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From discord to accord
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 03 - 2011

The polarisation around the constitutional amendments referendum should serve as a warning that for the Egyptian revolution to survive, consensus, not division, must prevail, writes Khalil El-Anani*
The blood of the young men and women who sacrificed their lives for the Egyptian revolution had barely dried before the country was nearly broken in two by political and ideological divides over the referendum on proposed constitutional amendments. Virtually out of the blue we saw society polarised between two camps, each fighting to persuade -- or more appropriately, to incite or intimidate -- the general public (conventionally called the silent majority) into casting a "Yes" or "No" vote on the ballot. Naturally, it was and remains a great source of joy to have witnessed that huge voter turnout in a country that had never experienced a free balloting process in its modern history. However, what led up to that ballot should sound an alarm that there are dynamics at work that threaten to abort the revolution before it accomplishes its chief goal, which is to lay the firm foundations of a democracy that embraces all Egyptians equally and without exclusion.
Over the course of two weeks, diverse individuals, groups and media butted heads in what turned out to be an irresponsible ideological and propaganda war. Under the pretext of airing differences, the participants, almost without exception, did not shrink from employing every demagogic ruse and gambit. It was as though they had taken a page out of the authoritarian handbook on mass control familiar from the former regime, with the exception that on this occasion they played on religious and identity-based fears and prejudices. Therefore, instead of a rational debate on the best way to handle the interim phase, we were suddenly caught up in a clash over the identity of Egypt and its form of government in the post-interim phase.
If initially the melee seemed to engage all hues of the Egyptian political spectrum, in essence it revolved around two opposing camps. On one side was the camp that envisioned post-Mubarak Egypt as a liberal secular state in the manner of European democracies. Sadly, its proponents fell into the trap of political idealism and abstractness. They not only failed to appreciate the differences in cultural and value systems between here and there, but also the differences between historical experiences. Worse yet, many of them, who had long boasted of their liberalism and open-mindedness, suddenly succumbed to the most rigid and biased partisanship in the course of their drive to force their opinions on others.
This camp opposed the constitutional amendments. Many of its adherents are worried that the amendments and subsequent political arrangements will enable the better- organised religious movements to hijack the revolution. The fear, I believe, is exaggerated. But even if it had some legitimate foundations, the threat is best countered not by alarmism and scaremongering but by working to build up bases of grassroots support to counter theirs. Yet, whether intentionally or not, some of the representatives of this camp sought to exercise a kind of political mandate over the rest of society. Had they been true to the liberal spirit they claim to stand for, they would have laid out their points of view more rationally, openly and tolerantly, without hurling blanket accusations of fanaticism and exclusivism at their political opponents. Moreover, some were more hypocritical yet, donning a cloak of intellectual detachment and cultural sophistication, behind which lurked pure opportunism and personal or political ambition.
As legitimate as this camp's case may have been, it is clear that they should have risen above mudslinging and griping at their opponents' superior organisation. More importantly, they should have done the hard work of actively engaging and canvassing the public, instead of just confining themselves to television studios, seminar podiums, and Facebook and Twitter. It is little wonder, given these strategies and tactics, that their influence was largely confined to the major urban centres, to which testify the referendum results.
The second camp seeks to exercise a religious mandate and believes that post-Mubarak Egypt should be a theocratic state (a term they circumvent by substituting the attribute "Islamic"), even if opinions on this side vary over the extent to which religion should serve as the basis and compass of government. The camp, in fact, represents a mosaic of Islamist trends and movements, from those that are tightly organised and hierarchically structured, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad, to the more loosely organised trends, such as the Salafists. The political presence of the latter, it should be added, increased considerably over the past five years due to the support they received from the Mubarak regime, and it appears that they will be influential players in the coming phase.
