Egyptians try to define religion’s place in politics

“Too bad you won’t go to heaven when you die,” said the bearded gentleman beside me, referring to my non-Muslim status, “you seem like a nice person.”

We had been chatting in a packed and broiling Tahrir Square last June, awaiting the results of the second round of Egypt’s post-revolution presidential polls, a tight runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammad Mursi and Ahmad Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister. When Mursi’s win was announced, Cairo was euphoric. However wary of political formulas covering everything from here to the hereafter, I shared most Egyptians’ opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood should have their chance. Given recent events, even they must agree that they blew it.

Granted, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party inherited an administrative nightmare, the product of decades of corruption and mismanagement. Their opponents took comfort in the odds stacked against them. Things might have been different had Mursi kept the promise to cut a fresh, inclusive path through the cronyism of the Mubarak era by assembling a pluralist government and constitutional drafting committee, in which revolutionary youth took part. The Brotherhood owed their ascendance to those who sparked and sustained the January 2011 Revolution, a debt they gallingly speechified but never bothered to repay.

Hailed as the country’s first civilian president, Mursi belongs to a group with hierarchies, codes and agendas as rigid as any army’s. The Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and elite leaders dictated policies while installing loyalists in pivotal positions, including that of prosecutor general. The recent appointment as Luxor governor of a member of the militant Gamaa al-Islamiyya, the group that slaughtered 58 tourists there in 1997, beggared belief. On television and from thousands of mosques, religious figures equated political opposition with apostasy. Media personalities criticizing sheikhs or Mursi’s policies were accused of insulting religion. A June draft law suppressing NGOs was another sign that Islamists were closing ranks.

Those worried about ballot box legitimacy should recall that the elections that placed the Muslim Brotherhood in power were hastily assembled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. During its transitional tenure, the military not only trampled civil rights but also mowed down civilian protesters and was anxious to pass the buck. For harried citizens, presidential elections offered both a reprieve from the army’s brutal bungling and the illusion of moving forward.

Dozens of political parties were formed overnight and some 1,000 Egyptians presented their candidacy, including an undertaker and a man claiming to be the lovechild of King Farouk. Controversy raged around aspiring candidates and 13 were selected with only weeks left to campaign. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s assurances that it would not field a candidate, having already won a parliamentary majority, it endorsed Khairat al-Shater, a wealthy leading member, who was later replaced by Mursi. The first round of elections left voters with the choice between an Islamist (Mursi) and a Mubarak stalwart (Shafiq), prompting many to boycott the runoff.

Only the well-funded Muslim Brotherhood was prepared, having built a nationwide network of obedient supporters through charitable works. I met people at the polls who didn’t know the Freedom and Justice Party candidate’s name, only that they should check the box beside the party’s ballot icon. According to one Egyptian journalist, if “the Brotherhood had nominated a rock, it would have gotten elected.” Yet Mursi won by a whisker, a 1.7 percent margin, with just 13.2 million votes more than his rival.

Last June 30, at least 14 million Egyptians demonstrated to demand Mursi’s resignation, believing that Egypt could not survive three more years of the Brotherhood’s efforts to change Egypt in its image. Backlash to the July 3 military “coup by popular demand” began two days later. At Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiyya Mosque, fervent advocates of Shariah law bemoaned the violation of their democratic rights.

Supreme Guide Mohammad Badie condemned the army, saying the Brotherhood would “defend the freedoms of Egyptians.” The Brotherhood called it the “Friday of Rejection” and the feeling was mutual. Confrontations in Cairo and elsewhere between Brotherhood supporters and opponents claimed at least 30 lives.

On Sunday night, Tahrir Square cheered the army, and the road map backed by Tamarod, the group that instigated recent events, including the appointment of reformist opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. On Monday morning, Brotherhood protests at the Republican Guard headquarters near Rabaa al-Adawiyya Mosque turned into a lethal confrontation with the armed forces. Hundreds were injured and around 50 civilians killed.

This is not just a battle for the legitimacy of Egypt’s elected president. It’s a struggle over religion’s place in politics, with the Islamists lagging dangerously behind the majority’s learning curve. Democracy is not a contest where whoever wins gets to lord it over everyone. It’s a process and Egypt is up to its neck in it.

Maria Golia ( ) is an American author living in Cairo. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 12, 2013, on page 7.




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