David Ignatius summarizes the Obama administration response to criticism of its Egypt policy:
The administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences. Moreover, the last thing secular protesters need is an American embrace. That’s surely true, but it’s crazy for Washington to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor sharia. Somehow, that’s where the administration has ended up.
Ignatius is writing sloppily on the key issue – either that or he is simply setting aside the inconvenient fact that in Egypt, a ca. 90% Muslim country, even the opposition claims to “favor sharia.” Because “favoring sharia,” “being a Muslim,” and “following the Qur’an” amount to different expressions for the same thing, it is not surprising that the same number turns up in polling data: Around 90% (actually 92%) of Egyptians are said to favor either strict or basic adherence to Islamic values and principles in law, with the large majority of Egyptian Muslims (and of all Egyptians) in the “strict” camp.
In other words the question cannot be “secular” vs. “sharia” – a simplistic definition that appeals to the liberal West, but is rejected within Egypt by those whom those same Westerners would support. The distinction in such a polity will not be between sharia and anti-sharia, but between different and varyingly inclusive interpretations of sharia – as expressed in the distinctions between sharia as “source” or “reference,” “primary” or “sole” source, “source of rulings” or “source of principles,” and so on. For the same reason those who see or portray sharia as inherently illiberal will have already given up on a liberal politics in Egypt for the foreseeable future, while, as so often, expressing their liberal commitment to the inclusive and tolerant society through pre-emptive exclusion and intolerance.
As for the Obami and the American self-interest, a policy that took sides “against sharia” in Egypt would be a policy that took sides on behalf of almost no one against almost everyone. The alternative perspective, and actual policy, seems for now to square with the best hope from the perspective of loss of life and destruction of social and economic capital: The actual weakness, or effective irrelevance, of uncompromisingly “anti-sharia,” congenitally anti-Islamist Egyptian forces other than in the secular liberal imagination.