As worrisome as the past few months in Egypt have been, they have been just as instructive for the insight they have given us on the modes of interactions that characterise Egyptian politics at present and for the foreseeable future. The prime mode that we see in play at the moment is what we might term the ideological zero-sum game, the goal of which is to exclude or eliminate political forces that differ with you in opinion and outlook. The phenomenon has taken two forms so far. The first is the attempt to impose a political ban on the rank and file of the former National Democratic Party (NDP). The second is the vicious war being waged by Islamists against liberals and secularists whose ideas and opinions they construe as being contrary to Islam.
Indeed, in the lexicon of Islamist propaganda and, consequently, in the mind of much of the public it is aimed at, the words "liberal" and "secularist" have become synonymous with "heretic". These two forms of the ideological zero-sum game clearly violate an important principle of democracy, which is the need to respect the opposing opinion, as long as all remain committed to the overarching framework that regulates interactions among all, as embodied in the constitution and the system of government. Unfortunately, these practices also serve as tangible evidence that certain political forces barely appreciate the ABCs of democracy. This applies in particular to the Islamists who pay little more than lip service to democracy and freedom and who shudder at the thought of actually putting these principles into effect and accepting their consequences. Not that this should come as any surprise given the pseudo-religious blinkers through which they view the world and politics, and which does such a grave injustice to Islam itself. Islam is too vast and exalted to be dragged into the morass of petty political squabbles and pressed into being on one party's side and against another, or exploited in order to champion some political opinion and to denigrate another.
The first zero-sum game, targeting former NDP members, not only flies in the face of the democratic principle of the need to respect differing opinions but also fails to hold up to all sense of fairness. While the revolution may have succeeded in a peaceful overthrow of the NDP government, this does not justify a political ban against millions of people who are part of the fabric of this society. It is one thing to prohibit political participation to persons who have been found guilty, in accordance with established laws and procedures, of some form of criminal activity or misconduct, such as complicity in electoral fraud or the murder of demonstrators. It quite another to impose a blanket prohibition that would unjustly punish many who love their country no less than the people calling for their prohibition, and who practiced politics in accordance with the system that prevailed for half a century under NDP rule, which is to say in accordance with established customs and procedures.
Which brings me to my next question: Are NDP members the only group from the pre-revolutionary political order that merit censure? Did not Muslim Brotherhood members come out in force in every parliamentary election year, even if they had to enter into secret alliances with other political parties, most notably the NDP? Were all these members totally innocent of the thuggery, the bribing of voters, and all the other illegalities that ran rife in every polling process? And what about those Islamist and Salafist parties that mushroomed after the revolution? Should not a ban apply to those directly associated with terrorist figures who, in the not so distant past, advocated and perpetrated violence against innocent Egyptian civilians? And what about those whose members actively worked to brainwash people into beliefs and attitudes that were as remote as could be from the true spirit and values of Islam, testimony to which is mounting sectarian tensions, the demolition of Sufi shrines and the burning of churches? Are not such crimes of incitement to hatred and violence no less heinous than outright murder, especially given their horrifying potential consequences?
These questions need to be asked before putting an anti- NDP law into effect. Guilt by mere association should not be sufficient grounds to stamp someone with a ban. To legitimise such a process would set a dangerous precedent that contradicts in substance and spirit the principles of freedom, justice and human dignity that inspired the revolution. True, the NDP and its leadership wrought considerable social and economic damage in Egypt. But they were not the sole authors of destruction, and being an NDP member, in and of itself, should not be sufficient cause for condemnation. If penalties are to be meted out then they should be meted out on the basis of concrete charges proven in accordance with the law, not on the basis of labels dictated by political whims and electoral interests.
With regard to the Islamists' ideological campaign of abuse and vilification against liberals and secularists, which could lead to violence and murder, as it has in the past, it is based on fabrication and falsehood. In fact, the liberals and secularists who the Islamists are currently trying to tarnish were the driving force behind the revolution. Contrary to the Islamists' spurious pat equations, to be a liberal or secularist is not synonymous with lack of faith. Indeed, most liberals and secularists are more devout and more moral than a good many of those who are ostentatiously "Muslim". To be a devout Muslim involves much more than surface appearances -- a beard, a certain garb, and pious intonations of religious formulas. Modern life is too complex and demanding to be reduced to centuries old hand-me-down attitudes and interpretations of scripture. To contend with the demands of today, we need to bring to bear a degree of flexibility and intelligent reasoning, so long as we remain consistent with the lofty morals and values that are, by their very nature, embodied in our faith and a humanitarian spirit. The world of politics is connected with day-to-day life and the real problems that people face. These problems compel us to search for real solutions and to consider which of the possible alternatives will bring the greatest benefit at the least cost, as opposed to the approach of dictating solutions in the form of readymade postulations that only encourage mental lethargy and a form of fatalism in which "religion" becomes the panacea for all ills.
I suggest we turn our energies to formulating the framework that will ensure that politics in our country is clean and fair, free of ideological demagoguery and mudslinging. Then, under such a system, may the best person win, be that Islamist, liberal or even a former member of the NDP. In assessing their performance after coming to power, our criterion should not be the person's identity or, rather, how we label them, but rather the extent to which they exemplify the respect for the rule of law and the constitution that they pledged to uphold. If they succeed on the basis of this criterion, they will be re-elected; if not, voters will elect someone else.
I do not understand why certain political forces continue to play that ideological zero-sum game, which was a favourite sport of the previous regime, and why so many remain blind to the need to construct the constitutional edifice that will ensure that all Egyptians, now and in the future, can live as equals under the rule of law. Unfortunately, the games certain people play force me to conclude that their purpose is to circumvent the true aims of the revolution and that they do not really believe in democracy. Indeed, you barely have to scratch the surface to realise that what they do believe in is forcing their own point of view on others by means of their stronger organisational abilities and louder voices or by fear-mongering, intimidation, vilification and witch-hunting.
To me, it is obvious that this is the first shoal on which the Egyptian revolution will crash unless the political forces and the youth of the revolution, above all, wake up to the need to create a proper democratic constitutional and legal framework and then to make the transition from democracy as an abstract value to democracy as a mode of culture and behaviour. The urgency of this task cannot be overstated, for it needs to be done before democracy can be hijacked by those bent on imposing their ideological/ religious hegemony and steering the country back towards tyranny.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.