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Raghida Dergham Headshot

The Fate of Arab Democracy Faced With Religious Conflicts

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For one of those competing for the presidency of the United States to be the black son of a white American Christian woman and of an African Muslim man, while the other is from the Mormon community, a controversial religious minority, at the very least due to its practice of polygamy, is only evidence that America is an exceptional country. Indeed, this country, to which immigrants flock in search of freedom and of the opportunity to make something of themselves, is a great country because of its ability to accept a reality in which Barack Hussein Obama is facing Mitt Romney in the race to the White House. This in effect leaps over racism and discrimination against minorities, regardless of the extremism, arrogance, bias, intolerance and prejudice that can be found in the American popular base. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney bears a name of the type of "John Smith." Both their names are rare and have a strange pronunciation, and American voters are being surprised and are adapting.

This does not mean that everything is fine in the United States of America, or that the U.S. Constitution thrones over and directs the political game. The fact of the matter is that there is a dangerous imbalance in the relationship between and within each of the government's executive branch, legislative branch and media "branch." One of the reasons for such imbalance is tied to the corruption that accompanies the political game and to the influence of lobbies on elections and on decision-making. The other reason is what distinguished commentator Thomas Friedman called "vetocracy," quoting the author of the book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, in an article titled "Down With Everything." The crisis of authority in the United States and its deformed political system "with a Congress that's become a forum for legalized bribery" is certainly a dangerous one, especially for the future of the United States' superpower status on the international scene. The electoral process, in itself, restrains the country and nearly contributes to turning it from a democracy to a vetocracy. Yet in spite of this, merely pausing for a moment to think of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney inevitably reminds one that such a scene would have been impossible only a few years ago, and that the reality of the nearly certain candidacy of these two men to the highest power and office in the land bears testimony to the greatness of America.

The United States is reinventing itself. In one way or another, it is doing this by overcoming intolerance despite its prevalence in the popular base, and rising above the imbalance despite the fact that it characterizes most of the members of Congress. In the Arab region, where reinventing oneself is the prevailing process in several countries through which the winds of change have blown, fear stems from the absence of security valve traditions, such as a constitution, and from the majority, especially a majority issued from Islamist political parties, starting to consider "vetocracy" to be a right it has been blessed with by the democratic process. Fear stems from the notion of veto becoming a policy in and of itself in several Arab countries where obstruction has become a reality that is paralyzing the country. Even at the U.N. Security Council, major powers such as Russia and China have taken to vetocracy as a means to prevent democracy from taking its course on the Arab scene, perhaps out of fear of it infiltrating their home countries.

The presidential elections in Egypt are an important milestone for Egyptians and for the future of the Egyptian leadership in the Arab region. Egypt is reinventing itself. It is struggling and in danger of slipping into chaos, at times, and is going through a sorting out process that is strikingly organized and a wakeup call for those who might imagine that they have seized power, at others. It might anger the secularists and Islamists who oppose the Military Council if one were to say that the Military Council is necessary today to ensure keeping politics under control and keeping in check the "vetoist" tendency of most Islamist political parties -- in the sense of denying the rights of others simply by defining Egypt as Islamist and imposing on others an identity they have not chosen. Certainly, the Military Council must not rule Egypt, and of course, power must be handed over to an elected president. Yet this does not negate the renewed or new role played by the Military Council, in the form it has taken after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, the regime in Egypt did not fall entirely, as it is in fact the Military Council that is managing the transitional political process in Egypt. And that is alright, as long as there is a mechanism to monitor it, a popular or an international one, so that it may not occur to it to think itself qualified to become an alternative to pluralistic democratic rule.

The Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is of course one of the remnants of the old regime, but he speaks the language of the people choosing the new president without it being imposed by or being under the tutelage of anyone. The presidential electoral commission forced the Muslim Brotherhood to abandon the slogan "Islam is the Solution" from the campaign of its candidate to the presidential elections Mohammad Morsy, after the judicial commission demanded that it be banned. And this is appropriate. "Islam is the Solution" is not an electoral program that would inform people of what the Muslim Brotherhood's party would have to offer if it were to hold the presidency, alongside holding the parliament. The Brotherhood failed when it tried to take hold of drafting the constitution in Egypt, after having hijacked the Youth Revolution. And this failure has taught it a lesson, which is that it should not assume that it has the right to monopolize power. Civil society groups had also partnered with the Military Council in thwarting this attempt, notably by dissolving the Islamist-leaning constitutive assembly that would have drafted the constitution.

