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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.

~McQ