POMED Notes: Beyond Dichotomy, Building a New Egypt
The Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars hosted an event on Wednesday (9/26) entitled “Beyond Dichotomy: Building a New Egypt,” featuring Wilson Center Senior Scholar Margot Badran. Over the past year in Egypt she saw how a society which has been polarized for several decades along the lines of “the religious” and “the secular” has witnessed a decrease in significance of such categories. According to Badran, such distinctions are now less important for social identity, yet still retain considerable political force. Based on her observations, sustained dichotomization impedes the construction of a new Egypt in both the capital and the provinces.
For full event notes, continue reading below, or click here for the PDF version.
Badran first addressed the terms secular and religious, stating that they fail to serve a positive purpose in Egypt and remain as “antagonistic binaries” in the social space. She also noted that the term “secular” had over time ceased to mean “Egyptian” and began to imply that one was “anti-Islamic.” In her opinion, political actors continue to use the terms to keep the country divided, as Mubarak and many other leaders have done in the past. During the initial stages of the Arab Spring in Egypt however, she found that the old “Egyptian” meaning of “secular” had been resurrected, as people once again begun to self-identify as Egyptian first without a sense of religious connotation. In recent months, however, she felt that a resurgence of religious antagonism has begun to take hold.
The discussion then moved to the Egyptian parliamentary elections, of which she noted that people had mainly voted for the Muslim Brotherhood based on their history of social services and vastly superior organizational skills. She told an anecdote of two young “trendy” men she had interviewed, in which she asked if they were worried about the possibility of conservatives imposing their model on Egypt. They responded by saying, “If we don’t like them [Freedom and Justice Party], we will vote them out in four years.” She was astounded that the idea of democratic process had taken root so quickly among the youth. Badran found that religious and secular divisions were becoming more acute following recent elections, yet in the presidential elections Mohamed Morsi’s supporters were not necessarily religious, nor did they draw from the Brotherhood or Salafi community. The people that voted for him simply wanted a reliable leader who could be held accountable for issues like the economy, social services, etc. In her opinion, religious divisions did not play a large role in his ability to garner votes, but she did point out that the older generation of feminists and liberals were worried that the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood may set back their advances in the social space. The youth, on the other hand, did not seem to be as apprehensive about the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.
She made it apparent that Egypt is a complicated country because it includes elements of religiosity and secularism, on top of components from an unbroken civilization that has existed since antiquity. Yet, she was confident that religious leaders would stand by their statements supporting a secular state that is able to deliver social goods to all citizens. “Moderate Islamists must take the opportunity to make their voices heard, while a majority of Egyptians do not want a religious state,” she said. She concluded by pointing out that the U.S. is a very religious society without advocating for a religious state, perhaps an example that a secular and religious identity can coexist.