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North Africa's new secularists turn the page on old regimes

Secularism in the Arab world has a different meaning than in the West

The final results in Libya's first election in four decades are not expected until the end of the week, but the leader of the National Forces Alliance certainly sounded like he was declaring victory yesterday. "There was no loser and winner at all," said Mahmoud Jibril, "Libya is the real winner of these elections."

If the NFA emerges as the biggest party in the new national assembly, it will be a rare victory for a non-Islamist party in post-Arab spring countries. That doesn't mean, however, a victory for "secular" forces, or even non-religious ones. The NFA is not considered a secular party, as Mr Jibril took pains to point out on Sunday. Almost no serious Arab political party is at present.

Across the Arab world, "secular" is understood rather differently than it is commonly defined in the West. Secular politics can mean two different things: a secular state, where the government does not favour any particular religion, and a secular society, where there is little religious expression in public life. The Arabic word for secular - almani - usually means the latter. And it is because of the history of secularism in the Arab world that very few political parties today would accept the label.

Secularism in this region has a long and difficult history. Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba mandated a form of secularism. Rather than keeping the state neutral and allowing public expression of religion, the Tunisian state imposed a ban on religiosity, forbidding headscarves and penalising men who grew their beards.

Even the nominally secular Baath parties of Syria and Egypt were defined by very different characteristics: both parties became vehicles for repression and the glorification of their leaders. The leaders in each country - Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq - were not afraid to cloak their politics in religious overtones when they saw the need. Even the father of pan-Arabism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, did the same later in his presidency.

A true separation of "church" and state is really only common in Europe, where centuries of bloody religious conflicts forced them apart. In America, political figures frequently invoke God as if it was obligatory; in post-Communist Russia, Russian Orthodox Church leaders officiated at Vladimir Putin's inaugurations. Elsewhere in Europe, this separation is rarely complete: Britain, or rather England, has its national Anglican Church, with representatives in parliament.

France arguably has the most rigorous separation of religion and politics, and there are occasional attempts to go further and ban symbols associated with religion, such as the Catholic crucifix or the niqab worn by some Muslim women.

In the Arab world, a deep sense of religiosity still moves people. Some of this is historical: the power of Arabs was linked to Islam from the religion's earliest days. But the dislike of secularism is mainly born of recent political experience. Tunisia was the most coercive example, but many Arab leaders of nominally secular republics repressed public expressions of religion. In Egypt, in Iraq and in Syria, the exercise of religion was viewed with suspicion, chiefly because, with political activity so circumscribed, the only public space left for gathering was the mosque.

That explains the dislike of political secularism. But hand-in-hand with that is a distrust of the secularisation of society, which is what Tunisia's Bourguiba wanted. Secularism in society is generally associated with an imported lifestyle, with western consumerism, godlessness and even immorality.

Yet secular politics - as distinguished from secularised society - is increasing. A new generation is rising that prefers a government that is non-religious, regardless of their own personal piety. These young people are not the postcolonial generation, for whom secularism meant anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism. Nor are they the generation of their parents, who grew up in societies where public devotion was looked upon with suspicion, but Islamist groups were also viewed as the least corrupt.

For now though, it is politics without organisation: in North Africa, this group - they really represent more of a political tendency than a cohesive force - has no powerful political party.

In Tunisia, the natural party to take on this mantle was the Progressive Democratic Party, once a legal opposition party to the goliath of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, the party of deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But the PDP was hammered at the polls, perhaps because of its perceived proximity to Ben Ali's regime, and took barely 10 per cent of the seats in the new National Constituent Assembly. It has since merged with smaller liberal parties to become the Republican Party.

The same is true in Egypt, which also lacks a powerful secular party. Al Ghad, a party led by Ayman Nour, the only politician who ever ran against Hosni Mubarak for the presidency, comes closest. But again, the young revolutionaries of Tahrir did not noticeably throw their support behind the party and it performed poorly in parliamentary elections.

What is happening is that these "secularists" need more organised politics. After the North African uprisings, the political field is split between those who were involved with the ruling regimes, and those who worked with the Islamists, whose organisations had been honed through long years of repression. The secular tendency has no natural political home and it will take an election cycle or two for the parties to organise. For the secularists of North Africa, their parties are just getting started.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

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