The Arab Religious-Secular Balance on Center Stage

The latest from Global Ethics Fellow Rami Khouri:

BOSTON -- There are many ways in which one can analyze the current transformations across parts of the Arab world in the wave of populist revolutions that overthrew some dictators and still threaten others. The one lens that I find most useful for analyzing the changes underway and the challenges ahead sees the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen -- where the transformation processes are most advanced -- as aiming to achieve a series of new balances in several critical realms. 

The most important ones in my view are the balance between military and civilian authority, between religiosity and secularism, between central government and decentralized regional authority, between the private and public sectors, between tribal/sectarian and national identity, and between indigenous and foreign values. Whether and to what extent these balances reach a point of equilibrium that reflects a credible national consensus will largely determine if these countries remain stable and enjoy a satisfactory governance system, regardless of its degree of democracy. 

The most advanced examples of these balance-seeking transitions are Tunisia and Egypt, which have been transitioning for over a year and a half now, thus providing sufficient experience to evaluate some key trends, successes and challenges. My impression is that the balance between military and civilian rule is well on the way to being defined in favor of civilian oversight of the military, though with continuing privileges for the military officer corps. The shock and definitive result of the overthrow of the former regimes by street demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were so severe that they have stamped the new phenomenon of populist legitimacy on the entire political governance system. 

It is difficult for any one group -- the armed forces, Islamists, judges, or old guard politicians -- to try to unilaterally control political power and exclude other actors. If they do try this, they will quickly feel the counter-forces of populist legitimacy that force them to comply with the single most important new development in the region, which is the applicability, and perhaps even the supremacy, of the principle of the consent of the governed in some Arab countries. 

With the civilian-military balance gradually on the way to being redefined, the single most important balance now being negotiated across much of the Arab world is that between religious and secular forces. This predominantly pits Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups against others that do not explicitly use religion to define their governing principles. (It is important to note that the struggle between secular and religious forces is not only an Arab issue. The three other powerful countries in the region -- Israel, Turkey and Iran -- also each grapple with a variation of this secular-religious divide, so we should not fall prey to the simplistic view that Arabs or Muslims have a special problem with religion in public life.) 

As the people of Egypt and Tunisia now work their way through this decisive stage of writing and validating new constitutions, the religious-secular contest will reach its peak. All interested parties understand the significance of new constitutions that will define national values and governance systems for years to come. Islamists in both countries are trying to shape constitutions that give a special role to Islamic dictates and values in national life, and also in personal issues like the role of women in society. Others, predominantly Muslims who share the personal commitment to Islamic values but see human rights and common citizenship rights rather than any religion as the defining element in constitution-writing, have started to organize to push back against the Islamists.

We have witnessed in the past six months important initial attempts by secular, nationalist, leftist and progressive parties in Tunisia and Egypt to form larger coalitions that could better confront the dominant Islamists who now head the existing governments. The push-backs against the ruling Islamists have included political mobilization and coalition building attempts by non-religious groups and street demonstrations in both countries. In Tunisia, non-religious groups have registered a small but meaningful gain with the decision to elect the president through a national vote rather than by parliament, where the Islamists of the Nahda Party dominate. 

We should expect these and other dynamics to go on for some years, but in the short run the center of gravity of the secular-religious face-off will shift towards public discussions of the draft constitutions that have now started circulating in the countries involved and even abroad among interested expatriates. This in itself is a major milestone and a practical victory for the revolutions that overthrew the former autocrats last year. We have much to celebrate in watching ordinary Egyptians and Tunisians openly debate their new constitutions and coming to a national consensus that will shape the exercise of power for decades to come. 

If Arab countries can peacefully and democratically define a new military-civilian power balance and the balance of religious-secular values in their constitutions and public spheres, these would be two enormous gains that will long loom as a critical foundation for sensible and legitimate nation-building in the years ahead.


Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

[PHOTO CREDIT: Mr. Theklan (CC).]

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