31 January 2011

Worried about Egypt’s future

The night shift security guard at my work was born and raised in Egypt. He’s now an Australian citizen. Most nights he drops by the lab during his rounds for a chat, usually just as I’m finishing up for the day. Naturally, last night’s topic was the Egyptian protests. A few months ago he had gone back to Cairo to get married. His wife is still there and he’s worried. “I told her on the phone to not go outside unless she really has to.”

For many Egyptians (and foreign observers), the thought of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seizing power from Hosni Mubarak’s despised government is a scary one. Especially for minorities like my security guard friend’s family, who are Coptic Christians. My friend is adamant that if the Brotherhood are in government, Copts like him and his family will be persecuted. “There will be blood.”

His melodrama is understandable. His fear is nothing to be made light of, especially by an outsider like me. “But maybe”, I tried to reassure him, “maybe the moderates in the Brotherhood will keep the extremists in check.” After all, I argued, if they come into power, they’re not going to jeopardise their victory by angering the secularists with brutal acts of oppression. I also mentioned Turkey as an example of a country with a mildly Islamist government that is popular with the people yet has freedom of religion.

My friend’s response was dismissive of the Muslim Brotherhood’s benevolence, and pessimistic about religious freedom should they be calling the shots. He didn’t say it, but perhaps he felt that Egypt under the Brotherhood would be more like post-Islamic Revolution Iran, not Turkey.

Now that’s a scary thought.

In a Guardian article, Kenan Malik sketches Egypt’s tumultuous history of dealing with Islamists, describing how its leaders have used and abused Muslim radicals for political gain, with often violent results. The West has been complicit in all of this of course. For decades Western foreign policy with regards to the Muslim world has taken this cynical formula: support secular dictators and Islamists if it means stability and profits, oppose them otherwise.

But Malik expresses what reasonable liberals have always known; democracy may be a messy, factious and unstable system, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. To impose order on this healthy chaos, whether by secular or religious means, is to pervert the democratic spirit, chiefly because this imposition is top-down, while democracy is by definition bottom-up. And if the people decide that Islamists, whether the AKP in Turkey, Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, should govern them, then as much as it galls liberal secular humanists like myself, it is their right to elect such a government.

I hope the Egyptian people will give themselves a government, secular or religious, that meets their needs, respects their rights and upholds their freedoms. May they reach this positive milestone with minimum violence and bloodshed.


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