Though U.S. observers tend to view Egypt’s politics through a secular-vs.-Islamist lens, a clearer way of seeing what’s happening in that important Arab country is to examine other issues, like the economy, that are motivating Egyptians, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
A downbeat report in the Washington Post about events in Egypt starts by observing: “Egypt’s disparate opposition groups remain so divided that analysts and activists say they risk losing the last major decision-making body in the country to Islamists when the country votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.”
This message, and the consternation that seems to go with it, says at least as much about our own way of looking at domestic divisions and political competition in a country such as Egypt as it does about how the people in those countries look at those things.
The Islamist-vs.-secular dimension has become for us an all-purpose lens through which we seem to view just about everything going on not only in Egypt but also in several other Middle Eastern countries, especially ones buffeted most by the turbulence of the Arab Spring.
Yes, the Islamist/secular dimension is salient for many Egyptians, but it is only one dimension of many. The Post article describes various other ones, which account for that intra-opposition division that is the subject of the article.
There are differences over economic policy, for example, with leftists being opposed to a loan from the International Monetary Fund (presumably because of the conditions that would be attached to the loan) and free-market liberals having different views. Americans differ over economic policy all the time; why can’t Egyptians?
One could just as easily use the same lens, but generally we don’t, in viewing political competition next door in Israel, where they just had an election. There is a religious/secular divide in Israel, too, with the political religionists there having some remarkable similarities to their Islamist counterparts in Egypt and other nearby Muslim-majority countries.
This is not the only political divide, however, that matters in Israel. Some of us viewing Israeli politics from afar might want to use a different lens, colored in terms of things that concern us such as policy toward the Palestinians or toward Iran. But those issues appear to have played even less of a role in the just-concluded Israeli election campaign. Relying solely on either of these lenses would preclude a good understanding of Israeli politics.
In Egypt, there are legitimate concerns about some of what President Mohamed Morsi has done and thus concerns about opposition to him being divided, but this is not just an Islamist-vs.-secular thing. One should be concerned about some of his moves that appear to be in an authoritarian direction, but there is nothing specifically Islamist about those moves. (They resemble some of the tactics used by his predecessor, the very secular Hosni Mubarak.)
There also is Morsi’s past objectionable language about Israel, but again there is nothing Islamist about it. (One can hear similar invective about Israel from most parts of the Egyptian political spectrum.)
It is true that in some circumstances, given how some electoral laws work, divisions of the sort the Post article describes can have major consequences for who rules a country and for that country’s stability and welfare.
One of the leading examples in modern times was a presidential election in Chile in 1970. Probably the most salient political division in Chile at the time was between Marxists and non-Marxists. The non-Marxist camp was divided, and the election was a three-way race among the Marxist Salvador Allende, a Christian Democrat, and a conservative.
Probably either of the latter two candidates would have defeated Allende in a head-to-head race, but in the three-way contest Allende barely got first place with less than 37 percent of the vote. The election was sent to the Chilean legislature, but it simply followed its tradition of awarding the presidency to the first-place finisher. So Allende became president, and the rest, including Augusto Pinochet’s coup and rule by a military junta, is history.
Similar circumstances are not prevailing today in Egypt, but the main point is that we cannot understand well what is going on there, and anticipate what can go well or poorly there, by reducing everything to a struggle between Islamists and secularists.
Nor should we necessarily be unhappy about the sorts of divisions described in the article. Political scientists have a word for those sorts of cross-cutting divisions in which people may be natural allies on some issues but opponents on others. It’s called pluralism. And it is generally considered to be a good thing, as it helps to form the basis for a stable democracy that does not get torn apart by a citizenry that all lines up on one side or the other of a single great divide.
Egypt has yet to demonstrate, of course, whether it has enough of the other ingredients for a stable democracy. But we should be neither surprised nor upset that everyone in Egypt who is not an Islamist is not working in unison against those who are.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)