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Secular forces must organise themselves before opposing Islamists

Those who want a secular and civil state should stop playing into the hands of Islamists by following and reacting to their every word and deed

Said Okasha , Thursday 21 Apr 2011
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Although the opinion of Salafis in Egypt concerning the application of Islamic Sharia law is nothing new, their intense presence on the political scene after the January 25 Revolution gave impetus to the fears of many over the fate of the civil and secular state in the near future, with parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, as well as the task of establishing a founding committee to write a new constitution for the country. 

 
What would happen if the currents of political Islam took over parliament? What if one of their candidates wins the presidency? 
 
The legitimacy of these questions comes from a lack of trust for either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis. After the Muslim Brothers announced they would not take part in the presidential elections, one of their prominent leaders, Abdel-Monem Abul-Fotouh, stated that he was considering running. 
 
In addition, there are no guarantees that the Muslim Brothers would not run for more than 30 per cent of legislative seats and local councils, as some of their leaders previously promised. Add to this that the Salafis, who were not known for wishing to become politically active, have some among them some who spoke of the possibility of founding a political party in their name.

Despite my belief in the legitimacy of the fears of secular trends, I think those trends acting in reaction to what the Muslim Brothers or the Salafis say or do is what gives Salafis and the Muslim Brothers the opportunity to gain credit on the street, not the opposite. We particularly note Copts among followers of the secular state, whose websites and satellite channels have become focused on the dangers awaiting Copts if political Islam comes to power. The provoking thing is that those calling for a secular state, who are afraid of political Islam, do not see several facts that might change their view and ease their worries.

The first fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not that powerful, whether on the level of the organisation's cohesion or its diffusion. The challenge of being in public (after they have become accustomed to working in secret for most of their history) will diminish their capability of gaining the public's sympathy. The public has previously shown an inclination towards them as a form of objecting to the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. With his stepping down, the Muslim Brothers will lose a part of the votes they had. The results of the student union elections at Cairo University clearly showed this fact: the Muslim Brothers' list only got 25 per cent of student union seats after they had won most of the votes in previous elections and while they were legally banned.

Second, it is highly doubtful that the Muslim Brothers would be able to push aside a number of candidates that are equally powerful and capable of attracting votes in the electoral districts where they would run. Direct contact between them and secular political powers in public debates and conferences has shown the weakness of the culture and political skills of most of the youth leadership of the movement. Other than the old leadership, and those of the middle aged generation, there are no prominent public figures that would attract votes to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Third, there are a lot of splits within the Brotherhood on theoretical and practical issues, which weakens it, especially in the face of the unity of trends supporting a secular state on a platform that focuses on social and economic issues, and that presents clear answers to the problems of unemployment and deteriorated healthcare and education, among other issues.

Fourth, the practices of the Salafi trend and its extremist opinions terrified Muslims who do not want a religious rule, which they see as more inclined towards oppression than civil regimes on a par with Mubarak's former regime. The destruction of churches and Islamic shrines was met with wide public denouncement, as most Muslims realise that this would only lead to uncontrolled violence that would affect everyone. It would also kill any opportunity to fix the economy, the situation of which has become concerning lately.

Fifth, beside the Egyptian preoccupation with resuming normal life, there is a desire for putting the corrupt to trial and retrieving stolen funds before getting into arguments over the nature of the state they want in the future.

Sixth, the parties concerned with Islamic propositions (the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis) are not in harmony. There are reciprocal doubts between them, even if they showed inclination for cooperation transitionally. Moreover, the Sufi movements that attract millions of Egyptians, especially in the countryside, can play a major role in weakening both of them, especially after increasing incidents of Salafis demolishing the shrines of the holy men in Sufism and the Brotherhood's not standing firmly against such practices that disturb Sufis and others from the poor areas in Egypt.

Seventh, the mechanisms of mobilisation in the upcoming elections will remain with no change, and will depend on familial connections and the ability to distribute monetary gifts for voters (vote buying), especially in the countryside and wide parts of the cities. In light of the potential rise in the number of voters in the elections to half of those who have the right to vote (as opposed to a percentage that didn't exceed 10 per cent in the past), the ability of the traditional and religious political powers to buy votes and ensuring the results remains weak, as it would be hard for these powers to satisfy the huge numbers who want to sell their votes. This will deprive the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional currents of means to reach power they used to count on in the past.

Eighth, the alliance of some political powers with a secular/civil orientation with Sufi movements is a real possibility and could give a harsh blow to the Brotherhood and the Salafis in their major strongholds (the countryside and Upper Egypt). Historically, the religious extremist institutions were not strong enough to break the power of the Sufis, because of the difficulty of convincing the public to depart from Islam as understood by extremist preachers, which is the same until today. Hence, the skill of civil currents in finding a bridge to meet the Sufi movements poses a significant limit to the power of the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis. This bridge is formed from the conviction of civil currents in the cultural rights of all, and also the Sufis' conviction that reaching God is an individual not a collective one endeavour, which fed the sense of tolerance towards the followers of other religions that always marked them.

These eight factors give hope for limiting the loud voice of the trends of political Islam and narrowing their chances for winning a huge number of seats in the parliament of the future, provided that civil powers cease getting into verbal battles with them or showing horror at their statements or actions, and that they focus only on convincing the public with their own platforms that focus on the economic-social dimension. 

If we have put the Copts on top of the powers that are calling for civil rule, and directed the debate towards them more than others, it's because Islamic powers are trying to portray themselves as engaged in a pitched battle to preserve Islam in confrontation with trends of Westernisation that they see — or try to convey to the public — as having a Christian background. 

In other words, the more the public feels the Copts' and the liberal and leftist powers' fear of the Islamic current, the easier it becomes for Islamists to attract the poor who are being mobilised on their side with the notion of preserving Islam. Thus, it is necessary that all civil powers stop following the activities of Islamists and completely ignore them, so that the imaginary enemy created by Islamists, and by the bad reaction of civil currents, falls apart.

 
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