Can Egypt's Islamists and seculars co-exist?

It’s not surprising that Egypt has deteriorated into violence since the military ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi last week.

The huge anti-Morsi demonstrations that preceded the military coup were an indicator of one of the region’s most critical fault lines, between Arabs who accept, and those who oppose any Islamist government whose ultimate goal is the imposition of religious law.

Westerners often don’t recognize the polarization over this issue in the region. Rule by religious law is rejected not just by the small percentage of Arab liberals, but also by religious minorities, including Arab Christians, and by many Arabs who may be devout but don’t want to be ruled by hardline Islamists.

However, many other Arabs, especially in more rural or exurban areas are eager for, or tolerant of, a government with a greater religious orientation. Thus, if an Arab country desires a democratic system, the religious trend can’t be excluded. The unanswered question – which has been debated for years – is whether Islamist and non-Islamist parties can co-exist, and whether one trend will give way to the other if it is defeated at the polls.

The Egyptian case is particularly troubling because Morsi’s political party, an offshoot of the socially conservative Muslim Brotherhood, had not tried to impose sharia law; it was committed to seeking power via elections, not violence. In fact, the Brotherhood is less sharia-insistent than Egypt’s salafi Nour Party, which also did well in past elections and stands to gain from Morsi’s fall.

We’ll never know whether Morsi would have accepted defeat at the ballot box, as his party claims, because his opposition never mounted a serious electoral challenge. It preferred to wage its battles on the streets.

What we do know is that if Egypt can’t find a way for its Islamists and non-Islamists to co-exist in one democratic political system, the country will be doomed to authoritarian rule - or bloody chaos. The same can be said for Turkey, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East.