Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Why do liberals always fail? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Following the “Arab Spring”, the Arab intellectual and political elite have become divided into three major groups: The religious current that ultimately emerged victorious in all Arab Spring states, and now seems to be ready and eager to pounce and reap more fruits. The liberal, civil and secular current, including nationalists among others, which inclined towards the Arab revolutions and became strongly associated with them, and at some points occupied the driving seat. Then there is the conservative current, which – as its title implies – is dreading radical changes and instead prefers long-term reforms in the political domain, yet it is unaware of the surrounding dangers it should anticipate, whether from the revolutionaries and their desire for regime change, or from the Islamists who have lingering, dangerous bouts of radicalism.

In the “Arab Spring” states, everyone has been divided in the aforementioned manner. In Tunisia and Egypt, there is almost a single division: the Islamists, in their various guises, won 77 percent of the vote due to their active and loyal supporters who went to ballot boxes, and who were also ready to take to streets to demonstrate in their millions. The remaining 23 percent consists of the civilians, liberals, secularists and nationalists. What unites them is that they are not religious currents with slogans such as “Islam is the solution”, nor do they speak of an “Islamic frame of reference”, but rather they promote a democratic, civil and modern state.

How did this division take shape? What are the immediate and future results? These questions require careful analysis. However, as a starting point we can say that the “ideological” division is certainly not as broad as some may imagine.

Religious leaderships have also stressed their acceptance of a civil state, in fact claiming that Islamic history has experienced only the civil state – based on the argument that a state remains civil as long as the clergy does not rule. The accuracy of such logic is not our concern here, but what matters is that the religious current has adopted the civil concept, and has even sought to stand at the forefront.

On the other side, civil and liberal leaderships have consented to article two of the Egyptian constitution that stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state, and that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation. Such consent comes as a great contrast from the time when 100 Egyptian intellectuals – during discussions over constitutional amendments following the 2005 elections – signed a release demanding that amendments or changes must be made to article two, or that the “objectives” of Islamic Sharia must be clearly defined.

However, such a problem does not seem to exist anymore as everyone has now agreed to the article’s text. The so-called al-Azhar Document, a document for democratic alliance that incorporated religious and civil parties, has provided common ground for Egypt’s new constitution. It is now only a matter of the details.

If this is the case, where is the problem? Why is there still a rift between the two currents in all Arab Spring states, especially Egypt?

The latest disagreements may shed light on the story from the outset, a story that largely revolves around the Constituent Assembly. After assuming control of the state for the transitional period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a declaration stipulating that both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council must jointly shoulder the responsibility to draft the constitution. This immediately caused a dispute over whether the two government bodies should jointly undertake the selection of the constituent assembly members, who would then be entitled to draft the new constitution, or whether the parliament and the Shura Council are entitled to accomplish this mission alone. It was natural that the liberals and the civil advocates argued for the former case, whereas the Islamists, holding the majority in both houses of parliament, argued for the latter. A compromise was agreed whereby half of the constituent assembly would comprise members of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, whilst the other half would consist of independent figures; public dignitaries and representatives of all walks of life. There have been disagreements over every single point, from philosophy to sociology, and when matters eventually arrived at the issue of reflecting the current political reality – with 76 percent of constituent assembly members being Islamists and 24 percent non-Islamists – the majority of the non-Islamic quarter withdrew. This was the crux of the story from the outset; and this is how the balance of power has remained since the date of the constitutional amendments referendum on 19th March 2011, and the transitional government’s constitutional declaration issued thereafter.

The referendum’s results came as a tremendous shock to the liberal and civil powers, who thought that because the revolutionary youths were affiliated to the civil trend, and even the Muslim Brotherhood youths who participated were relatively liberal, then it was certain that the general mood in Egypt had changed. Yet, the surprise made everyone realize the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside the Salafis, had fought a real electoral battle on a religious basis. This is not to mention their considerable organizational and funding capabilities, for the Islamists played the political game extremely skillfully among their supporters as well as among the general public.

As for the civil powers, they seemed to be only fighting their battles on satellite television channels. They tried to add fuel to the fire by sometimes accusing their opponents of vote-rigging, sometimes of committing fraud, and sometimes by organizing independent “million man” marches. Yet, such demonstrations served as a source of support for the Brotherhood and the Salafis who boycotted them, and hence appeared to be more responsible and more considerate of the public mood, rather people who did not even know why they were demonstrating. When the civil powers realized this, they then tried to place the blame on SCAF and began to call for the overthrow of military rule. Indeed, SCAF had no option but to proceed towards a roadmap based on elections for both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, and then the presidency as well.

This was exactly what the Islamist current has sought to achieve. Whilst it was organizationally and financially adept, the youths and liberals were preoccupied fighting other wars, sometimes to uncover the Brotherhood’s lies, sometimes to prove an alleged alliance the religious current and the military apparatus, and sometimes to create a new revolutionary legitimacy outside the framework of the political legitimacy represented by the general elections. When the civil current had finished tilting at windmills, its members finally decided to enter the election battle, but they lost as they had done in all previous referendums, votes and selections.

The battles were political in nature, and the religious current fought them professionally, whilst the civil current, with its deep rifts, dealt with the political struggle by withdrawing in protest. It sought to make statements and adopt stances rather than change the existing balance of power or change the general political mood. It is odd that despite its strong stances, the liberals’ withdrawal from negotiations has left the field empty for the religious current to play on its own, and attribute its domination to public support. This is true on the one hand, yet the Islamists also seem to be ignoring the dynamics of political work, whereby the size of support can alter greatly, especially when political responsibility must be shouldered, whether in the parliament or the executive authority. The story still has many chapters to unfold!