Last Friday marked the second anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th revolution, which toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yet the weekend’s celebration has been marred by five straight days of clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. Thus far, the violence has taken the lives of 51 Egyptians and wounded 1,139 more.
By Sunday, Egypt’s new government had effectively lost control of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia. In response, President Mohamed Morsi revived the Mubarak-era emergency law in these major Suez Canal cities, hoping to bring in the military to reinstate order. At the same time, President Morsi invited opposition forces to a national dialogue to discuss the current unrest, but the primary opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, refused, calling the dialogue a “façade.”
This weekend’s developments are the latest manifestations of one of the biggest challenges facing Egypt’s young democracy: an ever-increasing polarization between the regime and the secular opposition. On this second anniversary, it is important to look back and trace how this polarization has developed over the course of Egypt’s transition, and why this division now runs so deep as to preclude even dialogue.
On January 25, 2011, predominantly secular revolutionaries poured into Tahrir Square, initiating what became an incredible 18-day uprising ousting strongman Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood joined these secularist forces on January 28, but their tentative alliance in overthrowing Mubarak quickly began to unravel in the absence of a common enemy. Unlike in Tunisia, where Islamists and secularists had no choice but to compromise to outline the path of the transition, in Egypt they instead attempted to curry favor with the military leadership. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) initially appeared to side with the Brotherhood, and in March 2011 issued a constitutional declaration charting a path toward relatively early elections – a timeframe that would favor the better-organized Islamist movement.
Yet the SCAF, eager to maintain its power through Mubarak-style divide-and-rule tactics, then appeared to purposefully stoke Egypt’s Islamist-secular divisions. In August 2011, the SCAF floated the idea of supra-constitutional principles that would govern the drafting of the new constitution. The Brotherhood, predicting that it would win the majority of seats in the constituent assembly, viewed these principles as limitations to its influence that were designed primarily to preserve the military’s interests, as the principles denied civilian oversight of the military’s budget. Yet the principles also included many of the human rights protections secularists sought, polarizing them against the Brotherhood.
In the week leading up to the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, the secular revolutionaries gathered in record numbers in protest of military rule, yet the Brotherhood refused to join. Instead, it proceeded to sweep the parliamentary elections along with the more ultraconservative Salafis, fanning secularists’ fears of Islamist domination. When this Islamist-led parliament was then dissolved by military decree in June 2012, the secularists offered no remorse – and the Brotherhood noticed.
The Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi then won a narrow victory in the June 2012 presidential elections and became Egypt’s first post-revolution president. Over the next few months, Egypt’s 100-member constituent assembly – charged with drafting the new constitution – faced ever-increasing withdrawals from secularist delegates. By the time the assembly finished drafting the constitution, only a few secularists remained, making the greater Islamic tone of the constitution unsurprising.
When President Morsi in November 2012 sought to protect this draft constitution by immunizing the constituent assembly from judicial dissolution, secularists had had enough. In the lead-up to the constitutional referendum last December, clashes erupted outside of the presidential palace between Brotherhood supporters and secularists, which left 7 dead and over 600 injured. In addition, nearly 30 Brotherhood offices were ransacked or burned, while Brotherhood supporters detained and tortured opposition protesters – neither of which seem very conducive to dialogue.
Out of the crisis over the constitution emerged the National Salvation Front (NSF), the largest coalition of secularist forces Egypt has seen to date. The NSF, led by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, and former Arab League head Amr Moussa, has repeatedly boycotted any dialogue with President Morsi, calling his offers of negotiation insincere and demanding certain preconditions. In a statement on Sunday, the NSF announced that it would also boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections unless five demands are met, including revamping the “distorted constitution” and creating a national salvation government – demands unlikely to be met by the Islamist government.
By definition, Islamists and secularists will always disagree on the role of religion in the state. On this issue, they will always compete. But for Egypt’s democracy to stabilize, they must come to an agreement on the rules of the game in which they will compete. Until they do that, instability will persist, and the revolution will continue.