Left at the Crossroads: Democracy and sectarian strife in Egypt

© PhotoMarc Saint-Upéry
Marc Saint-Upéry - Sputnik International
Is the Egyptian revolution going downhill? While a crime wave is engulfing the country, the rising specter of sectarian strife has many Egyptians wondering if the mounting disorder is synonym with democracy, and if it was all really worth it.

Is the Egyptian revolution going downhill? While a crime wave is engulfing the country, the rising specter of sectarian strife has many Egyptians wondering if the mounting disorder is synonym with democracy, and if it was all really worth it.

Some see political conspiracy in the way a traumatized police force often pulls back from its duties, even vanishing during a soccer riot in Cairo that would have been quite easy to control. Inviting chaos would certainly be a good way to prepare the field for an authoritarian backlash.

Earlier this month, the grave incidents in Imbaba, a tough working class neighborhood in Northern Cairo, began when a group of Islamic fundamentalists –apparently from outside the area– marched on a Coptic church in response to a rumor that a female convert to Islam had been kidnapped and held there. A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians ensued, leaving at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames.

Various independent eyewitnesses suggest that thugs and agents connected to the disgraced secret police and the former ruling party may also have helped stir up trouble. Let’s not forget that the bombing of another Coptic Church in Alexandria last December was proven to have been planned by the Mubarak state security apparatus.

While the Copts keep protesting and asking for government protection, the powerful Muslim Brothers are at pains to distance themselves from anti-Christian extremists. The Brotherhood just submitted an application for official recognition of its newly-formed Freedom and Justice political party, which will run in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Interviewed in London, where he was participating in a symposium organized by an association of Egyptian Muslims, the president of the new party, Mohamed Morsy, stated that the Muslim Brothers do not coincide ideologically with the Salafists, as the most extreme Saudi-style puritans call themselves. Speaking of a Salafist leaflet that used the word “infidels”, Morsy denounced this kind of divisive language.

The Freedom and Justice party claims to be secular and formally independent from the Muslim Brotherhood. Emphasizing its compatibility with religious minorities, women’s rights and human rights, it has appointed a Coptic Christian as vice president and invited Christians and women to join its ranks. “People are free, even to believe in God or not. The will of the people is the source of power. We will not impose what we believe on people,” says Morsy.

Are the Muslim Brothers sincere? Maybe that’s not a question that should ever be asked in politics. As political philosopher Jon Elster justly observed, in a society where pluralism is seen as inevitable and legitimate and is adequately enshrined in the laws and the electoral process, public deliberation actually thrives on what he calls “the civilizing effect of hypocrisy”.

When debate takes place in front of an inquisitive audience, participants will prefer to couch their arguments in terms of appeals to the general interest rather than their own particular agenda. Never mind the ulterior strategic motives, explains Elster, the pretention to fairness and public-mindedness will eventually rub off on the self-interested agents. The repeated invocation of seemingly impartial arguments will become a habit not only of the mind, but also of the heart.
Of course, actual social contexts are quite different from the immaculate settings of idealized deliberating forums. There might be such a democratic learning process as the one described by Elster, but it’s certainly messier and riskier in real life. There are more sources of possible conflicts in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in academic social theory.

Nevertheless, there’s something to the idea of constructive hypocrisy. In a rather analogous spirit, Swiss Islamologist Patrick Haenni describes as utterly counterproductive the conditional logic that many claims should be imposed to all brands of political Islam, and especially to the Muslim Brothers: “First convince us that you are democrats, then we will open the door.” It’s the other way around, says Haenni. It’s by participating in a political system with a minimal grade of opening that those movements will generate more moderate tendencies.

Whether they are religious extremists or old regime thugs, the agitators that burned the churches in Cairo may not be versed in the subtleties of democratic theory, but they intuitively understand that this kind of demonstrative effect is undermining the clout of their sectarian or authoritarian agendas. That’s why they’re determined to poison the wells of good will and tolerance from which the peaceful revolutionaries in Tahrir Square draw their strength.

In these difficult circumstances, this is I what I would suggest to the courageous Egyptian democrats. Don’t panic, don’t despair. Keep your eyes on the prize, but be absolutely flexible in your tactics and your rhetoric. And don’t resent the hypocrites. Just try to co-opt them.

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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