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Untangling sectarianism from politics is the best guarantee that Egypt’s nascent democracy will take root

Tuesday 22 March 2011, by siawi

The Financial Times

Egypt must tame sectarianism

By Heba Saleh

Published: March 21 2011

Egyptians turned out in their millions to vote in Saturday’s referendum on constitutional amendments. For nearly all those involved, this was the first time they had taken part in a free and fair vote.

On the surface, the event provided a heartening sight to anyone harbouring hopes of a democratic future for the Arab world’s biggest nation. On closer reflection, the outcome was perhaps less comforting.

Under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, ousted last month by a popular revolt, few people bothered to vote because they knew that fraud would ensure the ballot box yielded whatever outcome was desired by the country’s rulers.

But now with new political forces beginning to emerge, and with long-repressed factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood resurgent, there is a strong sense that Egypt’s future is being extensively reshaped.

Many more citizens than at any time in living memory now want to be part of this process. Voter turnout in the referendum was 41 per cent – not as high as some had expected – but still much higher than in polls under Mr Mubarak.

The official results show that 77 per cent of voters approved the constitutional amendments sponsored by the council of military leaders who have stepped in to rule the country provisionally.

The vote means the army can press ahead with a tight schedule for the transition, holding parliamentary elections in September and a presidential poll before the end of the year.

Under the amendments, a new constitution will be drafted by a committee elected by the new parliament. It means the groups that emerge with the largest blocs of seats in that assembly will have the biggest hand in forging the country’s political system.

This, however, is a prospect that alarms Egyptian liberals because the tight schedule means that only the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr Mubarak’s still-effective National Democratic party are sufficiently organised for September’s elections.

Secular groups and leaders of the coalition of young activists that launched the revolution had pressed for a “No” vote, and asked the military for a longer transition. It now seems unlikely they will have that time, but they would do well to learn lessons from the referendum to help them prepare.

The most worrying aspect of the poll was the way it turned in many people’s minds from a consultation over constitutional arrangements to a confrontation between Islam and secularism. Salafi groups, who follow a strict brand of Islam, lined up behind the Muslim Brotherhood and distributed leaflets carrying appeals from religious scholars to vote “Yes” because it was an Islamic duty.

Religious propaganda also gave the erroneous impression that failing to support the changes meant a secular constitution would be drafted. This, the Salafis argued, would have meant dropping an article that makes the principles of Islamic law the main source of Egyptian legislation. True, many people voted “Yes” because they believed it would bring stability, but a proportion voted thinking they were defending Egypt’s Islamic identity. Although Brotherhood leaders distanced themselves from calls to vote “Yes” as a religious duty, not enough was done to counteract the Salafi message.

Egyptian Christians, estimated at 10 per cent of the population, took fright at the prospect of an assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and turned out in force to oppose the amendments.

And here lies the danger. Sectarianism has long simmered under the surface, periodically erupting in clashes between Muslims and Christians. Any political process that aggravates these tensions increases the risk of violence.

Ignoring religion, however, is not the answer. If they are to make any headway, Egypt’s new political forces will need to reassure Muslim and Christian voters that their religious concerns will be addressed. They will also need to convince voters that they do not represent an assault on the country’s Islamic identity.

This will be difficult, requiring communication and hard work throughout the country. Time may be short, but untangling sectarianism from politics is the best guarantee that Egypt’s nascent democracy will take root and flourish.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.