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Egypt’s great divide

A choice between nudist beaches or a chador on the sphinx?

by Daniel Williams

In this Nile River town in Upper Egypt, a pious and politically active Islamist group is handing out pamphlets that warn of what it claims are the dangers of a secular state.

“Gay marriage! Alcohol! Nude beaches!” the fliers fearfully predict.

The pamphlets represent an extreme end of post-Mubarak Egypt’s intense debate over the country’s political future. On one side stand some Islamists who contend that, as Egypt is a majority Muslim country, basic citizen rights and duties are enshrined in the tenets of Islam. Any other path, they assert, takes Egypt to perdition.

On the other side are Egyptians who assert that the key guarantor of all citizen rights is the “civil state," whose rules trump religious doctrines. Religious minorities — chiefly Coptic Christians — also favor a civil state, while agreeing with Muslims who want their own religious authorities to deal with personal status issues like marriage and divorce.

In response to months of campaigning by liberal politicians, on August 10, Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy endorsed a proposal to decrees upra-constitutional principles that would guide the creation of a new constitution, to be written after November parliamentary elections. Selmy’s outline included what he called the foundation of a “civil democratic state.”

Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamic political organization, say this would short-circuit a democratic process in which a new elected parliament would establish the procedure for drafting the constitution. Islamists also say such guidelines would open the way to a political order hostile to religion, and they are threatening street protests.

These debates and mutual suspicions are not new, but after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, activists initially shunted aside such differences. For instance, none of the major non-Islamist parties advocate cancelling Article 2 of the old constitution, which declares the principles of Islam as the main source of the country’s legislation.

The debate assumed a striking manifestation when Salafists — a term referring to pious Muslims who contend that believers must strictly follow the example of early Muslims — entered Tahrir Square, the Cairo epicenter of Egypt’s democratic uprising, and called for an Islamic state. “The people demand the laws of Allah,’’ they chanted, a sharp revision of the earlier, unified Tahrir call, “The people demand the end of the regime.”

A key peril in the divide is the chance that one side or the other will feel betrayed by Egypt’s new democratic order. Under Mubarak, many Islamists were imprisoned without charge and tortured for their political activity. Both before and since his downfall the Muslim Brotherhood has campaigned against torture and arbitrary arrest. Islamists understandably want their new-found freedom of political participation to be permanent and distrust liberal politicians, some of whom tolerated Mubarak’s exclusion of Islamists.

Liberal Egyptians worry that statements by various Islamists that Christians and women should not be president of Egypt foreshadow an Iranian-style political and cultural repression in the name of religion. They want individual liberty guarantees, including freedom of expression, and minority and women’s equality. According to an account published on August 28 in the Masry Al Youm newspaper, the proposed pre-constitutional text includes the phrase: “Discrimination on basis of gender, race, language, religion,wealth or social status is prohibited.”

Such a guarantee would be an excellent way for Egypt to start meeting international standards on equality it has signed up to. Human rights are not the monopoly of secularists or Islamists. The protections against torture and arbitrary detention that Islamists campaign for are also fundamental.

Islamist and non-Islamist thought each constitute traditional elements of Egypt’s political soul and similar divisions are at play in Tunisia and undoubtedly will arise in Libya. Failure to reach accommodation brings another risk; already some liberals are appealing to military authorities to bridge political divides, prolonging rule by the opaque and authoritarian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The dangers of this approach include continuing military trials of demonstrators and other critics, and arbitrary banning of strikes and demonstrations. Neither Islamists nor their opponents should want that kind of future. Rather, Egypt’s future requires structures and institutions that will guarantee basic rights — including freedom from torture and arbitrary detention, the right of all to practice their religion, and freedom from discrimination, including by gender or religion — regardless of who is inpower.

DANIEL WILLIAMS is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch

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Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Bloomberg who did time in Russia, Europe, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central America and Africa. Also, worked as a researcher in conflict zones for Human Rights Watch.

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