Can secularism survive in Egypt?

Egypt's political crisis might be an opportunity for moderate secularists.

    Can secularism survive in Egypt?
    Supporters of Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood tend to favour governance based on Islamic law [AFP]

    Cairo, Egypt - The current narrative in this country is dominated by the chasm between supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and those of the military - making the choice for Egypt seem as if it is merely between notions of wanting a state ruled by religion, or by the army.

    But in a country of approximately 90 million people, this characterisation is misleading.

    Even those who perhaps do not back Morsi and might not want a legal system based on the Sunni interpretation of sharia might well want a secular state, one that is not entirely divorced of Islamic codes and theory.

    Wael Nawara, co-founder of the al-Dustour Party, which is focused on preserving the moderate Egyptian identity, explained that the Western notion of secularism is "not exactly the right word to describe what is happening in Egypt".

    "No-one is calling for separation of mosque and state," he added.

    No-one is calling for separation of mosque and state.

    Wael Nawara, al-Dustour Party

    "There are calls not to abuse religion or to use religious merchandising or trading in politics."

    The notion of a society or rule of law entirely free from religion is not a popular one in Egypt, where the country's brand of Islam, said Nawara, "is moderate and doesn't eliminate religion from law and society".

    Indeed, Article Two in the [interim] Egyptian constitution states "the principal source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence" - a clause which also existed in the country's former constitution. However, subsequent articles have been added which define the "principles of sharia" under Sunni jurisprudence.

    This is where things become problematic for secularists and some liberals.

    "A number of articles allow a judge to pass judgement not based on legislation, but based on interpretation of the constitution - which could be an interpretation of sharia itself," said Nawara, adding that even the term "sharia" was vague and subject to wide-ranging interpretations.

    "The annulled constitution opened the door for future radicalisation," said Nawara, who also pointed out that Egypt's constitution was not a document that protects citizens' rights.

    "You would have thought that this would be the case, that the constitution was written to protect people's rights, but in fact it is written to rob people of their rights," said Nawara.

    The stigma of secularism

    There is no shortage of Egyptians - certainly made visible by the tens of thousands at the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo calling for sharia - who would very much support living in an Islamist state, and see doing so as a way forward.

    "I don't support the separation of religion and politics," said Rasha Gamal, a 27-year-old out for an evening stroll in Giza with her family.

    "If you apply sharia in the correct way, you gain prosperity and democracy, as they have in Malaysia," said Gamal, who has a clerical job at a university in Cairo.

    The term "secular" is viewed with suspicion by some in Egypt - a notion that is supported largely by the Islamists' dim view of secularism.

    For example, in response to the military's 48-hour warning for Morsi to step down on July 1, the chair of the Jama'a al-Islamiya Shura Council issued a statement blasting the military for "protecting secularism" and supporting communism.

    Amr Ismail is a researcher of Middle Eastern politics at Stanford University and the former director of the social and economic justice unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

    He said the conflict over identity was part of the political conflict that affected all Arab countries that had witnessed recent uprisings.

    "Identifying yourself as being secular is political suicide," said Ismail.

    "Historically in Egypt, interpretations of Islam have been used to bolster political legitimacy of the state the ruling regime."

    Both Ismail and Nawara point to the state-funded Al-Azhar university as an official representative of Islam in Egypt, with Nawara saying that Al-Azhar had often been marginalised by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood for being too moderate.

    Room for moderate voices?

    So the state has never used secularism as a means of fighting political Islam, but has chosen institutions such as Al-Azhar to reach the public.

    "I don't support a secular state, but I want a separation between politics and religion," said Mohamad Gamal.

    "And if this is the same notion of secularism as in the West, then I don't think people here will support it," added the 22-year-old waiter, who said he'd voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, but now regretted doing so.

    While he doesn't approve of the role of religion in politics, Gamal does not think that Islamist parties need be dissolved. Rather, he feels that they should switch roles and act as community groups or NGOs.

    There is no one definition of secularism, said Ismail. "But if what we're asking for is looking for new boundaries between Islam and the state, then the answer is yes, of course this is happening right now."

    But, he added, there is no major secular political trend in Egypt, rather a cultural one.

    "There are lots of trends being defined to the left and the right of the Brotherhood… this needs some years to develop and yield a solid alternative," said Ismail, adding that he doubts another Islamist would become president in the next elections, yet to be scheduled.

    Pendulum of power

    After the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, the pendulum of power has swung several times, from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to the Muslim Brotherhood and now, to a military-backed interim government.

    "I voted for Morsi, but that's because there was no better option," said Mohamed Abdullah.

    "But now I'm against the Islamists - they played their politics wrongly," said Abdullah, a 30-year-old accountant.

    "They just wanted to take as much power as they could for themselves."

    However, Nawara said the ongoing protests - which he described as "crowd-democracy forcing the administration to bow to the will of the people" - as reason to be optimistic.

    Nawara said that the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood - who he described as "clinging to old ideas" - have attempted to marginalise moderate Muslim Egyptians.

    Egyptians, said Nawara, are not keen to follow either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist models.

    "Egyptians recognise their identity, they have their own identity of Islam, their own brand," he said. "They don't have to become Wahabist in order to be considered Muslim."

    Follow @dparvaz on Twitter.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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