Long before the recent upheavals in Egypt, there were hints that change in the country was in the works.

In August 2009, Michael Slackman of The New York Times published an article entitled “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates”, in which he discussed how the internet had allowed for the widespread circulation within Egyptian media of the views of Gamal al-Banna, the 88 year-old brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. Gamal al-Banna is known for his unconventional, some would say even “liberal”—though these terms are unhelpful—views on Islam. According to Slackman, many Egyptian religious authorities, including Sheik Omar el Deeb of Al Azhar University, had rejected al-Banna’s views, describing them as “outside the scope of religion.” Analyzing the relative openings for public discussion of al-Banna’s controversial opinions, Slackman suggested that several factors had contributed to this new atmosphere of openness, including a general disillusionment amongst Egyptians towards radical ideologies, such as those of Al Qaeda, as well as President Obama’s outreach to Egypt and the Muslim world in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, which undercut accusations of a U.S. war against Islam. Citing “Egyptian political analysts”, Slackman concluded that these developments had made it “easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas.”

In light of recent events, what is to be made of this idea of “liberal Muslims promoting Western secular ideas”? In fact, the ideological baggage that this notion carries helps to explain why the United States failed to see the changes now happening in Egypt. Though the events of the past few weeks cannot be subsumed under this secular versus Islamist rubric, Slackman’s attempt to reduce Egyptian society to this simplistic view did just that, illuminating a mindset prevalent within the United States that prevented the government from seeing the Egyptian revolution from a mile away.

The Need For a New Political Vocabulary

To categorize a range of opinions, which are not easily associated with hard-line “religious” views, as “liberal,” “secular” and “Western” would be an error, and Slackman’s phrasing highlights this need for a new political vocabulary to discuss the relations between political authority and religion.

This new vocabulary would capture parts of the political and social movements represented by some elements of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), and, perhaps to a degree, by thinkers like Gamal al-Banna and others in Egypt whose contributions to the religious and political landscape defy the “secular versus Islamist” binary, which has restricted the range of political possibilities within Egypt, up to and including the present revolutionary moment. The dominance of the secular versus Islamist discourse has narrowed the political imagination not just of prominent journalists such as Slackman, but also of Western government officials, religious leaders and academic commentators, making them unable to understand the Egyptian protestors, who have been thinking and acting outside of this narrow framework.

Kefaya: A Movement Unseen and Underappreciated

Because of the dominance of this rhetoric, the significance of developments within Egypt over the last several years went largely unseen, misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West. For instance, the Egyptian oppositional movement Kefaya (“Enough” in Arabic), which played a crucial role in organizing the recent Egyptian demonstrations, has for several years embodied a departure from the old secular/Islamist categories. The Kefaya coalition demanded that President Mubarak cede power, opposed absolutist and hereditary rule, and sought to break the general paralysis of Egyptian politics.[1] The question of secular and religious identity was not at the forefront of the movement’s concerns – it defined itself as neither secular nor religious, but rather as oppositional.

A 2008 National Defense Research Institute (RAND) report,[2] prepared for the U.S. Defense Secretary, contains interesting language about Kefaya’s orientation, which once again highlights the inability of many Western observers to move beyond the secular versus Islamist framework. In its report, RAND acknowledged the movement’s significance, but ultimately failed to locate a new political vocabulary to situate the group within Egypt’s emerging contestatory political landscape, thereby illustrating the trends and tendencies that led the United States to fail in anticipating recent events in Egypt.

Tasked with describing Kefaya and its perceived demise, the RAND report stumbled over labels such as ‘secular’ and ‘religious,’ as the authors cast about for terms to describe a coalition that fit only awkwardly into either category. Yet, almost despite themselves, these categories played a crucial role in RAND’s account of the movement’s alleged failure. Attributing some of the blame for Kefaya’s waning influence on tensions between secularist and Islamist elements within the movement, the report noted that “[t]he fear and suspicion the secularists and Islamists felt for one another undermined what was a fruitful partnership built on mutual anticorruption and anti-authoritarian goals” (35). The report further observed that, “due to the deep misunderstanding of the concept of secularism, purely secular political movements currently appeal to only a narrow segment of Egyptian and other Arab societies” (48), and “even liberal secularists who would like to see the emergence of a U.S.-style political system in the Arab world are careful to disassociate themselves from the United States” (46). The report concluded that, “the challenge of accommodating both secular and religious opposition organizations is prevalent throughout the region as it struggles with issues such as the relationship between politics and religion and combining secular education with institutions of religious education” (34), and that “[w]hile secularists bring international respectability and connections, Islamists are considered by more Egyptians to be more trustworthy and authentic” (34-5).

