amr Moussa was never in the NDP (Mubarak) party and was never part of the “corrupt clique” that ruled Egypt. He was the Foreign Minister of Egypt, not the Minister of Mubarak. He is a strong candidate because many lower middle class people like him. But the Islamists and some youth are already alleging that the elections will have been rigged if Amr Moussa wins – which in my opinion shows lack of tolerance.” (Many consider him a good compromise candidate.)

A prominent human rights lawyer, Hossam Baghat pinpoints another perspective: “The religious secular divide is largely artificial. The real dangerous struggle is between civil society and the deep state.

Women’s Rights Hang Precariously

Clearly, the role women played in the revolution is being severely challenged by conservative forces.

Magdy Amin, Executive Director of the Egyptian Women’s Horizon Association (EWHA) is against the oppression of women, and is disturbed by a slew of anti-women bills. (EWHA is a grantee of Invest in Muslim Women and it combats female genital mutilation in Cairo).The bills have been offered by Mrs. Azza EL Gerf, a member of parliament member from the Islamist Freedom and Justice party – bills which have no root in religion, but are purely culturally patriarchal. These bills include violating the Quran by tilting divorce laws in favor of men; requesting parents to conduct anti-Islamic female genital mutilation/ procedures that would “keep their daughters pure;” lowering the age of marriage for girls; giving men control over a girl’s education; abolishing harassment laws that protect women currently, placing blame and responsibility on women’s provocative dressing and late night going out.

Bibars concludes our conversation by saying, “I think this transitional period of havoc and lack of tolerance will last for a while – the limitations and political naiveté and inexperience of nearly everyone has created this chaos and it will take time for us to mature first, before we even begin to tackle tolerance, harmony or women’s rights. Finally, I am concerned and worried. Deep in my heart I have faith that the Egyptians will no longer accept another dictatorship but the current Parliament is a disaster by all means.

But India was not the only post-authoritarian state to find its way to democracy only after being challenged by religious politics. In both Germany and Italy, the path to democracy led through Christian Democratic parties which clearly violated American and Indian standards of secularism.

And Magdy Amin makes an astute observation. “The only political development is shown in how the Egyptian people’s way of thinking has changed. People have learnt a lot about politics since the revolution. Prior to the Jan 25 revolution, most of the Egyptian people had no idea about ministers, political parties, alliances and factions….now anybody can speak about politics with no fear.

My own gut is reinforced by the polling data, and a lot of independent analysis, including that of The Economist. When an entire society fears being out of work, the real political dynamic is not religion and state – it is, as Mrs. Gandhi famously said in her most impressive, post-authoritarian political victory, “roti, kapda, makan”– food, clothing and shelter. Is it the authoritarian deep state, led by the military that Egyptians fall back on for these essentials, or will they be the first major Arab nation to truly test a full democratic transition – with all the perils and pitfalls that it has always involved?

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