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Egypt’s two public spheres

The ousted regime pitted secular forces against Islamist currents; the future should be built on a model of inclusivity, not division

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Monday 11 Apr 2011
Views: 10070
Views: 10070

Post-revolution tensions between Islamists and secularists in Egypt are the product of long years of segregation under the ousted regime. For decades, the country has been living a dual public sphere phenomenon that defined both the political and socio-religious domains.

The first sphere is that which the ousted regime vocally encouraged and used as an international façade —the secular-liberal public sphere. It is a sphere that feted diversity, was dominated by elites who supported the retreat of religion from both the political and civic domains into the personal domain, endorsed universal declarations of human rights as a frame of reference, and encouraged Egypt’s full integration into the global economy, and perhaps into global culture.

While close to ruling circles, these elites had only a minimal impact on the regime’s policies and politics. Their human rights discourse was fully discarded, and only their anti-Islamic sentiment was highlighted by the regime to justify its assaults on Islamists. While these elites were regularly hosted on talk shows and TV programmes, their street presence was close to nil.

Mubarak’s regime subtly encouraged the emergence of another public sphere —one that endorsed a rigid and rather superficial Islamist discourse. Only minimal diversity was allowed in this sphere, which provided an Islamist one-size-fits-all blueprint for reform, making minimal —if any —distinction between the political, civic and personal domains. It rejected the integration of civil components into its rhetoric, and constantly failed to provide an inclusive, intellectually sound manifesto or roadmap for reform that would not fully alienate those who oppose it.

This public sphere was largely dominated by Wahhabi thought. It dominated in mosques (especially those not run by Al-Azhar scholars) and domestic communities. Recently, the mushrooming of satellite religious TV channels (including Al-Nas and Al-Rahma) has contributed to detaching this latter domain from the former.

Nonetheless, this segregation was not complete, for a handful of individuals managed to keep some connections by having a foot in each of the two independent public spheres. Significantly, the crème-de-la-crème of Al-Azhar scholars (well immersed in both religious and social sciences) were able to construct a reconciliatory discourse that was relevant to both spheres; one which emphasises the role of religion in both personal and civic domains, and promotes a culture of tolerance and inclusion based on intersections between different layers of affiliation that create identity.

In short, they presented rather sophisticated and broad guidelines for the incorporation of religion in the public sphere whilst maintaining the latter’s inclusive civil nature. Nonetheless, the century-long institutional and academic disempowerment of Al-Azhar meant that only a few scholars were qualified for the job; particularly people like Grand Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, and Mufti Ali Gomaa.

Attempts to reconcile public spheres in the political domain only resembled those in the socio-religious one. The independent (rather isolationist and exclusive) religious public sphere emerged in the 1960s due to Al-Azhar’s disempowerment coupled with the rise of Qutbism and Wahhabism; both capitalising on distinguishing themselves from society to assert their identity. Towards the second half of the 1970s, a mixture of both schools departed from peaceful proselytising and embraced violent attacks. 

Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, a multitude of factors transformed the religious public sphere from being politically violent to being apolitical. During these years, the Muslim Brotherhood was used as a reconciliatory force due to its willingness to participate gradually and peacefully in civic politics while still preaching in mosques and engaging in developmental and philanthropic activities.

The terrorist threat was marginalised in the second half of the 1990s, with most radical groups renouncing violence and their members being arrested or fleeing the country. Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood was no longer viewed as a necessary buffer between civil actors and terrorists. Sceptical towards the group’s overwhelming popularity and its possible impact on the polity, the regime fiercely pushed the Muslim Brotherhood out of the shared domain and into the religious public sphere.

This is not to suggest that both political public spheres were totally autonomous. In fact, reconciliatory efforts applied in the social domain were only mimicked in the political one. The regime allowed for the existence of a weak reconciliatory body; a role that was assumed by the (then) extralegal Wasat Party, reformist individuals from within the Muslim Brotherhood and a handful of independent intellectuals on both religious and civil sides. 

In both socio-religious and political domains, strengths and scope of reconciliatory forces were carefully calculated. The regime realised the necessity of keeping these channels open so as not to risk acute and incurable social division. It also realised that such channels should be boxed in, for its transformation into a mainstream movement would inevitably undermine the classic “divide and rule” strategy employed by the regime to retain power and control.

Ousting Mubarak’s regime means the emergence of an all-inclusive polity that reflects societal diversities. That in turn requires the emergence of an inclusive public sphere —one that transforms reconciliatory efforts into a mainstream movement. It is primarily the role of Egypt’s civil society to focus on building broad societal consensus on foundational aspects of the country’s polity and society.

Mature political movements and politicians —both Islamist and secular —should realise that despite their disagreements, Egyptians are destined to share a homeland, and this realisation should crystallise in their rhetoric and alliances in the months to come.

Movements stemming from either domain that will choose an alliance with or a rhetoric that empowers those on the margins at the cost of the mainstream will be betraying one of the basic objectives of this revolution (building an all inclusive Egypt), and will jeopardise long-term national stability for the sake of short-term electoral success.

The writeris a freelance columnist and researcher focusing on Islamic movements and democratization.


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13-04-2011 05:49pm
Egypt's two public spheres
What would make anybody to believe that the military supreme council would operate any differently at this crucial juncture in Egyptian history. The pressure should persist and the stamina should sustain. The revolution said it loud and clear; "Game Over". The young Egyptians should give no room for the MSC to breath, beacause if they do, slowly things will return to those wasted days in Egyptians' history. I have confidence in the "Young Egyptians" and in the Egyptians to see this through. It will be long and ugly at times, hang in there.
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