Egypt’s Kulturkampf

by Reihan Salam

Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article on Egypt’s “Great Collision,” between left-liberal secularists and reactionary Islamists, is fascinating, and it merits a longer discussion. It’s a serious, no-holds-barred critique of Egypt’s Muslim liberals and their allies in the U.S., and a condemnation of what he describes as the “rationalization” of the Egyptian coup that removed Mohamed Morsi from power. The following is a brief excerpt that should hopefully give you some sense of the argument. But if you have any interest in Egypt, and indeed if you are inclined to disagree with Gerecht’s interpretation of the Egyptian political scene, you must read the article:

Creating a modern economy in Egypt will hinge on devout Muslims buying into the project; they, not the super-rich businessmen of the Mubarak era, and certainly not the deeply socialist secular youth who look upon the government as the employer of first resort, are the key, as in Turkey, to unleashing Egypt’s economic potential. The coup has made that buy-in much more difficult; it may retard the development of large-scale private enterprise among religious Muslims.

And there is little reason to be optimistic about Egypt’s secularists. We don’t even know whether they believe in political pluralism; they obviously are not firmly attached to the ballot box. Given the concatenation of forces in the anti-Morsi demonstrations, it’s perhaps best to think of the movement they formed as a mix of the meanings of the word they took as their name: tamarrod. Beyond “rebellion” there’s “refractoriness,” “disobedience,” and “insubordination.” What the scholar Olivier Roy has seen among the Islamists is triply true for the secular crowd: An inchoate but powerful individualism has taken hold. Rebellion against authority and the status quo, moreover, can be addictive, but isn’t likely to lead to personal tolerance and civil manners, let alone a coherent political philosophy, without which parties cannot form. Judging by the glee with which many within the rebellion have greeted the military crackdown on the Brotherhood, it’s doubtful that the Tamarrod would ever again agree to allow the Islamists, or even just the religious, a decisive hand in writing a constitution.

For the secularists, political pluralism appears to mean that their views must be dominant regardless of any vote. Where once secular liberals lined up, however reluctantly, behind the kings and presidents-for-life, they now line up, more enthusiastically, behind “limited” democracy, whose possibilities are circumscribed by the military, since only the military can check the reemergence of an Islamist majority. Egyptian liberals don’t want to see it that way, of course. They are convinced, as are some of their Western supporters, that after the massive protests on June 30 (engineered by the military, the Tamarrod’s leaders, and the business elite), a majority of Egyptian Muslims became part of a durable secular coalition. Twelve months of Morsi’s “tyranny” and economic incompetence (probably also engineered in part by the military and the business elite) have supposedly transformed the politics of the voters who gave fundamentalists some 70 percent of the seats in parliament in 2012.