On January 25th, my fellow Egyptian journalists and I thought we would be covering another failed protest. I ended up in front of the High Court where hundreds of policemen surrounded the protesters. A crowd of people were watching the protest from behind a police barricade on the other side of the street. One of the protesters started to chant “One!.. Two!.. Where are the people of Egypt?!” As the crowd began repeating his chant, something unexpected happened. The people who were watching the demonstration pushed the soldiers and tens of them crossed the street and came to join those of us in the protest. For the first time in decades, demonstrators could break the security siege and stand together in the streets of Cairo. The streets shook with the cry “Freedom, Freedom.”
The question that now hangs over Egypt is whether real freedom is possible, or whether the country inevitably will fall under authoritarian control or the rule of Islamic extremists. As an Egyptian and as a devout mainstream Muslim who chose to participate in the protests, I believe that there is hope for a future of freedom in Egypt.
It is both necessary and possible for Egypt to steer a course between both political authoritarianism and an extremist interpretation of Islam that would hinder our transition to liberal democracy and would reject freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and equality and dignity for all people regardless of their beliefs or races.
The future of religious freedom was a central concern for many who looked warily on the demonstrations. Many Egyptian Christians, for example, initially rejected the protests. However, the attitude of many of these Christians changed when they saw the Quran and the Cross rise together in Tahrir Square in Cairo. This change was beautifully demonstrated when Christian protesters guarded their Muslims counterparts while Muslims were praying and the Muslims did the same for the Christians. Where I stood in Tahrir Square, now called by many “Liberation Square,” I saw Egypt’s two major religious groups protect each other from the bloody and deadly attacks of Mubarak’s thugs.
There are several factors supporting the hypothesis that Egypt after Mubarak will not be ruled by a religious regime. The vast majority of Egyptians are Sunni, and unlike Shiite Muslims they do not follow a single interpretive body. Instead of having loyalty to one Islamic figure or group, they rely on usually moderate interpretations of the Quran and Sunna (the instructions and behavior of the Prophet Mohammed).
What had made the Muslim Brotherhood the most influential opposition group in Egypt during Mubarak’s era was that Mubarak blocked, denigrated, and even imprisoned all non-religious political parties and figures who could have been viable alternatives to Mubarak. At the same time Mubarak was relatively tolerant of the political Islamic movement in Egypt. He did this because the Islamic movement gave him a bogeyman with which he could threaten any country that pushed for real democratic reforms.
Another factor that gave the Muslim Brotherhood the power to appear as the only alternative to Mubarak’s regime was that the vast majority of Egyptians are not involved in politics. Therefore the Brotherhood was the only organized alternative. There is no accurate count of its members, but some experts estimated that the number ranges between 500,000 and 1 million, while the permitted parties have just a few tens, hundreds, or thousands of active members.
Given the relative insignificance of the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood compared to the 40 million Egyptians who are eligible to vote in elections, there is cause for cautious optimism that Egyptians will be able to steer another course. It is worth noting that about 10% of Egypt’s population (of 83 million) is Christian, and these people would have strong reasons to vote against an Islamist party.
It is also important to consider that in Egypt there are many different Sunni Muslim religious organizations and movements which are not part of the Muslim Brotherhood and which are not involved in politics. These other Muslim currents vary in their interpretations of Islam, and many disagree with the Brotherhood’s vision of Islam. These theological differences are likely to be expressed politically.
Though Egyptians admittedly have little experience with democratic institutions, I can testify to the fact that many Egyptians keenly desire to build a vibrant, liberal civic space and would work to avoid the creation of a religious state.
It is crucial that the pro-democracy activists move quickly to engage the population and gain support in parliamentary and presidential elections, and that they spread liberal principles in the society through media, public events, and face-to-face encounters. Liberal youth also need to work quickly and with perseverance, both through social networks and on the ground.
In the near term, Egyptians must focus on reintroducing global values, including a return to the roots of meaning in the values of a healthy secularism, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. We need to help the population at large understand that these values don’t threaten religion, but rather they provide a foundation upon which to build a better society which can hold within it diversity and differences in a peaceful manner.
The mid-term focus needs to be on education and critical thinking. Developing open-minded generations will help in securing a better future for Egypt. Because of three decades of Western support for Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, there is a deep and abiding feeling that Westerners do not want Egypt to progress, that they wish Egypt to remain dependent on U.S. aid. Learning that the West is not against the progress of the Egyptian people will open hearts and minds to Western values.
Fostering an environment of hatred of the West and Western allies helped Mubarak blame his failures on the “hidden hand” of the West. When Egyptians come to see that Mubarak’s regime covered up its faults by promoting false information about supposed “Western plots” against Egypt, attitudes towards many values that have been labeled as “Western,” including freedom of speech, association, and religion, may shift. Egypt’s future is uncertain, but it should give cautious hope to all lovers of freedom.