December 19, 2012 11:04 pm

Politics: Distinct camps find little common ground

the Islamist-dominated panel vote on a final draft of a new Egyptian constitution in Cairo©AP

Debate: panel meets to thrash out the draft constitution

On streets and in marketplaces, in offices and factories, the much discussed great divide between the two Egypts – one secular and liberal, the other religious and conservative – is rarely clear-cut.

Though they may wear suits and ties, the self-described political liberals are often culturally conservative, pious and sometimes nationalistic to the point of xenophobia. Though they may advocate Islamic law, its newly surging Islamists often embrace globalisation and see their religion as an antidote to the stifling political culture enforced for decades by authoritarian regimes.

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IN Egypt 2012

So it was perhaps not inevitable that, once it collapsed, the unlikely ideological coalition that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in last year’s revolution would break down into two diametrically opposed camps rooted in cultural identities rather than more easily negotiated economic or political interests.

Yet, in the confrontation over the country’s constitution, it did just that. Thanks in large part to the bumbling, opaque machinations of President Mohamed Morsi and in smaller part to the political inexperience and paranoia of his rivals, Egypt finds itself starkly divided between two distinct camps with little common ground, an atmosphere not conducive to the broad consensus needed to make tough choices about the future.

Politics has been made more poisonous by shrill rhetoric on both sides. Privately owned media linked to the liberal camp all too willingly propagate false rumours about the Islamists’ intentions. Ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists contribute to a fear of a future in which freedoms are restricted by a regime similar to those in Saudi Arabia or Iran by preaching that girls should be allowed to marry at puberty and decry their opponents as corrupt infidels.

“Increasingly, you’re seeing two worlds that don’t intersect,” says Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Centre. “They have their own politics, their own organisations, their own media outlets. They’ve become very insular. Their narratives about the world around them, about Egypt and what it is, have diverged considerably. That makes dialogue very difficult. The sides aren’t beginning from the same starting point. They can’t agree on what the reality is.”

At the heart of the dispute are nation-defining questions about democracy, public space and the role of the state. The two sides are often described as political Islamists who wish to impose Islamic values on the broader society versus those who demand some measure of separation between religion and state. In reality, the debate is less about religious doctrine than how much the state should uphold traditional values. Mr Hamid, writing for Foreign Policy magazine online, described two different visions – one that seeks to promote the virtuous society, family and individual and one that is ideologically neutral.

“In a public place, the greater public benefit is much more important than individual freedom,” says Gehad Haddad, a spokesman and strategist for the Muslim Brotherhood. “If a girl wearing a bikini is offensive to 100 people who are not, then the 100 have the say; she should not wear it on the public beach. At the same time, she can wear it on the private beach. She has the right. At the end of the day, there has to be a rule toward the public benefit. We all wear seat belts.”

Underlying the ideological battle is a competition between the emerging Islamist political and technocratic elite and the old intelligentsia it is seeking to replace. Islamists such as Mr Haddad say Egypt’s corrupt, secular liberal nomenklatura have not only looted and mismanaged the country since the 19th century, but have repeatedly prevented reform by the Muslim Brotherhood and its antecedents. Liberals accuse the Brotherhood and its allies of instrumentalising religion in a quest for absolute political and social power.

“It’s a polarisation between Islamist forces who are after a highly defined identity-based project to see a more Islamised Egypt,” says Lina Att-alah, editor of the English-language Egypt Independent. “The other camp is a revolutionary camp that wants to see a democratic Egypt that allows multiple identities to exist.”

The two sides scream past each other. Islamists accuse their rivals of being decadent loyalists of the former regime. Liberals accuse Islamists of fooling poor, illiterate masses into supporting them.

“It looks terrible but it’s natural,” says Mr Haddad. “After almost every revolution there’s lot of confrontation and bloodshed, or the most powerful element gets on top by killing everyone else. This type of peaceful revolution and transformation into a peaceful democratic process hasn’t happened. We’re all amateurs in the scene of politics. The only defining characteristic of the scene is a huge mistrust.”

Mr Morsi has failed to address the mistrust by offering a more inclusive process, embracing some of the newer opposition groups which, during presidential elections, gave him the benefit of the doubt over a rival seen as embodying the ousted regime. His drive to push through a constitution, despite the opposition of many Egyptians, scuppered any chance of a broader political consensus.

With the ideological rift so stark the challenge for Egyptians is to channel the political differences so they are played out by politicians and jurists within institutions, such as the parliament or the courts, rather than stonethrowing and gun-toting surrogates on the streets.

Debate is still possible. On Tahrir Square recently, a smartly dressed man defended the constitution to a group of poorer looking young men and women opposed to it. The discussion was heated but amicable.

“The two sides do interact and there is still dialogue,” says Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. “You can take a cab and argue about it with the driver. I have friends who are Islamists. We quarrel together. The problem is this constitution and the debate around it has divided Egypt. That makes it harder to find common ground.”

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