Thu, Aug 11, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Deep polarization in Egyptian society threatens democracy

Unity against former president Hosni Mubarak was praised, but profound differences between Islamists and secularists could scupper the country’s future

By Omar Ashour

Aug. 3, 2011, will be remembered as an historic day in Egypt. Former president Hosni Mubarak was put on public trial, together with his two sons and his ex-interior minister, General Habib el-Adly. The repercussions for Egypt, indeed for the entire Arab world, would be profound.

This is not the first time that an Arab dictator has been put on trial. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali preceded Mubarak in the dock. Hussein was tried with the help of a US-led coalition; Ben Ali was tried and convicted in absentia, after fleeing to Saudi Arabia. However, in Egypt, “it was done exclusively by Egyptians for Egypt,” as a friend put it to me.

“That is why we are so proud of it,” he said.

However, the run-up to the trial was contentious. On July 29, many organizations staged a large protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to highlight the unity of Egypt’s revolutionaries — whose demands included a public trial of Mubarak. Instead, the protest exposed the dramatic polarization between Islamists and secularists since Mubarak’s ouster. Moreover, it revealed the potent capacity of Egypt’s Salafis to mobilize supporters, who were the overwhelming majority in Tahrir that day.


Other groups, including the leftist April 6 Youth Movement and the multi-ideological Coalition of the Revolution’s Youth, looked minute and insignificant. As a result, many secular activists ended their week-long sit-in and withdrew from Tahrir Square. Ironically, this was what the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) wanted, and it was achieved at no cost in violence or military tribunals. Chants of “islamiyya, islamiyya” (Islamic, Islamic) were enough.

With no representative institutions and the military in control of the country, street mobilization has become the main tool of Egyptian politics. Following the March 19 referendum, in which most Islamists campaigned for a package of constitutional amendments and got 77 percent support, secularists took to the streets, mobilizing behind their own demands.

Those demands were mostly uncontroversial for Egypt’s revolutionaries, including Islamists: the release of political prisoners; a halt to military tribunals for civilians; prosecution of the murderers of protesters, many of whom are senior police officers; a purge of corrupt Mubarak allies from the police force, and a public trial for Mubarak and his regime’s top henchmen.

Then came some controversial demands. Fearing that elections might bring an Islamist majority to Parliament and to the assembly that will write a new constitution, most secularists demanded supra-constitutional principles — akin to a bill of rights, with a few twists — or a constitution to be enforced by the SCAF before elections. They staged street demonstrations, mobilized media pressure, and lobbied the SCAF.

It worked. The SCAF announced that it is forming a body of constitutional experts to craft several versions of a potential constitution. Obviously, the SCAF has its own calculations, which probably have less to do with protecting a liberal Egypt than with protecting the military’s financial independence and shielding itself from accountability to civilian institutions.

The secularists’ gains were a wake-up call for the Islamists, and they responded en masse on July 29. However, Egypt’s old-line Muslim Brotherhood, with all of its factions, tendencies and offshoots, no longer appears to be the country’s dominant Islamist force, as Salafis sarted to challenge the Brotherhood’s traditional hegemony.

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