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.