Partisanship can still sink Egypt's national project
The “yes” camp in the Egyptian referendum for constitutional reform got an overwhelming 77 per cent. But despite that groundswell, two conflicting realities have emerged.
First, in the run-up to the referendum on constitutional amendments, and continuing thereafter, the spirit of the revolution remained alive and well in the Egyptian people. And secondly, the splits that inevitably appear in a diverse population are increasingly visible. They must be resisted if Egypt is to succeed.
The split everyone has been talking about has been religious. Not between Christian and Muslim particularly, but more between those who follow the conservative Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood trends (which are not necessarily the same thing), and those who do not.
More importantly, there are also genuine class divisions. Many wealthy people, mostly centred in Cairo and Alexandria, generally voted no to the amendments. But the overwhelming majority outside of those cities voted yes.
Divisions are to be expected in any democracy. But as Egypt moves towards presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as a new constitution, national unity is vital.
If divisions are aggravated, the responsibility lies with all sides in Egypt. The Brotherhood knows that large sections of the country views them with suspicion, particularly the Christian minority.
By confirming they would not nominate a Christian for the presidency, the Brotherhood hardly helped their image with the sceptics. Some of the Salafi contingent openly declared there was a religious obligation to vote yes on the referendum, a cheap scare tactic that should be rejected by Egyptians at large. As new elections draw nearer, the Brotherhood should be prepared to answer tough, honest questions from the liberals.
Meanwhile, the liberal minority, arguably the public face of the revolution, began to frame the Brotherhood as the “other” in the run-up to the referendum, and this intensified after the vote. Fear-mongering about the Brotherhood turning Egypt into a Sunni version of Iran hasn’t been helpful. Nor is rewriting history to exclude the significant role that members of the Brotherhood had in the revolution, if not its leadership.
There’s a feeling among some liberals that it is time to declare war on the Brotherhood.
This will doubtlessly have NDP members rubbing their hands with glee. They could not have imagined that their two former foes, one of whom has been fighting them for 60 years, would come into conflict with each other so soon.
The reality is that these liberals did not lose the vote because the Brotherhood was underhanded. Rather, they lost because they focused their energies on addressing audiences within their comfort zone, particularly Cairo.
The vast majority of Egyptians aren’t on Facebook and Twitter, and live outside the hubs of Cairo and Alexandria. That majority was unconvinced that the liberals had their interests at heart. The failure was less about the Brotherhood, and more about their strategy. They too need to be able to explain their position to the voters.
The January 25 revolution rejected repression of the past, but it also looked forward to a new Egypt that can pursue its own destiny. The greatest prize would be a constitution born of national unity. A new parliament is imminent, but the constitution should not be restricted to an internal discussion among political actors.
Everyone who supported the revolution should have their voices heard, whatever their religious or political allegiances. The labour unions should be there, as should the professional syndicates, forming a dialogue that will draft a constitution representing the disparate will of all of these different segments of society.
Parliament should then, in conjunction with representatives of the national dialogue, and in preparation for a new national referendum, try to dispense with clauses that could lead to deep national division. Liberals may have to sacrifice their general opposition to Article 2, which states Islam is the religion of the state. It is a fight not worth having, considering the overwhelming majority of Egyptians – according to independent polls – support it. Furthermore, it is generally agreed that this article has not been responsible for any legislation over the years.
In the end, we have to keep in mind that any constitution should permit further amendment once parliament is in session. It should have flexibility for change.
In the new Egypt, people have learnt that the status quo can always be challenged. All the sectarian fear-mongering ignores the reality that Egyptians just overthrew a tyrannical regime. Everyone should think twice before attempting to implement another one.
The “no” crowd in this referendum should also acknowledge that the Brotherhood are a varied lot too, and that they are losing potential allies if they treat the entire group as a monolith.
Above all else, these delicate times demand that Egyptians remain united. No one should be getting a blank cheque in the coming months. Open debates are crucial to the free exchange of ideas. This revolution was about a new political system, not new lines of partisanship.
If ever there was a time for national unity to be prioritised and short-sighted differences to be rejected, it surely is now.
HA Hellyer is a Europe Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a Fellow of the University of Warwick and director of the Visionary Consultants Group.
This article was published by The National on March 23, 2011.
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