On the other hand, there are astounding contradictions, such as an Egyptian court upholding a jail sentence against movie star Adel Imam, and one of three months of hard labor, on charges of defaming the Muslim religion by portraying characters offensive to Islam in some of his films. Art and entertainment circles in Egypt were upset and angered by the news, but there should be a broader organized campaign of writers, media personalities and artists defending freedom in art and creativity. This is something the Military Council does not impose. It requires raised voices from non-Islamist forces in order to put a stop to such a pattern and to such a course. Separation of religion and state is no mere slogan in the face of "Islam is the Solution." It is a national demand because it imposes on Islamist political parties to decide where their loyalty lies -- with religion or with the state. The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate to the presidency, Mohammad Morsy, is accused of being a follower of the Salafist candidate who was excluded, Khairat El-Shater, because of his views and his approach, closer to Salafism in their extremism. Morsy slaps Egypt on both cheeks when he says that candidacy to the presidency of Egypt according to Muslim Sharia law bans women and non-Muslims from running as candidates. His supporters chant "the Quran is our constitution and the Sharia is our guide."

The liberal Islamist candidate, as he has been described, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, split off from the Brotherhood last June due to his more pluralistic approach regarding Islam and Egypt. Yet there are those who believe that such a split falls within the framework of a distribution of roles within the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood, so that there may be among them those who are "radical" and those who are "liberal," in order to ensure winning the presidency. This is after the Brotherhood retracted its pledge of not seeking after the presidency. The presidential electoral commission has excluded several candidates, each for reasons specific to them, among them intelligence strongman under Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, alongside Muslim Brotherhood candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and Salafist candidate Khairat El-Shater. Such exclusions might be to the benefit of the former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, who could become a security valve for Egypt in this delicate phase.

Amr Moussa is well-known internationally and is accepted by the international community, despite the reservations of Israel and of some in the United States because of his stances critical of Israel. He perhaps represents the means of salvation for the least radical Islamist parties from an economic predicament Egypt will be dragged into. It will need saving, and such salvation will not be possible without there being a non-Islamist personality in the presidency. Amr Moussa is a non-Islamist candidate, and his chances therefore appear weak, if compared to the popular masses turning towards the Islamists. Yet Amr Moussa might be exactly what Egypt needs in a phase of transition from the former regime to a pluralistic, non-autocratic and non-vetocratic system, one that would not dictate in the name of religion and drag religion into politics and into the state. Amr Moussa might represent the necessary link between the Military Council and post-regime Egypt. He might also represent the space to breathe that would give the Egyptian people the opportunity to carefully examine whether they really want Islamist political parties to take hold of power, regardless of whether some of them behave erratically, while others display fanaticism, extremism, hatred and the exclusion of others.

If the choice today is between the Military Council and a Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood council that would run the country, then most likely Egypt is safer in the hands of the Military Council, under observation and accountability, than in the hands of political parties that compete over the most extreme stances in order to seize and monopolize power. The Military Council has certainly used and exploited Islamist political parties in order to undermine the Youth Revolution and fragment it, paving the way for the Islamists to hijack the Revolution. It is the Military Council itself that implicated Islamist parties into committing mistakes and exposed them before the Egyptian people. The Military Council played a very old game with the Islamist parties. It did not reinvent them, but they know each other very well. The Islamist parties fell in the trap of their greed for monopolizing power, assuming that the youth's lack of experience and political organization would lead them to withdraw from the scene, and that the Military Council would be the sole target of Egypt's youth. This assumption is one of the many mistakes made by Islamist parties, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The most blatant mistake is that they are competing over extremism and autocracy -- this while Al-Azhar issues a document on tolerance and pluralism, and while Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, goes on a visit to Jerusalem, answering the call of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to all Muslims of the world to go to Jerusalem and to witness its situation under occupation.

The Grand Mufti's boldness and his answer to Faisal Husseini's outcry, when he said to the Arabs: "come to Jerusalem in order to save it," was met with reproach from the Muslim Brotherhood and criticism from various parties. The city of Jerusalem is preparing to receive Arab and Muslim delegations in solidarity with it and answering the call of the Palestinian Authority, while the Arabs are drowning in own their display of skill and outbidding over the "Palestinian Cause." Faisal Husseini said: Come to Jerusalem. Walk in our streets. Sleep in our hotels. Eat at our restaurants. Come to Jerusalem in order to save it. The Grand Mufti of Egypt has exposed more than his country's Islamist political parties. He has also exposed the laws of many Arab countries. Indeed, there are those who are drowning themselves in their obsession to take hold of power. And there are those who are working to reinvent themselves in the face of new realities.

In the Arab region, there are fears over the future of democracy, faced with religious, ideological and autocratic conflicts, especially in the absence of a constitution -- or rather attempts to hijack its drafting process. In the United States, fears over the future of democracy are justified, especially with what Friedman described as vetocracy paralyzing the country. And on the international scene, concern is justified over the use by the likes of Russia and China of the veto at the Security Council as a policy in order to dictate and obstruct, while the international community overlooks the fact that a regime like the one in Damascus is dictating what it should do -- this too by making use of vetocracy.

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