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Secular democracy in Egypt? The devil is in the details

The committee empaneled to rewrite the Egyptian Constitution and given 10 days to do so has named it’s head

Egypt’s new ruling military council has appointed an Islamist judge to head the committee drawing up a new constitution, angering some of those who argued last week’s revolution would deliver the country to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course there are some who continue to argue this is all a secular movement (how does one conclude a group calling itself the Muslim Brotherhood is somehow a “secular” group as the West would define “secular?) and that the end result will be a strong democracy as demanded by the people.

Uh, probably not.  Careful monitoring says that most likely the next government will be anything but “secular” as defined by the West:

But the make-up of the new committee, and the fact it has been given just ten days to come up with a new constitution, has dashed hopes that it will remove Article 2, which makes Islam the state religion and says Shariah is the main source of law.

There is something very concrete for you to watch for and monitor – the status of “Article 2” in any new constitution.  The double-talk isn’t just confined to the word “secular”.  “Moderate” gets a going over too.   What anyone in the West would consider a “moderate” here would most likely be called a “secular liberal” there.   The West might consider Egypt’s “moderates” as fairly radical here.   As an example of having to read carefully, look at this:

"Al-Bishry is a figure who is accepted by all Egyptians," said Aboul Ella al-Madi, leader of Al-Wasat. "He has criticised the Coptic Church but he has also criticised the Muslim Brotherhood and the former regime.

Sounds great right?    But what is “Al-Wasat”?  It’s an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And you have to love the fact that he feels qualified to speak for “all Egyptians”.

Another claim made by those appointing the committee is it includes a “Coptic Christian” (The NYT names him as Maher Samy Youssef, a judge and Coptic Christian).  Or maybe not:

But Bishop Markos, a member of the Coptic Church’s Holy Syndicate, said no one from the Military Council had been in touch since it came to power.

He said: "We do not know the result of this but we hope the committee will be wise enough to take into account the rights of all Egyptians."

And Islamists in general (using “Islamist” in the generally accepted sense of “religious radical”)?

In another sign of increased freedoms for Islamists, the Gama’a Islamiya, the radical group responsible for a wave of terror attacks in the 1990s, held a public meeting in a town in southern Egypt on Monday night, according to a local newspaper, Al-Masry al-Youm.

Nice – radical terror groups go main stream and hold public meetings. 

Back to the head of the committee …. a person who knows Egypt pretty well has weighed in:

Wael Abbas, the best-known human rights blogger in Egypt, who was sentenced to prison by the Mubarak regime last year, said it was a "worrying" choice.

"There is no such thing as a moderate Islamist," he said. "We want a secular state that respects all religions and which belongs to all religions."

Take that one sentence to heart – “there is no such thing as a moderate Islamist”.  We’ve come to understand that over the years, yet many of us seem to want to ignore that when it comes to Egypt.  Note that Abbas wants a real secular state as you and I might define it, not one as the Muslim Brotherhood would.

This move by the military council is one, I think, that is calculated to further calm fears that the military plans to continue to hold on to control.  The NYT says:

Though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which seized power with Mr. Mubarak’s exit, has repeatedly pledged to uphold the goals of the Egyptian revolution, many in the opposition have questioned the army’s willingness to submit for the first time to a civilian democracy after six decades of military-backed strongmen.

So appointing the committee helps calm those fears:

“The move to appoint the panel is the first concrete thing the army has done since taking over,” said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent civil rights lawyer and Mubarak critic. “We have only had communiqués. We have been analyzing the rhetoric. But now is the first concrete move, and there is nothing about it that concerns us.”

That last sentence is very telling, especially the claim “there is nothing about it that concerns us”.  The fact that Bahgat isn’t concerned doesn’t mean others shouldn’t be concerned.   An Islamist judge heads the committee and:

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of Sobhi Saleh, an Alexandria appeals lawyer and former member of Parliament who is a prominent figure of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Mubarak government repeatedly portrayed Mr. Saleh as extremist. Mr. Saleh has espoused some views many here might consider excessive, like advocating a ban on public kissing in most places, and he was released from an Egyptian intelligence prison recently.

Is that a “moderate” position?  Would such bans be “secular” in scope?  My guess is the answer would be  “yes” from someone like Saleh if passed by a Parliament (using the democratic process to pass authoritarian laws).   Anyway, you then have to love this analysis of the committee by Saleh:

“The committee is technical and very balanced,” Mr. Saleh said. “It has no political color, except me because I was a member of Parliament.”

Well yeah, so who is it that will lend “political color” to this work?  A radical member of the Muslim Brotherhood on a committee headed by an Islamist judge.

There’s no question there’s a lot of “hope” going on in Egypt right now – but as when “hope” was a prominent word here in the US during the last election cycle, everyone is being left to write their own interpretation on the large blank page “hope” has provided.   The problem there, as it was here, is what the people of Egypt “hope” will come about and what they will actually get out of this process – as it appears to be lining up – are probably not the same thing at all.



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13 Responses to Secular democracy in Egypt? The devil is in the details

  • Wow.  Being told by the guys with the tanks we have ten days to pull together our nation’s constitution.  No pressure there.  I’m sure it will result in a document of incredible durability and humanity, too.
    The MB are “LONG GAME” players.  They don’t need control today.  They can be very happy in five years.
    The secular, pluralistic elements in the military and elsewhere…better sleep lite.

