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Secularism in Egypt Once Again Means Authoritarianism and No-one Is Stepping in to Suggest Otherwise

17/08/2013 17:09 BST | Updated 17/10/2013 10:12 BST

The scenes of slaughter which have followed the ousting in a coup of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi have shocked the world. With hundreds killed and the military reasserting itself in the country as the ruling junta, it seems that the democratic experiment of 2011-12 will go down as a blip in unbroken centuries of dictatorship in the Middle-East. People will no doubt be debating the reasons for the collapse of Egypt's first liberal democracy for years and much of the blame can certainly be levelled at the feet of political Islam. The accusation that religion and politics don't mix might seem reaffirmed by the events of the last few years - but a fundamental problem has been the lack of a viable secular alternative.

The main secular party in Egypt, the National Salvation Front, has abandoned all credibility. Riding a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the incompetent government of Mohamed Mursi, they foolishly threw their lot in with the military. Whether this was opportunism, conspiratorial or even a genuine belief that Egypt's most reactionary institution could be used for the good of the masses, their choice has made them in the eyes of the world complicit with the actions of the army. With the recent resignation of the NSF's most famous face, Mohamad ElBaradei and spokesperson Khaled Dawoud (seen so often on TV defending the coup and brutal anti-Islamist raids) it would seem the group is in total dissary. ElBaradei's sudden change of conscious comes too late - it only reaffirms his own ignorance in supporting the military coup. His credibility should be gone for good now.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood are also more than happy to play up the secular/religious divide in this conflict over imperialist or geopolitical causes. For many Islamists around the world, every popular movement against them is portrayed as an attack on Islam and the rights of Muslims to govern themselves. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was more than happy to play up the recent demonstrations in his country against his government as atheist antagonism, rather than legitimate criticism of his neoliberal policies, social conservativism and incompetent handling of foreign affairs. Whether he or the Brotherhood sincerely believe that anti-Islam sentiments drive their opponents or if it is just a tool to allow them to stir up popular support is debateable. But in Egypt that divide is now becoming more and more emphasised. Attacks by the Brotherhood on Christian churches are helping to reinforce that image. Legitimate criticism of Mursi's government is now forgotten - the lesson now is that if you believe society can run on the basis of Islam, prepare to be silenced. That is the message that is going out to the followers of the Brotherhood and other Islamists around the world: democracy is not for you. Atheists and secularists may be applauding the death of Islamic democracy, but the reality is that there are vast swathes of people around the world who believe - rightly or wrongly - in the principles of Islamic governance who are now going to forgoe the democratic process and start saying maybe Al-Qaeda was right all along. And that is not an encouraging development.

A new vision of politics could have survived the conflict in Syria - the original uprising was quickly suppressed and turned into the sectarian proxy war we see on our screens every day. The nature of the quick collapse of any social revolution meant hopes were punctured early on. Syria's geopolitical ties - such as its close alliance with Iran - also made it stand out as an exception and the imperialist funding of Jabhat Al-Nusra and other violent Wahhabist groups in the country meant an unnatural escalation of the conflict. In other words, there are perhaps exceptional circumstances in Syria which cannot be applied so easily in the other Arab nations. Not so with Egypt, which was seen by many as the leading light in the progressive struggle for democracy. The failure of the revolution there - and by all accounts it now has failed - is a fatal blow for the Arab Spring and progressive, secular politics.

The original rise of Islamism in the Middle-East followed the collapse of secular Arab Nationalism as it was co-opted by the Western powers and shorn of all its anti-imperialist legitimacy. Mursi's victory in the 2011 elections came on the back of being the "least bad option" in a race where the most popular secular candidate was a former Mubarak stooge. Islamism has been seen across the world as the only mass political movement that has really promised independence and defiance against Western imperialism, hence the success of the ideology in Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere. The face that the Brotherhood was lead by bourgeois capitalists who would happily kowtow to the US if they thought it would benefit them is irrelevant - the turn to Islam for meaning in personal, social and political life has been a powerful force around the world, primarily because of the collapse of secular ideologies such as nationalism, socialism and communism.

The disastrous decisions of the NSF have only compounded this. Hamdeen Sabahi, the co-leader of the NSF, ascribes to Nasserism, an authoratarian strain of Arab Socialism founded by Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 1950's. Nasserism for decades provided a secular, redistributive and stable form of government for Egypt but was backed by a totally undemocratic military junta and suppressed Islamism and communism within the country, imprisoning and murdering Muslim Brotherhood supporters en mass. Today's Nasserists claim they want a revision of Nasser's ideas, based on democratic socialism and popular enfranchisment - but when Sabahi tweets in response to mass slaughter by the army - "We will support our people, army and police against the terrorism of those who monopolized the people's will" - this suggests otherwise.

Though many in Egypt support the suppression of the Brotherhood, the fact is that they are putting their lives back in the hands of a Western-backed military junta. And the secularist political leaders are more complicit than anyone in this. The result of ElBaradei and Sabahi's actions is that secular democracy is discredited in Egypt and the dynamic in the country's political narrative once again returns - much like it has been for decades - to a choice between secular dictatorship or Islamist chaos.