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Mickey Mouse tweet key to Arab pluralism

Posted: January 25, 2012 - 1:01am

One way to to judge where the Arab uprisings are headed, a year after they erupted, is to consider the case of Mickey Mouse with a beard.

The Egyptian Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who founded the liberal Free Egyptians political party after last year’s revolution, is being tried for tweeting a cartoon that showed a hairy Mickey Mouse, along with Minnie in a face veil.

The cartoon — which he tweeted in June — was a jibe at how folks would have to dress if Islamists took power. But, after the cartoon set off a firestorm — and Islamists called for a boycott of his cellphone service company — Sawiris apologized and removed the tweet.

Now, seven months later, in the wake of the Islamists’ political victory, an Islamist lawyer filed a complaint charging the businessman with insulting religion; the case has been referred to court by the Cairo prosecutor, and a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11.

How this case is handled will reveal much about the kind of democracy we can expect in Egypt under an Islamist-led government. It will also provide a yardstick by which to judge whether Islamist parties in other Arab countries can coexist with democracy — and permit dissent.

In late October, I interviewed Sawiris in his 26th-floor offices, which have a breathtaking view of the Nile. “We could have another Iran here,” he said gloomily.

Unlike many other wealthy Egyptian businessmen who were too fearful to get involved in politics, Sawiris gave generously to liberal parties. But they could not compete with the huge sums pouring in to Islamist parties from Arab Gulf countries. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won nearly 50 percent of the vote, and the hard-line Salafis received more than 20 percent. Sawiris’ party got only 15 percent.

One of the tycoon’s deepest fears was that an Islamist government would deny equal rights to Egypt’s Coptic Christians. He also worried that Islamists would impose moral restrictions: banning alcohol and beach bathing ( undercutting the tourism industry); imposing a mandatory dress code; and restricting women.

And — although he didn’t say it — the threat of new apostasy laws or harsher enforcement of old ones hangs over any moderate Egyptian. One has only to look at Pakistan, where hard-line Islamists not only use such laws to persecute Christians but also to muzzle political speech.

So the cartoon case tests the willingness of Egypt’s victorious Islamists to permit a pluralistic system. Having won a larger victory than they ever imagined, will the Islamists rule by consensus and accept opposing views?

As the Carnegie Endowment’s Marwan Muasher puts it: “I don’t think we should judge the success of the Arab uprisings by whether liberal parties come up on top, but by whether pluralism comes up on top — whether the right to be different is protected.”

Muasher, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister and astute thinker on Arab political reform, says one key test will be “whether the Islamists are willing to share power.” Another will be whether new Arab constitutions will “reflect a consensus of all the people, including (the protection of) minority rights.”

No doubt many will presume that an Islamist-led government can’t be pluralistic. However, I’ve heard the leaders of Tunisia’s victorious Islamist party, Ennahda, insist specifically that they will protect universal freedoms.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi says his party can work with secularists, and won’t impose religion, ban alcohol, or impose dress codes; it will also protect the extensive rights for women guaranteed in the Tunisian constitution. As to laws on apostasy or heresy, Ghannouchi says that faith is a personal matter and individuals can believe as they wish, or leave Islam if they choose.

“We know there are some Muslims who do not believe in democracy or freedoms in society,” party secretary and now Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told me in October, “but we consider this a wrong interpretation.” If Ennahda’s leaders live up to their pledges, they will provide a model of how Islam and pluralism can mix.

Yet Tunisia’s unique geography and history, and its moderate leaders, are especially conducive to pluralism. My conversations with Muslim Brotherhood leaders were more opaque on many of these issues; moderates among them may be pushed toward more hard-line policies by salafis on their flanks.

Still, the electoral victory of Egyptian Islamists can’t be rolled back, and is likely to be emulated in Libyan elections, and in Syria, if Bashar al Assad falls. The West must engage Islamist governments, but should urge them not to suppress minority views.

No doubt this will be an uphill battle (especially in Egypt, where the still-powerful military also wants to squelch civil society and critical voices). Yet newly elected Arab governments will need trade, aid, and advice from the West, which provides some leverage.

“The West’s energies should be directed at this battle for pluralism,” says Muasher. That is the key to preventing a new form of autocracy from descending on the region. And the outcome of the Mickey Mouse trial will indicate whether, in Egypt, this battle for pluralism has a fighting chance.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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