Multiplying Tahrir Square

As Egypt moves towards parliamentary elections later this year, secular liberals and Islamists have a common interest in building a pluralistic political system. In the coming months, they will need to move past the divisions that plagued them during last weekend’s referendum on constitutional amendments and instead agree on a shared platform.

To begin bridging this divide, the Muslim Brotherhood will need to encourage religious groups not to manipulate people’s religious convictions for partisan political ends – whether those groups come from within the Brotherhood, from other Islamic movements, or from non-Muslim religious movements and institutions. While some may feel this is putting too much responsibility on the Brotherhood, it comes with being Egypt’s most powerful religious political movement. Likewise, secular liberals will have to concede that the type of secularism acceptable to the vast majority of Egyptians is likely to maintain some role for religion in the public sphere, where political life includes religious institutions and movements, for the benefit of the country as a whole.

In that regard, and this may be the biggest pill for secularists to swallow, the campaign to abandon Article 2 of the constitution, which identifies Islam as the religion of the state and shari’ah as the principal source of legislation, may have to be abandoned, or at least delayed to the future. Opposing this article does not help the liberal cause in Egypt. On the contrary, it encourages religious conservatives, especially Salafists, to become more aggressively involved in political affairs. The Supreme Constitutional Court has never interpreted Article 2 as anything but a limited tool – it does not impose positive law or force parliament to enact “Islamic legislation”. It simply allows the court to strike down legislation that goes against established, agreed upon principles of Islam. The fight to remove Article 2 is not a fight worth having.

At the same time, Egyptians must continue to reject divisive forms of political mobilization on the basis of religion – and they can probably find allies within the Muslim Brotherhood who feel the same way. Secular liberals should look for those allies and engage with them.

Egyptians may want to consider promulgating a law as soon as possible that forbids hate speech on the basis of religion, ethnicity or race, which would apply equally to all segments of society. Such a prohibition can even be inscribed into the new Egyptian constitution. But trying to exclude religion altogether from the public sphere will simply not succeed in Egypt.

The “yes” and “no” camps that formed around the referendum are internally quite diverse. The Brotherhood, a strong advocate for “yes”, is made up of several trends – not all of which agree on everything. Some hold a liberal worldview, closer to the Turkish AK Party. There is also the Brotherhood youth wing that developed close ties with secular youth activists in Tahrir Square. Similarly, the “no” camp includes much of the Egyptian intelligentsia as well as many leftists, secularists, liberals, and people of faith who have promoted more mainstream forms of religious revival in Egypt. There is much to be gained from a constructive engagement between both camps – far more than there is to be lost.

Of course, there are forces – some Salafi groups, for instance – that choose to remain distant from politics and should not be engaged by either of these two camps. That playing field should be left to the ‘ulama of al-Azhar, with Egyptian society at large empowering that institution as the mainstream of Muslim religious opinion in this country.  However, Salafis that do engage in politics (i.e. by running for parliament) will need to be engaged politically.

In the coming period, Islamists and secular liberals need to co-operate with each other for the sake of national unity. Neither side should be given a blank cheque and debates between them should be had openly and with a spirit of solidarity. The 25 January revolution was about restructuring Egyptian politics, not hardening existing partisan lines or creating new ones. If there ever was a time when national unity has to be prioritized and short-sighted partisanship rejected this is it.

For that reason, initiatives like "Tahrir Squared” (which begins today) and others have been launched. These initiatives give a platform to all segments of Egyptian civil society to discuss, debate and inform. All sides must remember that nobody has a monopoly over public opinion or the revolution. Just as Egyptians overthrew Mubarak’s regime, they can and would come out in multitudes if ever they fear the re-emergence of any kind of tyranny. This is the new Egypt – her people should not be under-estimated.

H.A. Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He currently resides in Cairo, and is writing a book on the Arab uprising. His website is www.hahellyer.com.

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