Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Everything has been figured out, except how to live. One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished. The line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life. There is only one day left, always starting over. It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk. We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are, that is the fact. When you live alone you no longer know what it is to tell a story: the plausible disappears at the same time as the friends. You let events flow by too.Suddenly you see people appear who speak and then go away; you plunge into stories of which you can't make head or tail. You'd make a terrible witness. It is true that people who live in society have learned how to see themselves in mirrors as they appear to their friends. Luckily, I only have a few...

Dr Shaw is a lecturer in Further Education at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. She also offers philosophy courses at the School of Continuing Education, Lifelong learning, at the University of Liverpool. In 2015, she has completed her Doctorate in philosophy with a focus on existentialism, the equilibrium doctrine and narrative. She has worked as a teacher of English and Comparative literature and Philosophy at The American University in Cairo, Egypt where she also obtained her BA (Hons). Dr Shaw has an MA in Philosophy and Literature from the University of East Anglia where she also taught on a number of humanities subjects. Whilst working in North Wales in Further education, she gained a PGCE aimed at teaching in FE and HE sectors. Dr Shaw moved to Liverpool in 2010 where she now resides.

Interests: Existentialism, Narrative, Comparative Literature, Feminist Thought, Public Speaking, Arab Existentialism, Philosophy of Education, Art, Music, Film and Theatre, Greek Mythology, Existential counsellor and psychotherapist.


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Muftah » Is Egypt Moving Toward Secularism?

