Mustafa-Norton and secularists

I was reading this op-ed by Hala Mustafa and A.R. Norton and was struck by several things. First, this assertion:

One of the dirty little secrets of Egyptian politics is that government squashes secular opponents while allowing Islamist opposition (and leftist groups) freer rein, including privileged access to the media and more scope to campaign for political office when there are carefully controlled national elections.
This may have been true in the 1970s during Sadat's purges against leftists and Nasserists, when he empowered some Islamists and even, according to Egyptian leftist lore, pretty much created the Gamaa Islamiya from scratch. But it's a rather hard statement to pull off now, after the most wide-ranging crackdown on Islamist since the Nasser era. It's also rather disingenuous to claim that Islamists are given preferential treatment in the media when they are not allowed a party, a newspaper, and several of their publications have been shut down. In fact, aside from non-fiction publishing, I don't see how political Islamists are dominant.

Moreover, liberal and leftists have for decades been given platforms of their own in the media. There is a fairly vibrant, if rather shrill, opposition and independent press in Egypt. State newspapers frequently run op-eds by self-described leftists and liberals. State TV, I would suspect, gives more space to liberals, leftists, Arab nationalists, and various other sundry groups (excluding the far left) than Islamists. It is only a recent phenomenon that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have appeared on state TV, for instance.

The real problem with secularists being under-represened in the political arena has to do with something Dr. Mustafa should be all too aware of: a good number of secularists, notably liberals, are quite happy supporting the NDP or staying in loyal opposition parties like the Wafd. She is in case in point: despite being a vocal critic of the NDP, she has remained a member of its Policies Council. Presumably her hope is to gain influence over policy-making in this way; but then again she has complained (to me and in newspaper columns) that the Policies Council is dominated by a few personalities who don't listen to the considerable number of mostly secular-liberal experts who are on it. That was the reason Osama al-Ghazali Harb allegedly left.

Let's face it: the NDP, for all its many flaws, has attracted the cream of secularist, "liberal" Egyptian personalities. It's not until those NDP members who are not just opportunists (for it is a party of opportunists rather than ideologues) decide to make a fuss, leave and start something new that you will really be able to say there is a politically viable independent liberal-democratic movement in Egypt. Until then, the NDP is the liberal-secularist party by default -- the party of liberal autocracy.

More on other aspects of this paper later.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.