Egypt’s strength hinges on pluralism and mutual respect

H.A. Hellyer

Posted Aug 28, 2013      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Egypt’s strength hinges on pluralism and mutual respect

by H.A. Hellyer

In a large crowd, 26-year-old August Landmesser was the only person not to give the Nazi salute on a June day. Instead, he stood defiantly crossing his arms and looking somewhat nauseated by the crowd’s conformism to an ideology he could not stomach. That was 1936, in Nazi Germany.

In 2013, Egyptians cannot possibly compare themselves to his situation, nor can any of them dream that the ideology that commanded support in Germany could be equivalent to anything that has taken root at any point in Egypt’s history. Yet many do wonder, what is the price for being the “solitary voice” in a crowd dominated by such certainty? Indeed, should there be a price at all?

Under the military rule of the now retired Field Marshal Tantawi, the “crowd” (including the Muslim Brotherhood) was generally in support of the powers that were. A minority was part of the “NO-SCAF’ (No to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) movement - probably no more than 15 per cent. Nevertheless, it was not a position that was widely perceived as deeply treasonous. When Mohammed Morsi became the president, the new authorities did not command the support of the huge majority of the country - Mr Morsi won by a razor-thin margin - but the discourse changed.

Mr Morsi was the “Islamic” choice, and opposition to him, at least for some of his supporters, was a type of treason. In the aftermath of clashes that took place due to Mr Morsi’s now infamous extralegal decree in December last year, funerals for his supporters were the place of a familiar chant: “Our dead are in heaven, yours are in hell.”

Today, that sort of absolutist discourse continues among many of Mr Morsi’s followers. Pro-Morsi supporters are calling for protests this Friday for an “Islamic Revolution”. And now a few consider that opposition to them is opposition to the religion itself, despite the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian population being Muslim. But the pro-Morsi camp is in a small minority now - perhaps not as small as the NO-SCAF movement, but probably not far off. The larger camp is in support of the military backed interim government; within that camp, there are more than a few dogmatic absolutists.

If the pro-Morsi camp has a strong contingent who “trade in religion”, or use religion to gain political support, the pro-government camp has a burly component that “trades in patriotism”. For those people in both camps, those who do not share their views are unacceptable.

The polarisation has gone beyond that for the hard-line ideologues in both of these camps.

The discourse now is not simply against the “opposing” side but identifies those even within one’s own side as treasonous for not being sufficiently supportive. As for those who openly reject both military rule and the reinstatement of Mr Morsi, they are the worst of the lot. Either they are confused and naive or they are actually more deceitful than their opponents, as the enemy is at least transparent about their enmity. Principled objection, rather than partisan certainty is an impossible luxury for such dogmatists.

Standing in that “maverick middle”, which criticises and expresses concerns about the two main factions in Egyptian society, is characterised by some as being the easy way out, as it absolves oneself of the need to take a position. The reality, however, is that especially under these current conditions in Egypt, it is not the easy position. It is actually incredibly difficult, as it attracts accusations from dogmatic ideologues from both camps of being traitorous and treasonous.

For anyone who hopes Egyptian democracy might eventually become stronger, it is deeply concerning to see the unease so many have with difference of opinion at present - and what sort of accusations they might have for those who do not conform.

Thus, when people who might sympathise with the Muslim Brotherhood express unease when the Brotherhood’s media say that the constitutional amendments “allow” for the insulting of the Prophet and religion, and the spreading of corruption (which they clearly do not), that discomfort will not be taken particularly well.

On the other hand, the pro-military camp is quick, it seems, to ignore or sweep under the carpet the serious issues that exist with the proposed amendments; they maintain that such objections are luxuries that cannot be permitted in such extraordinary, desperate times. Intriguingly, that was precisely the line that the Morsi supporters took when there were objecting to Mr Morsi’s extralegal decree in November 2012. The same denial occurs when talk of restructuring and overhaul of the ministry of interior takes place.

Egypt in 2013 is not Germany in 1936. Yet, supporters (whether in or out of the country) of a free, and progressive Egypt ought to remember: the strength of a country is based on the strength of its pluralism and respect for different, peaceful viewpoints.

No one should ever feel any need to have any affinity to any group, because it should never be about following the crowd wherever it goes, regardless of principle. Indeed, one can argue that it was precisely that sort of uncritical thinking that brought Egypt to the morning of January 25, 2011, and a Landmesser-like defiance that brought it to Tahrir Square.

What route Egypt takes now will reflect greatly on all parts of Egyptian society and the ability or failure to respect differences of opinion, rather than condemn such differences instinctively as equivalent to high treason.

Originally published on The]]The National[/url] where HA Hellyer has a regular column

Dr H A Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (London) and the Brookings Institution (Washington DC).  You can follow him on twitter @hahellyer