One Thing Everyone is Getting Wrong About Egypt


Friday’s speech by Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi calling for a “war on terrorism” (implicitly referring to the Islamist movement), coupled with ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s arrest on charges of “espionage” for allegedly plotting with Hamas militants during the 2011 uprising that toppled his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, have raised serious concerns over whether the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will have a place in Egyptian politics after the July 3 coup against Morsi, which was either a military power grab or round two of the people’s revolution, depending on who you ask.

In trying to make sense of the complex politics of the moment in Egypt—by no means an easy task—outside observers must take care not to fall into facile dichotomies arising from local agitprop and age-old Western stereotypes about the Middle East. Chief among these is the notion that Egypt’s post-revolutionary power politics constitute a religious war of sorts between Islamists and secularists.

To begin with, very few Egyptians are genuine secularists. Liberal internationalists like liberal diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei are only to be found among the Cairene elite, and a Pew survey released in May found that only 11% of Egyptians believed the Quran should have no influence over the nation’s laws, while 58% supported a legal code based on the Quran and 28% who believed the law should be more generally based on Islamic principles. It is important to bear in mind that secularism (i.e., the separation of church/mosque and state) is a more controversial concept (PDF) in Islam, whose laws concern the behavior of both the individual and the Muslim community as a whole, than in the Christian-majority West. Hardline Muslim fundamentalists, including until very recently Egypt’s Salafist movement, tend to reject democracy itself on the basis that it places the will of the people before the will of God. To say that Islamic law should have no role in the state is a bold move and most media-described “secularists” in Egypt are more likely among the 28% mentioned above, seeking a “secular” state imbued with the Islamic philosophy according to which they were raised.

In addition, both “Islamist” and “secular” are much broader categories than they are made to seem. When one speaks of the “secular opposition” in Egypt, one must be more specific: are you talking about communists, socialists, liberal internationalists, or nationalists? What kind of nationalists: Nasserite or Baathist, pan-Arab or statist? The Tamarod (“rebellion”) campaign, which helped launch the protests in late June that led to Morsi’s downfall, comprised youth movements, liberals, and nationalist filul (“leftovers” or remnants of the old regime), along with plenty of generally disaffected Egyptians without especially strong political affiliations. Then there are Egypt’s Christians, who can be both pious and terrified of political Islam at the same time.

The “Islamist” category is similarly broad, encompassing everyone from the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood (itself separated into several sub-factions of more and less fundamentalist inclinations) to more hardline Salafists, to jihadist militants who reject the democratic process. Even this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of political categories: just take a look at how many parties competed in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections and you will get some sense of how politically diverse and complex Egypt really is.

At the same time that the Egyptian public is more politically sophisticated than we foreigners give it credit for, it is in another sense less so, in that the recent political climate has been based more on opposition than affinity. Some Egyptians who voted for Morsi in the 2012 presidential runoff (it is impossible to say how many, but every journalist interviewing protesters in Tahrir Square always seems to find at least one or two) did so only as a protest vote against his opponent, the filul ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. Likewise, some voted for Shafik not out of any particular fondness for him but rather to protest the Brotherhood’s violation of its promise not to field a candidate. Political slogans and even platforms are more often negative than positive: “no” to the Brotherhood, “no” to the army”, “no” to the filul, and so on. Likewise, the sentiment that led to the mass protests of June 30 was not so much rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform or doctrine, but rather anger that it had broken promises, refused to compromise, and failed to rescue the economy.

While there is certainly a religious dimension to Egyptian politics, it is by no means their defining characteristic. The players in the current power struggle, which may still take years to resolve, do not lend themselves to simple, black-and-white categorizations, least of all on religious terms. The issues at hand are many and manifold, from “bread and butter” matters of economic well-being, to the very nature and structure of the political system. There is no obligation to make sense of it all, certainly not now when so much is still in flux, but to write Egypt off as another intractable Middle Eastern religious conflict sells the Egyptian people short.