This camp supported the constitutional amendments, which they believed would set the contours of Egypt's governmental structure in the future. To muster support they deployed their full arsenal of ideological, religious, identity and, sometimes, sectarian machinery, furnishing a tangible indication of how powerful and pervasive religious capital is in determining the political choices of many Egyptians. As they have done in every election campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood mobilised its members and supporters across the country, albeit with greater freedom and manoeuvrability in this post-Mubarak phase. In tandem, its leaders showered the media with ambiguous statements and declarations the intended message of which was that the welfare of the Muslim Brothers and the welfare of the nation were essentially one (such is the logic of the self-claimed mandate), and they conducted the referendum campaign accordingly, as though it were a decisive battle for themselves and the nation.
Further to the right on the Islamist spectrum, the Salafists champion the theocratic option as though waging a holy war, their campaigners mounting pulpits and media podiums to rally a "Yes" vote for the constitutional amendments. One can not help but note the irony that the Salafists, who generally express a strong distaste for politics and shun political involvement on the grounds that it involves such unethical practices as bargaining, deal-making and the pursuit of worldly ends (and that it therefore demeans the faith and is incompatible with religious strictures), played as visibly and superbly as other political forces and parties during the referendum campaigns.
Of course, we should not over-generalise. There were occasional overlaps and crossovers between the two sides. Some Islamists voted against the amendments and quite a few liberals voted in favour of them. The Coptic Church urged its adherents to vote "No", not so much on the basis of a political preference but out of fear of what many purport to be the Islamists' hidden agenda.
Still, barring such exceptions, the general ideological and political divide described above has several unavoidable and grave ramifications. First, it confirms that the events of January and February were only a "semi-revolution". Although an authoritarian regime was overthrown (at least its primary stays were dismantled), the authoritarian mindset remains entrenched in Egyptian society. Practices on the part of adherents of both camps reflected not only a long ingrained mutual distrust but also a strong propensity for the vocabulary and tone of the discriminatory authoritarian discourse that the former regime planted in Egyptian political soil. We had hoped that a national consensus had embraced us all and that the spirit that championed the day in Tahrir Square had taken root in the Egyptian collective consciousness. Sadly, developments over the past two weeks have alerted us to the urgent need to uproot that ingrained authoritarianism before it destroys the fruits of the revolution.
Secondly, it is clear that the military establishment, if sometimes short on political imagination, was intelligent and clever enough to give political and social forces full space to fight it out over the shape and future of the system of government in Egypt. It was operating on the belief that these forces would reach a minimum level of consensus so that it could hand the reins of power to a civil authority, bringing to an end its mandate. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity lost or, at least, poorly managed, to which testify the intense polarisation and tension on the eve of the referendum.
Thirdly, the past few weeks revealed that the vacuum created by the fall of the former regime is larger and more alarming than many had imagined. If this tells us anything it is that no single political force, however strident its voice and however strong and well organised it claims to be, can fill this void alone. It will need to work with others.
Therefore, what is needed is an innovative formula for Egyptian national consensus, inspired by the spirit of the Egyptian revolution and the goals and principles over which all parties remain committed. As Egyptians attempt to achieve this consensus, there are three core points that they should constantly bear in mind. One is to think in terms of "we" instead of "me" when discussing the type of government Egypt should have in the future. No party has the right to impose its mandate on others; otherwise we risk reproducing the same mistakes of the previous regime. The second is that all parties must realise that building a strong democratic order means having to make essential concessions, whether with regard to political and ideological discourse or with regard to their presence and representation in government. Such concessions, it should be stressed, should be the fruit of the spirit of compromise, not the tactics of bulldozing and intimidation. Third, the parties should bear in mind that a people who could bring down a powerful authoritarian regime in 18 days can also bring down another political or religious force that has the arrogance to try to impose its dictates on others.
Egypt is passing through a very delicate moment in its history. This should compel all parties to assume a certain degree of detachment and a sense of historic responsibility towards the fate of our nation and the future of its people. If they do not, the Egyptian revolution will be no more than a fleeting event that failed to open the way to true democracy.
* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University.


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