Does Secularism Have a Role in Egyptian Struggle?

With Egypt’s presidential election a few weeks away, former Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi seems all but unstoppable. In an interview with Egyptian television this week, the career military chief sounded confident in the elimination of what is effectively the only opposing electoral force, the Muslim Brotherhood.

As he accused the Brotherhood of “arrogance in religion” for holding “that we are not true Muslims,” el-Sisi could have been mistaken for an enemy of religious politics. But the military regime he heads should not be confused with a secular regime. This point emerges clearly from the discussion of the future of Egyptian democracy taking place over at The Immanent Frame. Some experts have gone further to argue that secularism is not even a helpful category when talking about the Egyptian struggle.

Let’s examine at a smaller scale John Voll’s arguments for his conclusion that “[w]hile relations between religion and state are central” to the present struggle in Egypt, “the clash is not basically about secularism.”

Voll attends to the composition and demands of the original Tahrir movement, the Tamarod (“Rebellion”) movement to oust Morsi, and the ongoing resistance to military rule.

While there are religious dimensions in the protest repertoires of the three rounds of opposition—against authoritarian rule, against possible theocracy, and now against direct military rule—none of them is clearly definable as a clash between secular and religious forces in the public political arena. The common elements in these three movements of populist protest are opposition to an intrusive state, whether religious or secular, and demands for greater freedom in lifestyle and improved economic opportunities.

Voll’s method appears to be as follows: to discern what the opposition is really about, identify the “common elements” in all three phases of popular protest. But why should we assume that the important issues are those and only those common to all three protest movements? By this method, we could just as well conclude that the Egyptian conflict isn’t really about economic opportunity because the Tamarod movement was concerned with the Brotherhood, not with economic opportunity as such.

An alternative, less essentialist, method would assume that if an issue is important to one or more of these movements, then it could be considered an important element of the conflict.

Voll also points to the state’s tightening hold on mosques and sermons, concluding that the supporters of the Brotherhood and the new military regime “are fighting out an important battle between religion-controlled state and state-controlled religion.” The argument here is that the main conflict is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military regime, and since neither the Brotherhood nor the regime (or their respective supporters) stand for secularism as such, then the main conflict is not over secularism.

It is true that clashes between the Brotherhood and the regime have caused the most casualties, but this should not overshadow the forces critical of both Islamist and military authoritarianism. These forces include the April 6 Movement—recently banned by the Cairo Court of Urgent Concern—and the major human rights organizations such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Civil society groups have been consistent in opposing the Brotherhood’s theocratic policies while at the same time asserting its members’ rights as citizens in the face of the onslaughts of the security forces. From a human rights perspective, Islamists are entitled to full participation in democratic politics on grounds of freedom of association, and the state has no right to intervene in religious affairs. Likewise, Egyptians of all faiths and none are entitled to freedom of religion and conscience and equal treatment under the law.

What title for this position would be more apt than secularism?

RD contributing editor Austin Dacey will be writing a series of posts in the coming months as part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches made possible by the generosity of the Luce Foundation. Click here to read posts on Egypt and secularism.