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EGYPT: Islamists and Secularists Draw Closer

Analysis by Emad Mekay

CAIRO, Oct 8 2011 (IPS) - Egypt, routinely the cradle for new Arab and Islamic ideologies, is now witnessing the birth of yet another line of thought – Islamic Liberalism. The term is touted now as a panacea for the eight-month impasse that has locked Islamists and their secularist rivals in bitter bickering over how this Arab nation should be governed after the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

The new ideology involves Islamists toning down their designs of a puritanical Islamic state into a more subdued version of religious ideology laced with pragmatic liberal political positions, such as freedom of expression and belief, along with modern day governing practices such as Western-styled elections and institutions.

In return secularists will ease their attacks on Islam, show greater respect for the faith and recognise its history and potential of justice, social equality and spiritual elevation.

The first turnabout to end dueling between Islamists and secularists came from some of the most radical quarters. Nageh Ibrahim, the main ideologue of The Islamic Group, which in the past took up arms against Mubarak in the 1980s and 1990s, has ostentatiously used the term ‘Islamic liberalism’ to woo secularists opposed to Islamic principles into a rapprochement.

“Liberalism has so many good sides that do not run afoul of the universal principles of the Islamic Sharia,” he said in a July gathering with members of the liberal Wafd Party. “At this juncture of time, we have to search for a form of Islamic liberalism compatible with the norms of the Egyptian society while not alienating other forces.”

Nageh’s message started a slew of other reconciliatory calls from other Islamists based on the new ‘Islamic Liberalism’ mantra.

Cleric Mohammed Al-Zoghbi, one of the fiercest critics of secularists, has called the country’s secularist activists “brothers with kind, good and patriotic hearts that just need to know the Islamists better.” A few weeks earlier, he had described secular Tahrir Square protestors rallying for more profound changes after the ouster of Mubarak as “a homeless bunch forced into Tahrir Square after they were beaten up by their wives back home.”

Zoghbi’s reconciliatory statement was broadcast via Al-Nas TV, a religious channel popular with the country’s ultra-conservative Salafi movement.

Less conservative Islamic players jumped into the fray as well.

Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni Islam scholarship, issued a document that pointedly seeks to marry secular points of view with conservative theories.

The Al-Azhar Charter underscores that a civil, as opposed to theological, state governed by law, not religious scriptures, doesn’t not contradict Islam. It also states that individual liberties should be guaranteed in the country’s future constitution and laws.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most organised political group, which is expected to win the coming parliamentary elections, went a step further and pledged not to monopolise the drafting of the constitution, saying that all political orientations, including the country’s six million Christians, should take part. Secularists had warned that the Islamists plan to impose their ideology on the new constitution.

Reciprocation from secularists hasn’t been forceful but not completely dismissive either. Amr Hamzawy, one of the country’s rising secular stars, praised the overtures from the Islamists.

“There’s a substantial amount of similarities between Islamists and liberals,” Hamzawi tells IPS. “At a minimum both sides are looking for a country where the rule of law and real citizenship prevail while peaceful change of power is guaranteed. Unfortunately all political sides were pushed to escalate the confrontation, perhaps unintentionally, to the point where everyone lost sight of what they have in common.”

But the flirtations haven’t dissuaded some hard-core detractors of the Islamists who continue to see their new platform as mere political posturing.

Refaat Saeed, a staunch opponent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, said the true colours of the Islamists show they really want a theological puritanical state and not a democratic one.

“You can tell for example from their rallies and the banners they carry they actually want a religious and not a democratic state as they claim,” Saeed tells IPS, referring to recent protests in downtown Cairo that drew Islamic activists. The main chant there was “Islamic Egypt, Islamic Egypt.”

Embracing ‘Islamic Liberalism’ is indeed a bit of backpedalling for Islamists who have long been critical of secularists – often blaming them for pushing Egypt into a subservient position on the global scene and for going against the country’s traditions and Islamic identity in favour of more Western character.

Analysts of the political debate in Egypt say time will be needed for a true pragmatic Islamic trend to take root.

“This will take some more creativity,” Hossam Maklad, an Egyptian researcher of Islamic movements tells IPS. “The incentives for the Islamists to move to the centre are there.”

“What we call Islamic Liberalism needs to improvise a form of governing that rests on Islamic heritage and civilisation as a great foundation while at the same time enjoying all the good benefits of Western liberal structure,” Maklad said. “If we can combine both then we’ll save ourselves all those fights and quarrels which may never end.”

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