  • /On sarc
    No no, the 23 year olds with the IPads, IPods and IWants will make sure that a secular government is formed where, if people want, they can go back to safely worshiping Ammon-Ra, Isis and Osiris (Set even!) without fear of being branded as apostate under Sharia law and stoned or beheaded (or whatever the proper punishment for apostates in Islam is).
    This is the 21st century!  All those old thinking thoughts are obsolete,  We’re looking at a new Obama inspired day all over the world!  Islam will moderate, no later than September of this year, and Egypt will enter a democratic phase that will look like the best years of the American Republic!  Really!  I’m optimistic! /off sarc

  • After all I’m sure the Muslim Brotherhood is just their version of the YMCA. Maybe they’ll also revive disco.

    It’s fun to stay at the Muslim B’Hood!
    It’s fun to stay at the Muslim B’Hood!

    They have everything that you need to enjoy,
    You can hang out with all the boys …

    It’s fun to stay at the Muslim B’Hood!
    It’s fun to stay at the Muslim B’Hood!

  • Here’s a quote:

    “Rousseau’s enthusiasm for Islam is not hard to fathom. He equated ‘freedom’ with total submission to authority. In the Swiss philosopher’s ideal state, that authority was an Orwellian construct he called ‘the general will’–an ‘elusive and inscrutable Supreme Authority,’ as Conor Cruise O’Brien described it, that ‘became a kind of tutelary deity’ for the French Revolution. The general will is the debt Marx owes to Rousseau, ‘an early adumbration of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’.’ In what is (at most) a different pew of this same conceptual church, we also find Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of vilayat-e-faqih (the guardianship of the Islamic jurist), under which ‘issues could be debated, even disputed, within the regime–but once the ‘Supreme Guide’ pronounced the ‘final word,’ everyone had to fall in line.'”

    –from Andrew McCarthy, The Grand Jihad, Chapter 10: Islam and the Revolutionary Left, p. 172.

    • And note that Mussolini used his “totalitarian” concept as a benign impulse…meant to include everybody, with none left out.  It was just the high cost of COMPULSORY admission…

    A nice expansion on the very popular host on al jazeera.  You know, that terribly classically liberal influence in the Muslim world…

    Qaradawi advocates establishing a “United Muslim Nations” as a contemporary form of the caliphate and the only alternative to the hegemony of the West. He hates Israel and would love to take up arms himself. In one of his sermons, he asked God “to kill the Jewish Zionists, every last one of them.”

  • What happened to El-Baradei?  A week or so ago, he was the Golden Boy of Egypt, the man on horseback who would ride in from Switzerland (or wherever he was polishing his Nobel “I Made America Look Bad” Prize) bringing democracy, equality, peace, love and freedom to all.

    Or is this another boat the wishful thinkers managed to miss?

    McQThe double-talk isn’t just confined to the word “secular”.  “Moderate” gets a going over too.   What anyone in the West would consider a “moderate” here would most likely be called a “secular liberal” there.   The West might consider Egypt’s “moderates” as fairly radical here.

    This is and has always been a very easy way to snooker the Wester intelligentsia: simply brand yourself / your movement with nice buzzwords like “democratic”*, “moderate”, “popular”, “liberation”, and now “secular”; the pollyannas will trip over themselves to embrace you without bothering to look too hard at your actual record.

    This leads to an interesting question: who are the “players” in Egypt?  What really ARE their records?  There’s been a lot of wishful thinking in both DC and MiniTru (is there really much distinction between the two?) and a lot of posturing and empty analysis, but what is really going on over there?  I would like to think that CIA has extensive dossiers on all the new members of the Egyptian “government” as well as leaders in the various opposition groups, but, somehow, I can’t bring myself to believe that Leon “CNN” Panetta is on top of this.

    “There is no such thing as a moderate Islamist,” [Wael Abbas] said. “We want a secular state that respects all religions and which belongs to all religions.”

    Hmph.  That first declaration will guarantee that he’ll never be invited to eat at the White House, write a column for the NYT, or be asked to lecture at Columbia University.  The bigot.

    As for the rest… Who is this “we” he speaks of?  From the polling data that I’ve seen, the majority of Egyptians do not want a secular state: they want a MUSLIM state.  They may not quite want to go so far as having an Egyptian version of the Taliban, but they do seem to want Sharia law. 

    If I was a Coptic or anything other than a Islamic fundamentalist in Egypt, I’d be packing my bags.  If I was in charge of the Israeli government, I’d be quietly making plans to mine the sh*t out of the border with Egypt and have the IDF blow the dust off their Egypt war plans.  And it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the US and various other countries around the world to give some thought to planning such steps as are necessary to keep the Suez Canal open.

    What a mess.


    (*) Examples include the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the National Socialist Worker’s Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.

  • The double-talk isn’t just confined to the word “secular”.  “Moderate” gets a going over too.   What anyone in the West would consider a “moderate” here would most likely be called a “secular liberal” there.   The West might consider Egypt’s “moderates” as fairly radical here.

    Yep.  That is what makes this seem like such a bad turn of events.  The importance of freedom in government is that as long as there is an avenue for progress, the general attitudes and culture can be changed over time.  It doesn’t matter that their “moderate” is our “fundamentalist” if there is enough freedom to allow true moderates to be heard.  But if the new constitution limits or eliminates this freedom, then you are not on the road to becoming a democratic nation.  You’re on the road to becoming Iran.