For anyone who would like to see the arguably most important Arab country and the home of a civilization extending back some 5000 years once again rise to cultural prominence, or even to a modest progressive force in its region, recent events in the Arab Republic of Egypt (jumhūriyyat maṣr al-‘arabiyyah) give cause for despair.

Protesters in Egypt

Egyptian anti-IMF protesters in Egypt. Ongoing events in the country can be difficult to decipher from the West.

The two forces that were principally responsible for bringing down the Mubarak dictatorship two years ago have been at each others throats almost continuously ever since. Most recently, last Friday at least some elements of the opposition to the current government headed by Mohamed Morsi took it upon themselves to demonstrate at the headquarters of his Muslim Brotherhood (al-ʾikḫwān al-muslimūn) in two cities, violently according to the Associated Press feed. On Monday the government retaliated by issuing arrest warrants for five activists who had been prominent in the anti-Mubarak revolution, and summoned a broader group for questioning, including one of the candidates who ran against Morsi last summer. It is not at all clear that any of these people played roles in the rioting itself.

And just to remind us who is waiting in the wings, the courts that are held over from the Mubarak era spoke today. An appeals court heard the petition for reinstatement by Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, the country’s top prosecutor whom Morsi fired last November, to the effect that the dismissal was illegal, and agreed that he should be reinstated and his Morsi-appointed replacement lat go.

It is a real problem to find out what is actually happening in Egypt beyond basic facts, because the news is transmitted to us by biased sources. Almost all the stories you have seen are heavily influenced by what may be called the gospel according to Juan Cole: An Islamist is an Islamist is an Islamist. It does not matter if the person is simply someone who believes that the Qu’ran and the Sunna are essential parts of life or is someone who attacks little girls for wanting to go to school.

A reporter in thrall to this doctrine will, for example, highlight the secular opposition’s complaint that Shari’a Law is an important part of the new constitution largely written by the Muslim Brotherhood, but will not take the trouble to investigate the history of constitutions in Egypt, to discover that Shari’a Law was also part of the constitution in the time of Anwar Sadat, three decades before Mubarak.

This circumstance makes it difficult to evaluate complaints by Coptic Christians that they are being discriminated against via anti-blasphemy laws, or that “Egyptian authorities have done little” to stop Salafist kidnapping of Christian girls. It is difficult to evaluate how valid is a complaint that the MB has made statements detrimental to womens’ rights, or how much such statements reflect actual government policy.

And whatever the actual excesses of Morsi or of the MB, the secular opposition is far from innocent of actions that, at the least, show little willingness to compromise. I have not heard that the prestigious opposition leader Mohamed el-Baradei, who had previously called for a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections and stated that he would rather go back to a military dictatorship than live in the present situation, has disassociated himself from the trashing of the Alexandria MB offices last Friday.

Most importantly, I am not aware that any senior member of the secular opposition has expressed appreciation of the fact that the vast majority of Egypt’s citizens are believing Muslims who, regardless of how actively they pursue this faith, are comfortable with a government that is intimately associated with religion and might well feel oppressed by one that is not.

As I said in a post last weekend, I believe that the interests of the Egyptians and of their region would best be served by the warring factions backing off from their confrontation and working to resolve their differences through dialogue. But all I can do is hope.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.