As is evidenced by this language, as well as Kefaya’s crucial role in recent events in the country, the RAND report clearly struggled, and ultimately failed, to represent the realities that existed outside of a secular versus Islamist framework. This reality was precisely where Kefaya existed, though RAND was unable to locate it. Resorting to a secular versus religious political rubric made it difficult, if not impossible, for the RAND analysts to see or name alternative conceptions of political action and modalities of political agency that have been (and still are) struggling for recognition in the Middle East and North Africa. This new reality embodies a struggle for identity and representation in an arena that had been defined by a rigid secular-Islamic outlook that has been vociferously defended by the region’s authoritarian rulers and their fearful allies abroad.

Although RAND failed to see the potential of Kefaya, others, including the eminent anthropologist Talal Asad, have spoken eloquently of the movement’s potential long before the events of the winter of 2011. In a 2008 lecture given at the University of California-Berkeley, Professor Asad observed that:

Kefaya . . . brings together a variety of social elements—Muslims and Christians, Islamists and secular liberals, men and women, professionals and labor unionists—in a coalition against the authoritarian, neo-liberal state. It is not that there is now a happy union of all these elements, but that an irreducible plurality persists as a foundation of political sensibility. What gathers secular liberals and Islamists together—despite a measure of mutual unease—is precisely not their belief, but their oppositional attitude, their common feeling that circumstances in Egypt have become intolerable, more specifically their sense of outrage at the brutality and corruption of the state. They speak of their opposition as something they did not choose but were compelled to take up. However, this situation is not merely negative; it also provides a space of daily interaction and negotiation. Discreet and not so discreet intrusions by American imperial power, as well as the stranglehold that the Mubarak regime has on the political-economic system, make teleology virtually impossible. What the future holds remains unclear. But the religiosity of individual Muslims involved in this movement whom I have encountered is a mode of being often inwardly unsettled yet outwardly civil. This religiosity seeks the cultivation of feelings attuned to mutual care within the community, and in that sense it can lay claim to a democratic ethos. To what extent this is successfully cultivated among significant numbers of people is of course another matter, but my point is that belief in the sense of private conviction has little to do with it.[3]

Conclusion

The RAND report was unambiguous in its support for Kefaya, concluding with a series of recommendations about how the United States could back the movement’s efforts. However, in the end, U.S. support was neither needed nor wanted. The activities of Kefaya and the Egyptian protest movement that it helped to engender have independently created new spaces for politics located outside of the secular-religious dichotomy of yesterday’s autocrats. Though unseen or misunderstood in the West, Kefaya has been gesturing towards the potential of this democratic ethos for years. Today many Egyptians are working hard to institutionalize it.

*Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is an international political theorist and assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. Author of  The Politics of Secularism in International Relations and co-editor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age, she also writes on the regional and international politics of the Middle East.


[1] The architects of the Kefaya coalition were diverse, ranging from communist–leaning intellectuals such as co-founder George Ishaq to the founder of the al-Wasat party Abul-Ela Madi to Majid Ahmad Hussein, described by RAND as “an Islamist who ardently believes in the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’” (11).

[2] Nadia Oweidat, Cheryl Benard, Dale Stahl, Walid Kildani, Edward O’Connell, & Audra K. Grant, “The Kefaya Movement: A Case Study of a Grassroots Reform Initiative.” Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 2008. The Preface describes the report as “part of the RAND National Security Research Division’s Alternative Strategy Initiative, sponsored by the Rapid Reaction Technology Office in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. The Alternative Strategy Initiative includes research on creative use of the media, radicalization of youth, civic involvement to stem sectarian violence, the provision of social services to mobilize aggrieved sectors of indigenous populations, and…alternative movements (p. iii).”

[3] Talal Asad, “Thinking About Religious Belief and Politics,” Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, Robert Orsi, ed. (forthcoming).