Democracy or Secularism in Egypt? Pick One

For anyone who’s been vacationing away from the internet and news media, the Egyptian Army, after issuing President Morsi with a 48-hour ultimatum on Monday to reach accommodation with protestors, has seized control of the country. The army has temporarily suspended the constitution and promised new elections will be held soon. The administration of the country is nominally in the hands of the chief justice of the Supreme Court

For those of us who have had the opportunity to get some insight into the view from Egypt since the first set of protests overthrew Mubarak, this event comes as no surprise. Instead, it is the painfully ironic culmination of a circle of futility, one that will most likely continue in future iterations of Egyptian democracy. The educated urban youth who made and still make up the core of the Tahrir Square protests are Egypt’s hope for the future, and in protesting the Mubarak regime, they were protesting against dictatorship, corruption and economic dilapidation.

Unfortunately, democracy is a system of majority rule, and they do not make up the majority. Both the army and the former regime knew very well that true democracy would mean rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, the death of Nasser’s secular state and ultimately, Sharia law. The reason is that the rural poor depend on the Brotherhood for daily bread and social services. For whom else would they vote? Only the educated, modern urban classes wanted democracy badly enough to fight for it- but only Islamism has cultivated enough support to form governments.

Oppressive laws and high-handed tactics have been the order of the day since Morsi came to power, with the rights of women and minorities suffering the consequences. When the minorities leave, it is time to get out, and Egypt’s Coptic Christians have been emigrating in large numbers since 2011.

And now the educated, as well as the economically desperate, are on the streets again, this time cheering the army they previously protested. The army sees it as a duty to maintain national balance. Despite Islamists in the ranks, it has just proven that it is the most powerful force for secularism left in Egypt.

The promise of new elections represents a very uncertain bet on the army’s part that economic collapse has brought enough frustration with the Brotherhood to tip the balance away from Islamism. This wager is unlikely to bear fruit unless the army stacks the deck- for example by keeping Morsi (who is under house arrest) and the 300 or so Brotherhood members for whom they have issued arrest warrants firmly in hand until after the election. Otherwise, the army will again face the conundrum of 2011- unable to make civil democracy work, and with authoritarianism in tatters, there seems no viable third option for Egypt.

The reactions of Western leaders, including President Obama, calling for swift return to democratic government and denouncing military intervention stand in stark contrast to those of America’s allies in the region. If ever there were a time to reconcile idealism with the reality on the ground, this is it.

Meanwhile, an even more troubling sign of where Egypt has gone in the last few years- women are being sexually assaulted in large numbers around protest sites. Both the volunteers who have banded together to stop this and international aid organisations characterise this as punishment for women’s participation in public life. Despicable statements from the Shura Council lend credence to this view, blaming the women for being involved “in such circumstances” and refusing to investigate.

There are few things more contemptible than men who use the act and culture of rape to silence women or prevent them from participating in the public life of their country. Our prayers and thoughts are with you, ladies. Don’t ever let them silence you.