Egypt’s party poopers

2012-11-06 00:00

The more things have changed in North Africa the more they remain the same. The uprisings last year were an excellent demonstration of the agency of a people hungry for control over their destny, yet this ambiguity was brought home to me when I attended a workshop of the AU on peace building convened by the new AU Commission chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, over the week end.

Ordinary Egyptians still talk with pride about the amazing things they were able to do, liberating their country from the iron fist of Hosni Mubarak. From the airport in Cairo, visitors are greeted with reminders of the “revolution” that happened. But you immediately also notice that the revolution is being reversed, with top news headlines being about the capturing the post-revolution era by conservative groups. These groups include Islamists in control of parliament who want to reverse the gains of the revolution by imposing new restrictions on how people dress in public, what position women can hold in society, and by forcing a return of the genital mutilation custom.

There is palpable anxiety amongst the urban middle classes who took the lead in the uprisings that the new Egypt that is fast emerging may actually be worse than the one under Mubarak. Like in Tunisia where conservative attitudes are growing and influencing the tempo and content of politics, Egypt’s politics teeters on the brink of despair for the very agents of change the country witnessed last year. On the streets of Cairo, young women are bracing themselves for mandatory wearing of the burka (head-gear) and many are becoming disillusioned with politics as a platform for change.

The question is how countries that inspired so many a mere 18 months ago have retreated from the advances they made and what impact this will have on the prospects of democratic consolidation in Africa? It is very clear from the North African story that mass uprisings are not sufficient vehicle for serious political change.

This is because agents of uprisings have a much clearer idea of how to bring down unpopular government than they do of what kind of post-crisis government to build. In this case, the agents of change moved back to their corners (individualistic and private middle class lives) once the tyrant had been forced out of power, leaving a huge vacuum for a constellation of conservative forces including elements in the Muslim Brotherhood to lead in fashioning a new era for Egypt. The agents of change thus failed to see the process of “revolution” to its logical end, the peaceful political processes. It is very clear to me from having observed public discourses in Egypt that conservative Islamists, Christians and traditionalists outnumber the progressive-minded middle class, but as Jesse Jackson once said, an organised minority is a political majority.

After much resistance, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, who has tried to project himself as a moderate, has acceded to Islamists’ demand that the new constitution be inspired by Sharia law. While Salafists and other ultra-conservative Islamists demand that Sharia rulings undergird the constitution, liberals wanted a general recognition of having inspired the constitution. Morsi has finally settled for a phrasing that refers to “the principles of Sharia”. Just this week-end, Morsi’s party, the Brotherhood, assured concerned Egyptians that Sharia will not be implemented until society had been prepared and conscientised about it. This will complicate things for non-Muslims including Christians in Egypt who would now have to be taught the Sharia in order to prepare them for its application.

In a touch of irony, the Brotherhood statement came just a day before the Egyptian Coptic Christian fraternity elected a new presiding bishop on Saturday in a widely reported ceremony. This event reminded many in Egypt that the country has diverse peoples, cultures and spiritual leanings. Mainstream Islamists oppose the attempts by Islamists on the fringe to eliminate Christians, but they seem not to have any idea as to how Sharia law could apply to non-Muslims. Coptic Christians now join women and middle class people in their deep anxiety about the future of the post-uprisings Egypt.

Lessons for us include the point that if people anywhere want change, they need to think carefully as much about what to remove as about what exactly to replace it with. South Africa needs to stand with the people of Egypt in the spirit of African solidarity to support the creation of a tolerant and inclusive political dispensation. And the AU must put forward a charter on religious tolerance to guide this solidarity.

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