Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Where Next for Egypt’s Secularists?

by Ed Husain
January 24, 2012

During the opening session of Egypt's parliament, liberal Egyptian parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy and the Muslim Brotherhood's Essam el-Arian count ballots after voting for the new speaker (Khaled Elfiq/Courtesy Reuters). During the opening session of Egypt's parliament, liberal Egyptian parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy and the Muslim Brotherhood's Essam el-Arian count ballots after voting for the new speaker (Khaled Elfiq/Courtesy Reuters).


Yesterday, Egypt’s Islamist-dominated parliament held its opening session. Tomorrow, the first anniversary of Mubarak’s fall will be marked. Egypt’s secularists will ponder how they lost the revolution they helped trigger, and what needs to happen next in order to challenge the rise of Islamism in Egypt.

Secular-minded Egyptians must not be too harsh on themselves—all is not lost. It is because of their success that the Muslim Brotherhood has gone from assassinating Egypt’s prime minister in 1948 and creating jihadi training camps in the 1940s, to now embracing parliamentary democracy. The Brotherhood’s increased pluralism is, in large measure, a testament to the influence of Egyptian liberal secularism over the last six decades.

That said, Egypt’s secularists cannot call themselves “secularists”—the connotations of atheism are too strong, and therefore losing the battle of strategic communication with the masses too risky. Little surprise, then, that most non-Islamists refer to themselves as liberals. But even that label is increasingly futile, and devoid of a clarion call.  Nevertheless, there is a tendency among non-Islamist Egyptian Muslim liberals to be seen as mere critics, defined by their opposition to Islamists rather than on the merit of their arguments. While this is comfortable and reassuring to many, it is not a strategy for winning popular trust and eventually gaining power.

Egypt’s liberals have a long way to go before unifying and presenting coherent messages of economic development and political freedom that can out-do the Muslim Brotherhood. At this crucial juncture, rather than commit to exclusively opposing Islamists and becoming more critical of the United States for supporting a democratically elected parliament, Egypt’s liberals should join political parties and undertake the political hard grind necessary to win hearts and minds. Activism on Facebook and Twitter alone does not win elections: networks, narratives, resources, and leadership are crucial.

Unless Egypt’s assorted non-Islamists can offer a credible alternative, we must brace ourselves for forms of Islamist rule for several terms. Blaming the West for supporting Islamists absolves liberals of their own offer of a credible alternative.


  • Posted by Freydoon Khoie

    I totally agree with Mr Ed Husain’s opinion. The radical Islamists in the Arab world and even in Iran, have successfully undermined the credibility of Secularist factions and labled them as infidels. The only way to deal with is that the secularist factions should form Islamic & Democratic Political parties and challenge the islamists. In Iran, we are forming Muslim Democratic Union (MDU) and yet, our charter or platform mandates separation of religion from politics without using the world secularist. We don’t need to insist on our names and titles to be Liberals, Seculars etc, in countries like Iran and Egypt, not to mention lesser developed ones like Libya, or Yemen who do not have democratic political history to distinguish the differences between these various definitions. Now that Egyptians have embraced parliamentary system, the liberals and seclurists should quickly build political parties, start educating and organizing the secular forces and in fact teach them not to shout or insist on the words “secular or liberal” but focus on the substance of these words by teaching the people that for example a parliamentary system legistlation cannot be based on Sharia law which is indeed predetermined law. To teach the young for example that keeping religion separate from the government does not mean abandoning the religion in favor of the government but in fact protecting the religion and not only Islam, but Judaism, Christianity and all other denominations and religions without having these differences of religion interfare in the formation of for example traffic laws, or business laws, or injury laws. The only way that the secularists and liberals can win in the new Islamists enviroment is building political parties that their names include the words Islam or Muslim, so that the faithful masses are not ailianted and then through organization and education leading the masses towards common sense, and civil laws.

  • Posted by Isabelle

    Unfortunately, the Islamist have a major head start over the disorganized ‘secular’ groups. They will act exceedingly quick to ruin the ‘secular’ parties chances. They will use any and all means necessary to do so, even if it means using rubbish arguments and irrational lies. I pity the ‘seculars’ that they don’t make up the majority and didn’t see this coming. What did you expect from an uneducated, unruly mass that are marred in irrational thinking? It was foolhardy to go to the streets and demand change. To bad the secularist couldn’t have worked covertly under the scenes to ouster the President and get in power.

    I hope that the secularist can align and reach out to the masses to bring up the mentality. It will be hard because the Islamist will swiftly use the playbook of Iran.

    If for some reason the secularist of Egypt think that the average American citizen was backing the Islamist, then have mercy for their lack of insight. I have yet to meet one American who wasn’t heartbroken that the Islamist were elected. By the dozens we are disappointed, even shocked. I think we were naive enough to think that Egypt had a healthy enough middle class and general penchant for moderation that the Twitterati would cruise to power. No dice. Actually there is great disgust with our President over the Egypt issue. He let a great ally slip away. Every single American dreams of visiting Egypt since they were small children. It is like a Mecca for us. Our own pilgrimage. I know. I’ve done it and people beg of me to speak about it like it was some sort of hajj to visit an admired past.

    I won’t be surprised if this is one of the nails in Obama’s coffin. As if Iraq wasn’t embarrassing enough. Now Obama has a situation where he looks like the fool Carter failed in Iran.

    Please don’t let Egypt become Iran. I beg the people seculars of Egypt to unite the people. I love the movies, the music, the fashion, the poetry of Egypt. Please don’t let the Islamist destroy it. They will be hell bent to do so. Thanks, Isabelle

  • Posted by Feline Monty

    While the rise of Islamist political parties in the Arab world is upsetting for those who value state secularism and social liberalism, surely we can see parallels with conservative parties in the western world too ?

    Political parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are essentially socially conservative in character, and use the Islamic religion as justification for those values. Similarly, throughout history – and to some extent still today – the British Conservative Party and the American Republican Party have used Christianity in order to support their opposition to secularism and social liberalism. While there are of course cultural differences, it might be pertinent to make note of the similarities between these two situations.

    If Arab secularists and progressives wish to undermine the political strength of Islamists in their own nations, then maybe they should think about the ways that secularists and progressives in the western world have undermined the strength of Christian conservatives over the past century. I wish them luck.