Islamists, Secularists and Egypt's Crisis of Governance

Date of source:
29 Jan 2013
Egyptian Defense Minister Gen.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's warning
Tuesday that the Egyptian
government could collapse under
the pressure of ongoing violent
unrest highlights the degree to
which the political and
security situation in the Arab
world's most important
country has deteriorated. Many
would argue secularists are necessary for a functioning democracy. However, it could also be
argued that there is too much focus on Egypt's Islamists as the obstacle to democracy, when in
fact secularists there are also exhibiting anti-democratic attitudes. Neither side appears to truly
support democracy.
Egypt is not the only country facing a crisis of governance. Every single state in the region
affected by the Arab Spring is struggling in varying degrees to govern, with Libya and Syria
being the extreme cases. Separately, the democratic polity in Iraq, fashioned by the United
States, also appears to be coming apart. 
Societies have been polarized by both the electoral rise of
Islamists and ethnic and religious divisions (as is the case in
Iraq), which explains this state of affairs to a degree. But a
deeper malaise is influencing the situation: Arab countries
are becoming increasingly more difficult to govern,
regardless of whether the ruling elite is Islamist, secular,
civilian or military. The reason for this is that the old
autocratic order is either gone or is on its way out and a new
democratic one is likely to remain elusive in the near term. 
That said, there is also no turning back. If one thing was learned from the Arab Spring it is that
governing solely through force is not sufficient in this new era. If anything, a purely coercive
strategy is likely to backfire and exacerbate matters, as is the case in Syria. 
Of course, the countries in the midst of civil war, like Syria, or the countries dangerously close to
beginning one, like Libya or Iraq, are in an altogether different league. But even in countries like
Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where governance is not completely broken, it doesn't matter which
actor is governing because not one of them has a good solution. The issue is not about who can
craft a better policy for stability; the issue is the lack of shared values, such as a willingness to
deal with disputes that are politically critical to democratic governance. 
In addition, there is an overemphasis on protest as a tactic as well as a distrust of government of
any kind. It doesn't matter which political force gets into office because they all face the same
objective reality. Democratic governance requires that people not focus only on the right to
protest; they also need to accept and trust in the political process and work within constitutional
But in Egypt, it appears that whichever faction is in opposition believes it must protest against
the one is power, rather than use peaceful political means to attain power for itself. And if those
opposition forces came to power, they would find themselves in the same position. In essence,
none of the factions is behaving democratically.
Making matters worse, the decline of autocratic structures has created the opportunity for forces \
that do not represent any organized political party to engage in violence. The rioting by and
clashes between rival Egyptian soccer leagues is a key example. 
For now, the one institution that historically has held the modern Egyptian republic together, its
armed forces, is hoping that the government and the opposition can agree on a strategy to end
the protests and stabilize the country. Egypt's general staff realizes that imposing martial law is
risky. But in the event that the administration of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi cannot
handle the situation, the army may have no choice but to intervene since the risks of inaction
outweigh the risks of trying to impose order by force.
For well over a century, there has been a great debate over the compatibility of democracy and
Islam. The long autocratic age followed by the Arab Spring show that the lack of democracy is
not purely due to religious views but rather a general lack of democratic values. It is not clear
what will become of the very messy transition under way in Egypt, but because of its central
status in the Arab world, events there could offer insights about what could happen elsewhere in
the region.