In my twitter feed, I commented briefly on the election results in Egypt. The vote was on a package of constitutional reforms. As I understand it, more liberal Egyptians opposed the amendments because they wanted more wholesale reform of the constitution. But the amendments passed overwhelmingly. I noted:

18.5 million votes were cast in #egypt, 77.2% favored the amendments, including a nativist requirement on presidential spouses.

And added:

It was the first election in #egypt when people didn’t know the outcome beforehand. Lots of people voted for the first time ever.

I also retweeted this comment by Nadia ElAwady:

I’m not happy with the result. But I’m proud we had our first democratic vote in Egypt. Congratulations, #Egypt!

Assuming that’s the general attitude, it’s an encouraging sign. In any serious election, some significant chunk of the populace will vote against the winner. And democracies live and die by how well the losers accept that they lost, and the winners accept that victory doesn’t entitle them to lord it over the losers. It can be a tricky line to walk even in well-established democracies, and is especially hard in a new democracy like Egypt’s. I’ll be watching optimistically as more analysis comes, and as Egypt takes more steps toward democracy.

I want to highlight one important point in an analysis at Religion Dispatches filled with good points. Author H. A. Hellyer explains the role of the Coptic Christian minority and the Muslim Brotherhood by saying:

Religion did play a role, though less as a spiritual imperative than as an identity politics movement. … Identity politics at the best of times is not particularly healthy; when it’s religious, or anti-religious – that is utilized in service of that kind of politics, religion and politics – both suffer. Right now, based on its social makeup, whether we like it or not, Egypt probably needs both to do well.

This is an important point to bear in mind with respect to Egypt, but also to other situations. Do Jews and Muslims fight over Jerusalem for religious reasons? Sure, but that is principally religion-as-identity. Removing religion from that situation wouldn’t eradicate the situation, it’d just force people to make it about a different identity (ethnicity, nationality, and skin color all being likely choices). The same applies in Tibet, in Sri Lanka, in the Irish fighting, and in the Balkan wars of the ’90s. It’s also true in lower-stakes disputes like the creationism conflict and the accommodationist-confrontationalist spats. Religious identity can easily become a signifier, an easy way to mark enemies.

I think it was George Lakoff who told me, “Issues divide us, values unite us.” We’re all better off when we skip past divisive labels and focus on the values that unite us.


  1. #1 Ghassan Yonis
    March 23, 2011

    I agree, Josh. I’m an activist and an atheist from the region, and what you said is true. The problem is, religion is more dogmatic than other Identities. Therefore, more complicated. But what happened is great step for change that was much needed.

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