The pragmatic spirit of Egypt's civil forces

Samer Soliman , Friday 18 May 2012

If the Islamic current - a conservative force - is changing, it should come as little surprise that Egyptian civil forces, too, stand on the brink of transformation

Civil forces are transforming, developing and changing. If the Islamic current itself – a conservative force – is changing, then it is not unnatural that civil forces, too, are transforming and, therefore, today are divided about the best presidential candidate between Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Khaled Ali – or even those who support Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futouh in the belief that his victory would serve civil forces in the long run.

The basic factor shaping the metamorphosis of civil trends is the nebulous political arena after last year's January revolution, which imposes political challenges – that did not exist during Mubarak’s stable regime – on all ideologies. The emergence of the political wings for civil trends has forced several tangible situations on these groups that were unimaginable in the past. Pragmatism has become the main characteristic of change in the civil camp over the past year.

Who are the 'civil forces'? It is a trend that includes people of all faiths and various political ideologies – liberal, leftist, nationalist or undefined – as well as diverging social classes. All these forces view people first and foremost as human beings and refuse to divide them based on religion. They also reject the domination of clerics over politics and over the fate of the people. Hence, civil power is as old as the Egyptian state itself, although we do not know much about its long history.

Can you believe, for example, that Amun’s priests in 1069 BC rose to power to rule the country, without resistance from individuals or currents? Those who resisted the ascent of Amun’s priests to power were the ancestors of Egypt’s civil forces. Their descendants are the ones who resisted the domination of the Church over public life when Christians were a majority (the martyr Hypatia, for example). They also resisted the fundamentalism of Al-Ghazali and supported the rational Ibn Rushd when the majority religion in Egypt became Islam.

Civil forces have a long history in this country and did not come to Egypt from outside with European colonialism, although civil forces have been infatuated with Europe since the 19th century for various reasons – including the fact that Europe was the main forum in which secularism advanced and succeeded in breaking the domination of religious institutions.

Egypt's January 2011 revolution is a new birth point for civil forces and a great moment of glory for them, not only because of the decisive role these forces played in triggering the revolution and making it successful, but also because their role far exceeded their numbers. It also stems from the glory of courage, spirit of sacrifice and altruism that prompted this trend to participate in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, despite the full knowledge that the alternative – ever ready to take power – is its archenemy, political Islam.

Just as the revolution would not have succeeded without the participation of the Islamists, it would not have occurred or succeeded without the participation of civil forces. The moment of revolution was the moment when the civil current overcame its fear of the Islamists and decided to eject those among them who believed that they could not survive except through an alliance with the regime.

When Mubarak fell and Egypt held quasi-free elections, the conflict between fundamentalism and civil thought moved from the intellectual/political sphere to the political/party sphere; civil forces were required to establish new political parties and contest parliamentary elections.

An example of the pragmatic spirit is when civil parties agreed that Article 2 of the constitution should remain intact – referring to the principles of Islamic Sharia as the 'main source of legislation.' This new position was the result of civil forces accepting the reality that the balance of power would not accommodate the modification of this article in the near future.

This trend also realised that the constitutions of some democratic states – Greece, for example – contain certain articles that refer to the religion of the majority without impeding progress in human rights and safeguarding public and individual freedoms.

Continuous institutionalisation of civil forces and the rise of political arms have forced this trend to moderate its positions and its puritanical thinking, which caused it to take impractical positions in the past that aimed to completely separate state and religion. Since an absolute divorce of the two does not exist in even the most secular states, what is possible in Egypt today is to regulate the relationship between state and religion while blocking flagrant intervention by religious leaders in the political sphere.

This pragmatic civil position does not at all mean they have abandoned secularism. But in order for Egyptian secularism to advance and gain ground it must respect the state of Egyptian society, which cannot accommodate a high degree of secularism in one fell swoop. It also requires respect for the will of the majority, which wants to maintain the relationship between state and religion.

This pragmatic political position of civil forces should not at all invalidate criticism of Article 2 of the constitution in the intellectual realm, and by free thinkers who are not restricted by the devices of the political sphere. Neither is this pragmatic position a call for complacency in the face of flagrant use of religion to serve political interests. On the contrary, a pragmatic spirit and the abandonment of narrow-mindedness expands the horizons of civil forces to connect with the people and make new gains.

This same pragmatism is what makes civil forces today realise that their progress depends on their success in transforming some political debates from disputing religious issues and how women dress to discussing taxes, income distribution and clean streets.

It will be the demise of political civil forces if their agenda is confined to defending a civil state and religious tolerance, because the daily requirements of Egyptians are not confined to intellectual and innovative freedom, but also include the loaf of bread. Expanding the agenda of civil forces to include more than intellectual and innovative freedom is one thing, while claiming that the civil/fundamentalist split is bogus and fabricated is another.

It is true there are parties who are fuelling the civil/fundamentalist divide to shore up their powers; it is also true that there are divisions in the political arena based on right/left, revolutionary/conservative, etc; it is absolutely true that it is necessary to redress the imbalance in politics by revising the right/left and revolutionary/conservative divide.

This is all true but it is not true, nor logical, to proclaim that the civil/fundamentalist split can be overcome by denying its existence and portraying it as merely a conspiracy by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or “the livelihood” of some parties and groups who benefit from its existence. In reality, there are genuine disputes among Egyptians about lifestyles, the role of religion in public life, the participation of women, etc. These disputes should be hashed out in the political arena in order to reach a compromise.

The pragmatism sweeping the ranks of civil forces, accompanied by a relative retreat by the fundamentalist trend over the past few months, could open new horizons for civil trends if they use the opportunity well, and are able to evolve their political performance. The growth and success of this trend is the safety valve for democratic transformation in Egypt, since democracy is based on the balance of power.

One cannot imagine an Egyptian democracy without a balancing power to political Islam. The moderation of the Islamist current itself and its adaptability to the requisites of democracy depend on the ability of civil forces to offset the Islamic trend and compete against it in the political realm.

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