banning them is the only way

view from a cairo balcony
view from a cairo balcony

The best way to re-integrate the Islamists back into politics  after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president, and the only way democracy will ever work in Egypt is to completely enforce a ban on religious political parties.  Democracy and Islamism  are in fact mutually exclusive,  as the experience of the past two years have clearly demonstrated. These people are not interested in democracy, but in creating a totalitarian Islamic system.

As the process of re-drafting Egypt’s controversial constitution draws to a close, the Islamists — led by the Salafis this time,  since the Muslim Brother are either  in jail or in total disarray   — appear to be gearing up for another battle. They are objecting to the new draft on the basis that it is – allegedly– anti-Islamic. At issue once again is the status of Islam and Sharia.

 The new draft reinstates the old ban on faith-based political parties. It is also introducing a tweak to the second clause that implies that non-Abrahamic religions (other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism),  at least in theory,  can also be protected by the constitution. This has angered the Islamists as well as the conservative Coptic church, which, ironically, appear to have joined hands with their erstwhile enemies to oppose that particular change.

Note the deeply rooted authoritarian tendencies among the two establishments. They are against giving others the rights they themselves enjoy. Whatever happened to that old Abrahamic moral principle:  Do not do to others what you wouldn’t do to yourself !

It all feels like a déjà vu already, but with reversed roles this time. The secular or liberal parties (strictly speaking they are not really secular, since they endorse the principle of Sharia being the main source of legislation-  but that is another story) have proposed the changes, the Islamists are crying foul, thus evoking similar scenes from the Islamist  dominated constituent assembly last year. All what this does is to highlight the fundamental problem that has blighted Egypt since the 2011 revolution :  what role — if any — should religion play in politics.

Egypt will not escape this deadlock without a sustained and concerted effort by the state and the intellectual class to explain to the public why it is such a bad idea in a country like Egypt to mix politics with religion in this way.

It is counter-productive and self-defeating if the state or other members of the “intellegentia” were to challenge the Islamists (as they have always done)  by trying to show that the government is more Islamic than the Islamists. That is a losing battle. They should be challenged on purely pragmatic and rational grounds. This is why and how.

Ever since late president Sadat unleashed the forces of political Islam on Egyptian society to undermine his political enemies,  (and ultimately paid with his own life for that gamble)  the unwritten rules of the game have been stacked in favour of the Islamists. Time to change that.

Neither the state nor anyone else has to prove that they are Muslims (because they are and the Islamists have no right to install themselves as arbitrators of who are the true believers). Let us change that to : It is the Islamists who have to demonstrate in words as well as deeds that they are committed to the democratic value system and not just the ballot box.

The ideology of Islamism automatically  turns any conflict of interest or political rivalry into a religious or sectarian conflict,  with devastating consequences. Not only were there vicious and unprecedented wave of bombs or arson attacks on churches for political reasons, but even mosques have become the scene of violent clashes between supporters and opponents of this or that group.

In Egypt in particular,  religion is an ancient institution and a potent social and emotional force.  Nothing seems to arouse raw passion more than faith,  even before the advent of Islam in the seventh century.  History books abound with blood curdling narratives about sectarian strife in Alexandria already in the fourth century.

Dragging the sacred into the quagmire of politics, will not only fail to purge and sanctify politics, but will also desecrate the sacred.

During previous votes Islamists employed outrageously religious and sectarian slogans, frequently denouncing their rivals as enemies of Islam, Christians or kuffar. That is fundamentally the opposite of what democracy is about.  The Islamists are again using the same tactic to convince their supporters that the new draft constitution will turn Egypt into  Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the river Nile. That is a blatant lie and reflects badly on men who are supposed to be god-fearing Muslims who do not tell lies.

 The contest in Egypt is not and should not be allowed to be  about who is more Islamic than the other, or who is more religious than the other.  Islamists are welcome to take part in political life but on condition that they adapt to the principles of democracy, and not the other way round – using the democratic procedure to serve their narrow sectarian agenda.

In fact, the best way to reintegrate Islamists in the political process is to vigorously enforce the ban on religious parties and religious campaigning because it is fundamentally contrary to democratic values.

That is the deal, everyone  should tell the Islamists in no uncertain terms (and especially their Western friends)  :  You are more than welcome to participate in competitive politics but not on a religious platform. Tell the Egyptian people what solutions you have to jumpstart the economy, to reform the security sector, to improve education and health care, provide housing, create jobs.. etc   and do not  tell them  “vote for us because God is on our side”.  That claim is in itself profoundly un-Islamic.  Islamists have to demonstrate that they do have a programme to solve practical problems,  and not just a prayer mat and a zebiba (prayer bump).

Christian democratic parties in Europe do not tell the electorate to vote for them because the Lord is on their side. German Chancellor Angela Merkel  has a political and economic programme to address specific problems, and that is why people vote for her.

Established democracies can deal with fundamentalist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But in a country still learning to develop a democratic system such groups are extremely disruptive of the process of building a viable democratic system. It is therefore completely justifiable to restrain them and stipulate rigorous conditions for their participation in political life.

(A slightly different version of this  piece was written for the Islamist Gate : )



  • Knowing Egypt for about 20 years now from inside I can comprehend your views. Intellectuals however form part of the Egyptian intelligentsia & provide opinion leaders. Hopefully a constructive debate to exclude religion from active politics will not prerequisite to question that ‘Islam is a political system; not only a religion’ ..

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