Muftah » Is Egypt Moving Toward Secularism? Is Egypt Moving Toward Secularism? Ahmed Ezz Eldin* Since the Arab Spring hit Egypt, the intensity and pace of political changes has been unprecedented in the country’s modern history. Different political groups have competed and rotated seats between the government and opposition in a very polarized and alarmingly violent atmosphere. Underlying this political rivalry, an equally controversial debate about the identity of the post-Mubarak Egyptian state has continued since the downfall of the old regime. Religion has played a critical role in these discussions. On the spectrum between an Islamic caliphate and a secular civil state, various political groups have used religion to inform arguments supporting their desired form of government. Religiously centered identity issues were front and center during the writing of the Egyptian constitution in 2012. During the drafting process, Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were inflexible on issues of Islamic identity. Liberal and secularist representatives responded by withdrawing from the 100 person committee responsible for writing the constitution. The move did not deter Islamists parties from attempting to manipulate Egyptian identity to fit a more Islamic mold. Without their secular/liberal counterparts, Islamist representatives finished drafting the constitution, which was then put to a popular referendum in December 2012. Islamist parties presented the vote on the constitution as a choice for or against “Islam.” The constitution was ultimately approved by a vote of around 63%. With the ouster of Egypt’s Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, and ongoing war on Islamist groups in Sinai, the liberal and secular opposition have come to power. These groups are current in charge of amending the controversial 2012 constitution. The question now is how far can Egypt’s new ruling elite take the country toward the secular end of the spectrum? The Exclusion of the Islamists The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood was a direct result of cooperation between revolutionary movements and the deep state, the shadowy power structure that controls the Egyptian government from behind the scenes. Both groups saw the rise of political Islam and exclusionist policies of the Brotherhood as a threat to the state and its future. After coming to power on July 3, 2013, this coalition divided over the best approach to dealing with Islamist movements. One group promoted the idea of a national dialogue and was more open to the inclusion of all Islamist groups in the new government. Members of this group were concerned about the social repercussions of excluding Islamists and feared that marginalization would split the country and lead to violence. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace prize winner and vice president for foreign affairs in the interim government that replaced Morsi, was the main supporter of this approach, which was also attractive to some of the country’s revolutionary groups. The other group of coalition members viewed Islamism as a threat to national security, citing suspicious relations between Islamist parties and militant groups in the Sinai. In addition to security concerns, this group, which brought together members of the deep state and youth movements, was frustrated by the Brotherhood’s exclusionist policies. In reaction, it excluded Islamist groups from the political arena – and from the social spheres where possible. Elements of the deep state, including the army and the police forces, gave this group physical might while the youth movements provided it with revolutionary legitimacy. With rising violence in the Sinai, the inflexible demands of Brotherhood protestors, who have continued to push for Morsi’s return, and failed calls for national dialogue, this second group has dominated the Egyptian scene. Since Morsi’s ouster, members of this group have engaged in a systematic attack against the Muslim Brotherhood– its leaders have been by arrested, its protests and sit-ins have been violently dispersed, the organization’s media outlets have been shut down, its symbols and slogans have been banned, and its supporters have been portrayed as terrorists by different private and public media channels. Although different Islamist groups have different agendas, they have been presented as a homogenous entity with no clear distinctions. Despite these attacks on Islamists and the downfall of the Brotherhood, there are a few groups that still represent the interests of political Islam. The El Nour party, Egypt’s main Salafist party, managed to survive the Islamist purge by joining the opposition against the Brotherhood, condemning violence, and being less critical of the military intervention. El Nour has become the main representative of political Islam in the interim government, as well as in the 50 person committee that is currently charged with amending the constitution. The party is one of the last legal defenders of the role of Islamist groups in Egyptian politics and one of the main arbiters of the country’s future Islamic identity. There is, however, an imbalance of power between the secular “exclusionists” and Islamist representatives in Egypt’s current political arena. This is best reflected in the on-going debate on amending the constitution. The future of all Islamist groups is endangered by proposed article (54), which bans religious parties. The article has been welcomed by most members of the 50 committee, as well as by religious institutions, like El Azhar. Article (6) of the suspended 2012 constitution states that “no political party shall be formed that discriminates on the basis of gender, origin, or religion.” The new article, however, places an outright ban on religious parties, even if discrimination is absent. As a potential target of this prohibition, the El Nour party is opposed to the new article. It is, however, alone in its opposition, making it highly doubtful it will be able to thwart the majority’s will. The Question of Identity To understand the future of Egypt’s Islamic identity, we have to ask two important questions. First, can an Islamic Identity be imposed by Islamist groups in power? Second, can a secular identity and civil state be created by secular political groups, when they rule the country? As to the first question, the answer is no. An Islamic identity cannot be created by Islamist groups alone. The short-period of Islamist rule in Egypt supports this claim. Islamist dominance of the 100 person constitutional committee in 2012 gave these groups the opportunity to shape Egyptian identity according to an Islamic frame. After securing a majority in parliamentary and Shura council elections in late 2011/early 2012, the Islamists proposed several laws based on Sharia, including introducing Islamic financial tools to fund public projects. Despite the success of some of these Islamization efforts, the