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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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.
x
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.

You May Like

Algerians Vote in Presidential Election

There were few media reports of protests and clashes around the country, but so far no significant violence More

Sharks More Evolved than Previously Thought

The discovery could “profoundly affect our understanding of evolutionary history” More

Pakistan Military Asked to Protect Polio Workers

Request comes as authorities say a Taliban ban on vaccinations in 2012 and deadly attacks on anti-polio teams have prevented thousands of children from getting inoculated More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid