The political landscape over the past few weeks has largely been described as divided among an Islamist bloc, a military bloc and a third one that remains rather undefined.
The division was best manifested in the presidential runoff election, in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy beat former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq. Amid the polarization, many liberals came out vociferously against the Brotherhood, raising questions about whether they perceive the generals as their saviors from the Islamization of the state.
Since Morsy’s victory and inauguration, liberal forces are reassessing their position in the new order and deciding how they will proceed under a Muslim Brotherhood presidency. The Free Egyptians Party, one of the largest liberal groups, plans to hold a series of “national reconciliation” discussions with political, cultural and economic figures in order to overcome the rivalries hatched during the election season. Morsy is expected to nominate at least some liberal figures to his cabinet. But it may take more than cabinet appointments and national reconciliation talks to pave over the issues between Egypt’s largest Islamist group and the country’s liberals.
Members of the Free Egyptians, Democratic Front and Tagammu parties, as well as representatives from the Kefaya political movement, held a joint press conference on the eve of the announcement of the presidential election result. The conference was held just one day after President-elect Mohamed Morsy, who resigned from the Brotherhood after being elected president, pledged to work with all political groups if he was to become president.
Osama al-Ghazaly Harb, a former member of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party and the founder of the Democratic Front Party, discussed what he called the Brotherhood’s attempts to “monopolize” the revolution. Harb said the sit-in in Tahrir Square, which began after the runoff vote ended and comprised mostly Morsy supporters, reflects “a lack of trust and a desire to impose the result in advance.”
Free Egyptians Party leader Ahmed Saeed criticized groups that “attack [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] one day and make alliances with it the next, when they need it,” clearly referring to the Brotherhood.
Although deeply rooted in the history of Egypt’s contentious politics, the liberal-Islamist split took a new turn following the 18-day uprising that toppled the rule of Hosni Mubarak.
The first public spat was over the March 2011 referendum on the Constitutional Declaration put forward by the military council and the transitional road map which recommended holding parliamentary elections before writing the constitution. Islamists favored this arrangement because they felt confident they would dominate parliamentary elections and it promised them potential control over the writing of the constitution. Liberals opposed it.
Since then, liberals and secular groups have repeatedly accused Islamists of complicity with the military. Islamists responded in kind in November 2011 during the battle over a document drafted by former Vice Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy. This proposed a series of supra-constitutional principles that would have determined the civil nature of the state and preserved the ruling generals’ protected position.
But Bassel Adel, a member of the Free Egyptians Party, rejected accusations that liberals have come out in support of the military in their fight against a religious state.
“We’re fighting both religious and military fascism — we’re stuck between the lion’s jaws,” Adel said.
Adel added that the SCAF has a duty to protect the secular nature of the state, not in its capacity as the head of the military but as a body charged with administering the country’s affairs.
“We’re not throwing ourselves on the military, but rather affirming the secular nature of the state and sending the message that there still exists a force in Egypt that insists on this secularism at a time when some liberals appeared in a press conference with the Brotherhood,” Adel said.
He said the Brotherhood represented a threat to civil liberties, could drag the country into a religious war, and posed a risk to economic and civil rights.
“There is no such thing as reassurances from the Muslim Brothers, because for 84 years, they’ve been doing the opposite of what they say,” Adel said.
Former MP Mohamed Abou Hamed, founder of the Lives of the Egyptians Party, agreed. He has been at the front lines of the anti-Brotherhood invective, posting statements on his Twitter account such as “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood, the shoes of America.”
Abou Hamed, who describes himself as pro-revolution, attracted criticism both for these attacks and for his support of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq for the presidency. Many members of revolutionary circles regard Shafiq as a symbol of the Mubarak regime.
The former MP has also defended the controversial Justice Ministry decree passed shortly before the election that gave military personnel the power to arrest civilians.
Abou Hamed told Egypt Independent that the decision “is aimed at protecting the country, because religious forces threatened chaos if the election result wasn’t to their liking. In addition, there are a huge number of weapons in the country and so it was essential to have a law dealing with these threats.”
The Administrative Court halted the decree last Tuesday.
Like Adel, Abou Hamed said he believes Egyptian society faces the dual threat of military and religious oppression. Before the revolution, there was political repression but “no pressure on basic freedoms.”
“It was a choice between two dangers, and we chose what we regard as the lesser danger because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi state is the worst,” he said.
Writer and blogger Bassem Sabry suggested that liberals might indeed be seeking to weaken the Brotherhood’s public appeal, together with the military council ahead of the formation the assembly that will write the new constitution, “for a possibly more secular outcome.” The current Constituent Assembly is criticized for being dominated by Islamists.
“It shows how desperate they are and how irreconcilable things with the Brotherhood currently are. And this is in some ways a point of no return in that relationship. They put all their bets on the SCAF,” Sabry said. “Of course, being this aligned means there is a price to pay in the end.”
Abou Hamed, meanwhile, said religious groups have misled the public about the meaning of a ‘madaniya’ — a secular or civilian state.
“A ‘madaniya’ state means the opposite of military [or] religious one, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have selectively chosen to suggest that the danger is restricted to the existence of a military state so that everyone fights that,” Abou Hamed said. “The truth is, however, that a religious state is more dangerous because Brotherhood and Salafi thought is extremist.”
Morsy is expected to include liberal figures when he appoints a cabinet.
But for Mohamed Naeem, a columnist and a member of the Social Democratic Party’s political bureau, there is no difference between religious and military fascism.
“We are before a power that is either military-religious and in which the military is dominant, or religious-military and in which the Brotherhood is dominant,” he said.
He said that if the liberals’ excuse for seeking recourse to the military council is minority freedoms, they should look to the Maspero events and “see what happened when a minority tried to express its freedom, and the army crushed them with tanks.” Last October, a mostly Coptic march to the Maspero state TV building in Cairo was fiercely attacked, and 28 people died. Some of them had been run over by military vehicles.
“The army cannot protect the secular nature of the state, just the elite lifestyle that army members adopt. But the army would be unable to do anything in poor areas if Salafis controlled them,” Naeem added.
For him, liberal forces are fighting imaginary battles.
“These forces aren’t even in the race for power, and for this reason their actions are determined by fear. Their position is of someone who behaves like he is outside the race for power,” Naeem said.
He added that liberals will only be able to compete if they have a strong social message.
“They won’t achieve anything if they carry on with this fear of the Brotherhood,” he said.