Egypt: Secular Dictatorship vs. Religious Dictatorship

08/23/2013 06:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

Military interventions into the political domain, the arrest of the elected president, the army's installment of a proxy government filled with pro-Mubarak elites, the killing and injuring of thousands of unarmed protestors in the streets of Cairo and other cities around Egypt; for some weeks, there has been vigorous debate about whether these recent events in Egypt constitute a coup. But the judiciary's most recent decision to release Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's dictator for 30 years, and the decision of the authorities to put Elbaradei on trial, the Nobel Laureate who initially collaborated with the army but later resigned, leave little doubt that we are witnessing a counter-revolutionary coup -- one which has most astonishingly been supported by many revolutionaries. They argue that the army's intervention was preceded by demonstrations of 18 million people. But they fail to explain how it was possible for a revolution of one million demonstrators to dislodge 60 years of dictatorship in 18 days in 2011, particularly when the regime enjoyed the support of the army, police and intelligence forces, while it is impossible for 18 million people to dislodge an elected president who lacked the support of any such institutions. They also ignore the fact that the military intervention was a coup not only against the Muslim Brotherhood, but against the revolutionaries and their democratic goals as well.

Now, the burning question is: How and why did such a bizarre u-turn in the revolutionary process lead former revolutionaries to defend the reversal of their own victory?

Around six months ago, I attended a lecture given by an Egyptian scholar about the revolution. A question was raised about why Egyptian revolutionaries had succeeded in removing the country's dictator but failed to replace him, and why the Muslim Brotherhood, which had played a marginal role in the revolution, managed to bring its candidate (Morsi) out of the ballot box in a democratic election. She responded by saying that the majority of the Egyptian people are politically ignorant, and that intellectual elites should therefore take control in order to lead them. In the course of the conversation, it became clear that her elitist approach to politics was in fact a dominant discourse among many educated Egyptians. As this discourse seems, in principle, identifiable with ideology of the ruling clergy elite in Iran, I was alarmed.

The June 3 military coup against Morsi was, of course, preceded with large demonstrations (although their numbers appear to have been grossly exaggerated). This provided a cover of legitimacy for the coup, which had been planned prior to the demonstrations. In justifying their support for the military overthrow of the first elected president just a year after his election, supporters of the coup -- among them secular liberals and leftists -- mainly resort to the same argument and appeal to notions of the 'ignorant masses' or a struggle between 'enlightened Egypt' and 'ignorant Egypt'. When we decipher this, we see that they are really referring, in their minds, to a struggle between 'secular' and 'Islamist' Egypt.

Judging these two camps through their deeds, there is a common denominator between them: the lack of belief in democratic principles. We can see this in the way that, during his short presidency, Morsi acted as a winner taking it all, failing to realize that in democracy, divisive though it may be, the winner should recognize the rights of those who have lost. We can also see this in the imposition of traditional Sharia law, which, among other things, is deeply patriarchal, into the hurriedly-written constitution -- an act that provided constitutional legality for discrimination against women of all faiths and non-Muslims of all genders. Morsi's monopolizing and exclusionary policies and his tribal approach to politics made him a divisive character. His actions created the massive discontent which ultimately expressed itself in protests by millions of people.

The secular opponents of Morsi, on the other hand, never accepted his legal democratic legitimacy as president and shunned him at every step. Without exhausting the existing democratic avenues of opposition and civil disobedience, they formed alliances with both Mubarak supporters and the army to challenge him. Finally, riding on top of a tank and calling it the "second stage of the revolution," they removed and imprisoned the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history, putting the army in the driving seat to form a proxy government.

This confrontation between secular and Islamist dictatorial forces has historical roots. In the early twentieth century, "modernist" secular dictators emerged across the Middle East in order to forcefully eradicate Islam from political and eventually social life. Their intention was to "modernize" their countries; in response, Islamists struggled to replace these secular "infidels." In this context, we can better understand the confrontation of these two dictatorial forces that now are now playing themselves out in Egypt. Those who consider themselves to be members of "enlightened" Egypt have given themselves the right to crush those whom they consider to be "ignorant" Egyptians in order to rescue Egypt from the wrath of "terrorist" Muslims. As a result, Egypt has entered into a new bloody era with unpredictable consequences.

In the initial stages of the revolution, we also saw the emergence of what appeared to be a third force that was democratic in principle and oriented towards the struggle for Egyptians' dignity and human rights. However, their later collaboration with the army and the elites of the Mubarak regime corrected this misperception and revealed that their expressed goal was, for the most part, skin deep and easily violated for political expediency. It became clearer that, as they lacked democratic values and principles, many revolutionaries had no democratic compass in their political struggle and failed to realize that the army, defending its own interests, would absorb or discard them after taking power. In addition, if we use the results of the six elections (among them presidential, parliamentary and council Shura) that took place after the 2011 revolution as indicators of social tendencies in Egyptian society, we can see that much political space will be dominated by the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra-conservative Salafists and secular pro-Mubarak supporters, while revolutionary parties and coalitions like the April 6 Youth Movements will remain on the margins of the political scene. The forces of secular dictatorship understand this and realize that it would be impossible for Islamists to participate in a democratic political process without dominating. This is why they have moved to ban religious political parties -- all the winners seem to want it all. Again, what unites all of the dominant opposing political forces is the lack of commitment to democratic principles and methods, while the groups which act democratically are still only a small minority.

As we say in Persian, it is unwise to steal a minaret without first having dug a well in which to hide it. The Egyptian revolutionaries, given the degree to which they had control, should not have thrown the country into a revolution while knowing that the country lacks democratic elites and parties. After Mubarak's removal, they should not have let the structure of the state, which had supported the dictatorship for decades, to remain intact as a hierarchy of a power structure which had only lost its leader. We know that such structures can regenerate themselves, even leading to the development of more brutal forms of dictatorship. We saw this in Iran in the form of Khomeini, who proved to be more brutal that the deposed Shah; we see it now in Egypt as General Alsisi has already proved to be more brutal than Mubarak, his former boss.

The recent formation of an anti-coup coalition of liberals and leftists shines the main ray of hope for Egypt's revolution. In order to resist the emerging Al-Sisi dictatorship, it now also needs to attract young Islamic forces who see themselves as part of a democratic resistance against the coup and all forms of dictatorship. Even if they succeed in preventing the solidification of the emerging dictatorship, however, they should realize that as long as Islam is understood only as a discourse of power, it always will threaten any regime -- dictatorial and democratic alike -- that does not create space for its existence. What Egypt needs more than anything else is an Islamic renaissance and a revolutionary re-interpretation of Islam as a discourse of freedom and liberty.