majority of proposals faced strong opposition. Interestingly, this opposition was not limited to civil secular groups and other opposition parties. In fact, it included Islamic religious institutions, most notably El Azhar. When the Brotherhood government tried to pass legislation allowing for the issuance of Islamic financial certificates “sukuk”, the proposal was rejected by El Azhar scholars. This response raised question marks about the Brotherhood’s religious credibility. This and other tensions between the Brotherhood and El Azhar point to a rivalry between “institutionalized” and “politicized” Islam. While Islamist groups have used religion to justify their policies and actions, El Azhar has considered itself the guardian of “moderate” Islam, leading an apolitical opposition and undermining the Brotherhood’s religious credibility. Further manifesting this rivalry, after the revolution began, Islamist groups took over several big mosques and excluded El Azhar preachers. Following the Brotherhood’s downfall, El Azhar issued a series of regulations to retake the mosques, exclude preachers from Islamist groups, and supervise Friday prayers. El Azhar’s triumph over Islamist organizations has extended to its support for abolishing article (219) in the 2012 constitution and introducing article (54) into the new constitution. Article (219) of the suspended constitution stated that “The principles of Islamic Sharia includes general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community”. For these reasons, it is clear that Islamist organizations in power face many obstacles in imposing a particular “Islamic” identity on Egypt. As for the second question, the answer follows the same logic. Apart from the balance of power between political players, there are other forces that would prevent secular parties from single-handedly establishing a civil state. Powerful religious institutions, like El Azhar and the Coptic Church, would oppose any serious step toward pure secularization that would marginalize their role. The two institutions are founded on strong historical roots and popular respect that has endowed them with authority and given them the final word on matters related to religion. For example, some civil and secular groups have suggested amending article (3) of the constitution, which states, “The canon principles of the Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their religious leaders.” These groups have suggested replacing “Christians and Jews” with “non-Muslims” which would open the door for more religious pluralism. But, both El Azhar and the Coptic Church oppose the proposal. In addition, despite the political downfall of the Islamists, their supporters still have significant voting power that may hinder passage of any legislation to establish a secular state. The only way a purely secular state may be established in Egypt from the top down is if the military decides to support this proposal, as happened in Turkey. The situation in Egypt does not, however, support such a development. In many instances, the military has tried to bind itself to El Azhar in order to gain religious legitimacy and deny any claims of being pro-secularist. Even if secularists in Egypt had the upper hand politically, their power on the issue of identity would be significantly limited by the influence of religious institutions. Equilibrium on the Issue of Identity The political atmosphere in Egypt is so dynamic that a top down approach to identity issues is simply unsustainable. Neither Islamic nor secular identities can be permanently imposed by those in power. Rather, religious institutions, like El Azhar, control the point of equilibrium that determines how religion influences and shapes Egyptian identity. While this point is characterized by compromise, it ultimately leaves both hardened Islamists and secularists unsatisfied. Debates on articles (2) and (219) in the suspended constitution, which are the most relevant to the issue of Islamic identity, demonstrate this reality. Article (2) states that “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation.” The article existed in the constitution, before the revolution, but was criticized during the writing of the 2012 draft. Liberal and secular groups opposed the article because it allowed for religious discrimination and undermined the notion of a civil state. On the other hand, Islamist groups saw the article as an insufficient declaration of Islamic identity and an ambiguous reference to Islamic Sharia that hindered its implementation. In the 2012 constitutional committee, Islamists attempted to correct the deficiencies of article (2) by introducing article (219). Islamists regarded article (219) as complementary to article (2) since it provided a clear definition of Islamic identity as well as the role of religion in the state. Opponents criticized the provision, arguing that it gave Islamic scholars the authority to decide on legislation and international agreements. It was also challenged for limiting the concept of Sharia and closing the door to drawing from diverse opinions that might exceed the scope of the Sunni tradition. The current constitutional committee has proposed deleting article (219). The El Nour party announced it will fight to prevent what it sees as a move toward a secular state. Some secular groups have suggested deleting both articles (2) and (219) to open the door for a civil secular state without religious discrimination. A more balanced approach has been taken by El Azhar, which supports keeping article (2) but deleting article (219). This compromise position satisfies neither the hardline Islamist nor secularist groups. Conclusion Although the downfall of political Islam suggests the era of secular Egypt is ascendant, a closer look at the balance of power indicates a more complex story. It is true that those in power can influence the role religion has in Egyptian political life. It is also true that Egypt’s current rulers are inclined toward excluding religion from the political arena. At the same time, religious institutions, like El Azhar, are taking on a more important role in balancing Islam with the country’s current political realities. The question of identity will most likely be answered not from the top down, but rather through a give and take between power politics, religious institutions, and local players. Simply put, Egypt is not moving toward secularism, but rather toward “less religion” in politics. *Ahmed Ezz Eldin is a former researcher at El Walid Bin Talal American Studies Center, and the American University in Cairo. He is a youth activist who represented Egypt in several international events, and is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma International Honors Society. Currently, Ahmed works as a researcher at the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association Competitiveness (TUSIAD) forum in Istanbul.

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