Secular vs. Islamist. This is the bird’s eye view you would see if you scanned the horizon of the political landscape in Egypt. But you would be misled. This version of events only barely scratches the surface of the conflicts that currently plague Egypt, none more evident than Egypt’s opposition to President Mohamed Morsi and his politicized Islamic agenda.
The meteoric rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is a result of regimental organizational skills and years of recruitment underground while they were imprisoned and oppressed under Mubarak’s thirty-year regime. It is no wonder, then, that they bloomed immediately after Mubarak’s fall, sweeping through the parliamentary elections in December 2011 to successfully win the race to Morsi’s presidency in June 2012, although it should be noted that his success was also due to non-Islamist voters who chose an Islamist candidate in the second round of elections in preference to former Mubarak lackey, Ahmed Shafiq.
Since his victory in June, the spin that Morsi and the Brotherhood have put on the period of eighteen months, has begun to show how thin it is. Self-appointed presidential powers forcing through of a new constitution that is vague at best and specifically designed in order to allow for abuses at worst, has once again drawn the liberal/secular opposition out in force onto Egypt’s streets. Protestors were calling for a rescinding of Morsi’s powers and a postponement on the constitutional referendum when the majority of the constitutional assembly responsible for drafting the document hailed from Islamist backgrounds. They claimed that the secular and minority members of the assembly had been bullied into withdrawing their participation. Those protests soon escalated into a full-blown demand for Morsi’s resignation, which has since seen Morsi rescind his supra powers, but continue with a constitutional referendum that has now been passed.
But what exactly does secular discourse mean in the Egyptian context as a binary opposition to politicized Islam? The discourse itself is not new in Egypt, as strands of secular ideology could be seen in the 1952 Egyptian Revolution led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser who banned and imprisoned the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he also banned numerous other political parties. It is a dangerously loose formulation to suggest that Nasser was a secularist. He wasn’t. His motives were political rather than religious. Yet, it is almost as if secular discourse has begun a new lease of life as a result of the rejuvenation of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the post-Mubarak era, despite the fact that not so long ago it would never have been used to define the political opposition to Mubarak (many of whom, excluding the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, now oppose Morsi) who framed themselves as anti-corruption and pro-democracy, rather than in the religious framework that the term secular implies.
One of the accusations lodged against the revolutionaries during the eighteen day uprising against Mubarak, a criticism that continues today in their opposition to Morsi and his government, is a lack of vision and concrete aims. This is true also of the way the opposition define themselves as secular, a reactionary response to the growing rise of politicized Islam. In fact, ‘secular’ does nothing to strengthen the opposition except mark their opposition to politicized Islam. That is a trap that needs to be avoided. A far more transparent label is a label of pro-democracy, the same message that spread like wildfire during the uprising against Mubarak. This indeed is a message that Muslims who have lost faith in the Brotherhood but who do not also see themselves as “secular” can rally behind.
Only Morsi and the Brotherhood benefit from the chance to demonize secularists as atheist pro-western agents. They would have much more difficulty in undermining the opposition if the opposition stopped playing religious politics and focused on their own pro-democracy agenda. Then they really would start to eat away at Morsi’s support. Perhaps most importantly, Morsi and his government have made numerous mistakes in the post-revolutionary period, and as the old adage goes, “when your enemy makes a mistake, don’t interrupt them.” But to put Morsi and the Brotherhood under significant pressure as we approach crucial parliamentary elections within two months, it is time for the opposition to stop getting drawn into a religious discourse, and to focus on a political pro-democratic discourse that the other side are clearly not much good at.