Secularism Can Save Egypt

A new constitution that respects the rights of all while supporting Islam's civic role could ease tensions.

Elections, the favorite American tool for democratization, until they turn out badly as in the Gaza strip, are widely viewed as the way out of the current impasse in Egypt. But they are most likely to leave one of the major camps—and both are important—deeply alienated. What Egypt should focus on instead is the formulation of a new constitution, employing it as an opportunity to seek a basic understanding about the future of the regime to which both side can subscribe. This is unlikely to be simply a procedure like free elections. Rather, it could be a principle: separation of state and religion.

In pondering what might prompt the pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi camps to reach a compromise, I thought of a line I heard from the reformers in Iran during a meeting in Isfahan. The leader of the reformist group stressed that he and his comrades were anticlerical but not against religion. He put it this way: “we do not want to force people to pray; we want people to want to pray.” When applied to Egypt, this dictum would be best satisfied by a constitution that renders the state largely neutral on religious matters. Thus it would not ban the consumption of alcohol, not penalize women who refuse to wear a headscarf, and so on. At the same time religious groups and organizations (such as the Muslim Brotherhood and even the Salafis) would be free—and even financially supported by the state in their running of private schools and their provision of social and medical services. (Those who think this violates the separation of state and religion should recall that in the United States, the federal government reimburses religious groups for about a third of their social services, and Medicare/Medicaid dollars flow freely to hospitals of various religious denominations.)

This approach would allow Islamic groups to feel free to promote their way of life without limiting the secular liberals’ freedom to pursue theirs, inasmuch religion would not be promoted as a matter of law but through social means. Such a separation of state and religion may seem at first a very American idea. However, it is not alien or even novel for Egypt. Over the last forty years, the Muslim Brotherhood was first oppressed and then tolerated, but it was never was able to draw on the state to promote its religious agenda. Despite this limitation, it spread its ethos by providing social services. Skeptics who might ask why they would settle for something they always had should take into account that in the past the regime tried to curb and hinder the religious groups; under the new deal they would be sure to flourish. True, the Muslim Brotherhood wants more influence and power. It can be part of the government and share in all matters concerning foreign and economic policy, on which they and the liberals are not worlds apart. Only religious behavior, they must learn to agree, is not going to be legislated. They may see the light once they realize that otherwise they will face continued confrontations, if not oppression.

At the same the liberals would find such a separation far from unfamiliar because they lived for decades under Mubarak in a nonreligious regime (despite Islam being the official state religion according to the constitution, with sharia, the foundation of Islam, serving as “the main source of legislation”).

If the two camps could turn an Egyptian version of the separation of state and religion into a central part of a new, shared understanding, and transform it into the core of the new constitution that is about to be drafted, then this consensus would be much more likely to work than the current obsession with fair and free elections. During the last election, the Islamic camp gained a majority, albeit a slim one. If elections are run next year, the Islamic candidates may lose some followers. However, while at the moment the Egyptian street welcomes the restoration of services and order, along with whatever relief the $12 billion in aid from Arab nations will buy, this high is not going to last. Next year there will still be many millions of young Egyptians without jobs, and the Arab countries will not write checks forever. The bloom will soon be off the new regime.

Hence the more the United States makes the holding of new elections the criterion of a “good” Egypt, the more greater the chance that Washington will face the same issues we are facing now: an Islamic government chosen by the majority of the voters, which will clash with the military and the liberal minority. If we can help both camps to agree to let the Islamists promote their version of the proper conduct and life through voluntary means, and the liberal pursue theirs, we may be able to help Egypt find a lasting basis for an inclusive regime. Such a regime could focus on economic issues, beginning with the restoration of large-scale tourism, which is to Egypt what oil is to Saudi Arabia. Tourism will no longer hampered by the Islamic threat of imposing gender-segregated beaches, full-body swimsuits, requirements to show marriage licenses when booking a hotel room, banning the use of alcohol and other such measures. And if stability is restored, true investment—rather than donations—will flow again from outside sources. Egypt will still face many challenges, but at least it will have a prayer—albeit not one anyone will be forced to make.

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