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Why U.S. Didn't See Egypt Coming

Dominant secular vs. Islamist discourse got in way of seeing changes in Egypt

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March 2, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, wrote a piece posted on Muftah about how the dominance of secular versus Islamist rhetoric caused the significance of developments within Egypt over the last several years to be largely unseen, misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West.

Excerpts from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Muftah commentary follow:

"Long before the recent upheavals in Egypt, there were hints that change in the country was in the works."

"For instance, the Egyptian oppositional movement Kefaya ("Enough" in Arabic), which played a crucial role in organizing the recent Egyptian demonstrations, has for several years embodied a departure from the old secular/Islamist categories."

"The Kefaya coalition demanded that President Mubarak cede power, opposed absolutist and hereditary rule and sought to break the general paralysis of Egyptian politics. The question of secular and religious identity was not at the forefront of the movement’s concerns --  it defined itself as neither secular nor religious, but rather as oppositional."

"A 2008 National Defense Research Institute report prepared for the U.S. Defense Secretary contains interesting language about Kefaya’s orientation, which once again highlights the inability of many Western observers to move beyond the secular versus Islamist framework."

"In its report, RAND acknowledged the movement’s [Kefaya’s] significance, but ultimately failed to locate a new political vocabulary to situate the group within Egypt’s emerging contestatory political landscape, thereby illustrating the trends and tendencies that led the United States to fail in anticipating recent events in Egypt."

"The activities of Kefaya and the Egyptian protest movement that it helped to engender have independently created new spaces for politics located outside of the secular-religious dichotomy of yesterday’s autocrats. Though unseen or misunderstood in the West, Kefaya has been gesturing towards the potential of this democratic ethos for years. Today many Egyptians are working hard to institutionalize it."

Topics: Opinion