News / Middle East

    Column: Secularists Need Unity to Take on Political Islam

    Mohamed Morsi has been ousted as president of Egypt, and his supporters, one holding a Morsi mask, are demanding his reinstatement.
    Mohamed Morsi has been ousted as president of Egypt, and his supporters, one holding a Morsi mask, are demanding his reinstatement.
    For millions of Egyptians, there is a palpable sense of relief that their president is no longer Mohamed Morsi. But for Egypt’s democratic “do-over” to succeed, the forces that came together to persuade the army to remove Morsi will have to unite behind a viable electoral alternative.
     
    As impressive as the organization was that mobilized against Morsi, petition drives and sit-ins are no substitute for political parties and capable leadership. Without them on the secular side, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, should it choose to participate again, and the even more doctrinaire al-Nour party, might win a new round of elections, just as they did following the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.
     
    The organizational weakness of opposition secular parties is another unfortunate legacy of the Mubarak era. During his long rule, Mubarak warned successive U.S. leaders that the only alternative to him and his ruling (if misnamed) National Democratic Party was Islamic fundamentalism. He made sure that this was the case by harassing, arresting and otherwise marginalizing secular figures, from the human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim to Ayman Nour, a liberal who in 2005 presidential elections became the first person to run against Mubarak. (Nour won at least 7 percent of the vote and was promptly jailed on trumped-up charges.)
     
    Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as president for almost 30 years, was ousted in 2011 and accused of collusion in the killing of nearly 900 anti-government protesters.Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as president for almost 30 years, was ousted in 2011 and accused of collusion in the killing of nearly 900 anti-government protesters.
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    Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as president for almost 30 years, was ousted in 2011 and accused of collusion in the killing of nearly 900 anti-government protesters.
    Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as president for almost 30 years, was ousted in 2011 and accused of collusion in the killing of nearly 900 anti-government protesters.
    Under Mubarak, legal opposition parties including the New Wafd – descendant of a party founded under the monarchy -- and the leftist Tagammu (National Progressive Unionist Party) were often led by men as autocratic as Mubarak. It was left to young people using social media – such as the April 6 Youth Movement and the "We are All Khaled Said" Facebook page -- to spark the 2011 revolution.
     
    In the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, an alphabet soup of new secular groups emerged, including the Constitution party of interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the Freedom of Egypt party of former Washington think tanker Amr Hamzawy and the Free Egyptians Party of telecommunications tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

    Lack of unity among secular groups

    But they could not agree on a unified slate of candidates for parliament or a single candidate for the presidency. As a result, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party and Al-Nour won parliamentary elections and an Islamist-influenced constitution was approved in a referendum.
     
    In Egypt’s first free presidential elections, Morsi’s 25 percent of the vote was the largest share won by any candidate and put him into a second round against Ahmed Shafiq, a former Mubarak prime minister. Reluctant to support Shafiq after just getting rid of his boss, Egyptians held their noses and voted for Morsi, who edged out Shafiq with 51.7 percent of the votes.
     
    A year later, political analysts expect new or refurbished secular parties of the right, center and left to emerge in time to contest new parliamentary and presidential elections. But it remains unclear what platforms they will advance, who will lead them and how they will attract voters.
     
    Elizabeth Thompson, a historian of the Middle East and author of a new book “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” suggests that the Tamarod (rebellion) movement that organized the petition campaign against Morsi might use “the 22 million signatures [it claims to have collected] as a data base, much as [U.S. President Barack] Obama did, to build a grassroots organization.”

    However, the signatures did not include phone numbers or emails, according to an article in the New Yorker magazine, making follow-up rather difficult.

    There is also the question of whether Tamarod, a loose coalition of parties and personalities, will stay together and if so, who will it support?
     
    Another chance for ElBaradei

    Bassem Sabry, an Egyptian political commentator and analyst, says that ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency who chose not to run in 2012, might have a better chance now.
     
    Mohamed ElBaradei may be better placed to challenge for Egypt's presidency in new elections.Mohamed ElBaradei may be better placed to challenge for Egypt's presidency in new elections.
    x
    Mohamed ElBaradei may be better placed to challenge for Egypt's presidency in new elections.
    Mohamed ElBaradei may be better placed to challenge for Egypt's presidency in new elections.
    “ElBaradei was generally seen not to have a solid electoral chance, especially following strong smear campaigns against him by the Mubarak regime followed by the Brotherhood,” Sabry said. “However, if the military is seen as endorsing him, that should strongly boost his wider appeal.”
     
    Sabry added that “Ayman Nour is now seen by many as an opportunist, especially on the liberal side of the political spectrum,” while “parties formed by former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as ‘Strong Egypt’ and the ‘Egyptian Current’ are struggling to gain wide appeal and ground.”
     
    Libya, Tunisia, Turkey and Iran
     
    But the weakness of secular forces is not just a reality in Egypt. Islamic parties have benefited from the lack of strong alternatives in Libya, Morocco and Tunisia as well as in Turkey and Iran.
     
    In Turkey, the venerable Republican People’s Party does not seem poised to benefit despite the ruling Justice and Development party’s mishandling of popular protests and apparent fall from grace. The young people who have filled Taksim Square and Gezi Park have not yet found an electoral home.
     
    In Iran, secular parties are banned and the leaders of the so-called Green Movement that sought to challenge fraud-tainted 2009 elections remain under house arrest. President-elect Hassan Rouhani, focusing on Iran’s nuclear negotiations and the sanctions-burdened economy, is unlikely to challenge the dominance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Islamic norms that force women to wear head scarves and consign them to second-class status.
     
    While educated youth in the Middle East are able to fill the public squares and Twitter with calls to separate religion and politics, many others are giving up and going abroad. Brain drain has long been a problem in Iran and is increasingly so in Egypt, where continuing instability and violence is wrecking the economy and young people’s chances for gainful employment.
     
    To defeat political Islam, secularists need to stay in place, cooperate with each other and subordinate their egos to the well-being of the larger society. Otherwise, the region will continue to oscillate between military and Muslim autocracies and its human potential will never be reached.

    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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