Cairo, November 28 As Egyptians went to the polls after 10 days of clashes between protesters and security forces, many Arab observers focused on a different fissure -- between Islamists and the rest of the opposition.
The recent street demonstrations, opposing efforts by the interim military regime to hold onto power, included both the Muslim Brotherhood and secular movements initially. When security forces bent on clearing Cairo's Tahrir Square began attacking protesters, the Brotherhood's members were noticeably absent. Eventually, the group organized its own large rally--directed not against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces but against Israel--in another part of the city.
Critics responded that the Brotherhood was trying to position itself favorably with the military in advance of the start of parliamentary voting. The full parliament will be elected in a series of votes ending in March.
The Brotherhood, which is expected to do well at the polls, had argued that voting must go forward as planned despite the recent street violence, in which dozens have been killed. Some other protesters had pressed for a postponement. After journalists reported that a leading member of the Brotherhood was ejected from the square after a failed dialogue with protesters on the subject, the Cairo-based daily Al Masri Al Yawm proclaimed, "Al-Tahrir youths declare the Muslim Brotherhood’s defeat in the Square.”
Ala al-Ghatrifi, a columnist for the paper, welcomed the group “back to the dustbin of history,” an apparent reference to the fact that earlier this year the Brotherhood also sat out pro-democracy protests until it became clear the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak was fatally weakened.
In the Beirut-based daily An-Nahar, columnist Jihad Al Zayn wrote that the “the major cultural-political division” now confronting Egypt, and perhaps the Middle East as a whole, “is one between radicals on the one hand and a secular mix on the other hand.” The radicals, he wrote, referring to the Islamists, “enjoy a social majority in the current circumstances of East.” The secularists in the square, he said, represent the “elite masses,” which are “large but still represent a minority, especially at the voting station.” Their demonstrations, he said, were not just aimed at curbing the excesses of the military regime but also at "halting the expected political ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which would result in "potential costs to social freedoms."
Mohammad Salah, a columnist for the London-based, Saudi owned Al-Hayat, blamed the secularists themselves for their poor electoral prospects, arguing that they "exhaust their members and supporters with failed million-man marches," when they should be coordinating plans to achieve electoral gains. Because of a lack of cooperation, a number of secular candidates faced off against one another on the same ballot.
Salah criticized the Islamists, too. He wrote that all the main forces participating in the election “seem like they do not want to compete over the votes of electors." Instead, he said, each group seems preoccupied with ensuring the election process results in its "seizing control of the country" so it can "guarantee it remains in power.” He despaired that "everything reflects the broad polarization taking place on the political scene."
Writing in the Egyptian daily As-Shorouk, columnist Fahmy Houeidi seconded that idea. He noted that after the first of the recent protests, on Nov. 18, an Egyptian paper carried the headline “Islamists are showcasing their power in Tahrir Square.” A second headline quoted secular parties calling the protest "The Friday of Kandahar." On the same page, the paper ran a photograph of three women wearing the full-body niqab, popular among conservative Muslim women. In fact, two of the women were newspaper staff who had worn the outfits to report on the attitudes of women within the Muslim Brotherhood. Wrote Houeidi: “The impression one gets from reading the reports and looking at the picture of the three ladies is that the events that took place in Cairo's Tahrir Square were nothing but a showcase of the Egyptian wing of the Taliban movement.”
Houedi wrote that a wide range of media figures and political leaders had approached events of the past year in a similarly "dogmatic" fashion. He continued: “Some voices insist on dividing the country into two camps: the Islamists on one side and the secularists and liberals on the other side. This division is wrong and dangerous. It adopts the position of some intellectuals who have fought in the Egyptian political arena for at least half the past century. They took their differences to the street and dragged others behind them. These differences completely contradict the soul of the original Jan. 25 revolution, which brought everybody together in the Egyptian bouquet.”
Of course, there's nothing like a loathed dictator to bring everyone together. Now Egyptians will have to figure out how to live with their differences without that unifying force, or better yet, to resolve them.