Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 May 2007
Issue No. 846
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Second thoughts

Radical Egyptian Islamists claim to have rethought their position, but in reality little appears to have changed, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*

Members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya have finally made their political debut. The men who spent years in prison for committing violent crimes in the 1980s and 1990s have finally revised their political and religious view. This was no small deed for it was the first time any jihad group has rethought its methods. Al-Gamaa members spoke to the public in an event organised by Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, a moderate Islamist. The public appearance preceded the release of members of Al-Jihad, who are said to be revising their political and theological ideas as well. So here it was. A seminar was held and members of Al-Gamaa told us of their fresh ideas. What exactly were these?

The first idea was about democracy. According to Al-Gamaa, democracy is not a political system based on power sharing and respect for the individual. According to newspaper reports, Al-Gamaa believes that democracy is a system in which the public monitors the way a ruler applies Sharia, or Islamic law. Al-Gamaa, needless to say, believes itself to be an authority on Sharia and its various punishments and obligations. Therefore, it will be more than happy to monitor how the ruler is applying Sharia. The world, Al-Gamaa believes, is made up of two groups of people: a blessed one (guess who that is), and a cursed one. The former applies Sharia and the latter doesn't.

So far, there is no politics involved. There is no conflict of interest. There are no preferences and inclinations. Politics has been reduced to a problem of jurisdiction, with theology telling us right from wrong. There is no room for error, no licence for experimentation, no bowing to public sentiments, and no eye for detail. The fact that theologians have offered varied interpretations over the years seems to have escaped Al-Gamaa's notice.

The second idea was about confronting expatriate Copts. How Al-Gamaa confronts a group of people who live abroad is yet unclear. My guess is that the word "expatriate" is a byword for "local". My guess is that Al-Gamaa believes that Copts at home are becoming too vocal because of the support they get from abroad. If I am right, then the second idea is a continuation of the first. In other words, democracy is not a system that allows every individual and group to have their say, but simply a method for applying Sharia.

At one point, Al-Gamaa will have to acknowledge that not all Egyptians are Muslims. Muslims may be the majority, and their views definitely matter, but democracy is a system in which the views of others must be recognised as well. This was the point on which El-Awwa, a moderate Islamist, had to disagree with Al-Gamaa. And he dutifully pointed out that Muslims and Christians are equal in obligations and duties. Both communities have an equal right to build places of worship or to fill top government posts. That kind of equality is beyond Al-Gamaa's comprehension. The latter believe that the nation should do the right thing, which is defined by Islam.

The third idea came in the form of advice. Al-Gamaa wants secular and leftist groups to revise their thinking, exactly as members of Al-Gamaa did. Fair enough. Al-Gamaa has reviewed its ideas. It has reconsidered its killing of President Anwar El-Sadat, its murder of civilians, its monopoly of the truth, its rejection of society, which is good. I agree. The whole nation, not only Marxists and Nasserists but also the ruling party and the opposition, can do with a bit of rethinking.

The Nasserists, for example, haven't done any serious rethinking of the Nasserist period, or even the period that followed. No one has considered the question of what Nasserism means in the 21st century. The same goes for the Marxists. They haven't examined the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc. They haven't looked carefully into the reason communist countries became so poor or why their regimes fell like dominos. No one has yet addressed the question of what it means to be a leftist in our time, not in the 19th century.

Even the liberals can use some rethinking. No one has looked into the reason why a group of modestly educated officers with mediocre talents were able to bring down an entire political system. No one has examined the disturbing apathy of Egyptians when it comes to democratic and liberal values. No one has told us why, in a country with such a limited political intelligentsia, the liberals are divided among the Wafd Party, Al-Ghad Party, and a Democratic Front. As for the National Democratic Party, everyone knows that it needs a full revision of its ideas and practices.

But there is something Al-Gamaa has forgotten. There is a world of difference between their past and that of other groups. The others have no blood on their hands. They haven't killed a president. They haven't detonated bombs in public places. They haven't slain tourists. They haven't attempted to wreck the economy. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone commits atrocities.

Furthermore, Al-Gamaa seems to have been too busy with theological matters to think of other things. Al-Gamaa has told us about the requisites of jihad, correct modes of corporal punishment, causes for insurgency, and other scary matters. What it hasn't yet addressed are the country's basic problems. Al-Gamaa has nothing to say about education, health and administration. Do we need to run the country in a centralised or decentralised manner? What can we do to improve competitiveness? Al-Gamaa members are obsessed with keeping Islamic dress codes, putting the Copts in their place, and fighting the West. Do they have anything else to say?

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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