Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Islam in the insurrection?

Few of the country's religious groups supported the protests leading to the Egyptian revolution, with many of them being opposed and revealing the limits of their version of contestation, write Hossam Tammam and Patrick Haenni

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Muslims and Copts protested in Tahrir and other Egyptian governorates demanding the departure of Mubarak

While the exact nature of the actors who triggered the revolt on 25 January, the date of the first call to go out into the streets to protest against the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, is not yet entirely known, two things at least are clear.

The first demonstrations in Tahrir Square were led by young people from the various protest movements that have structured Egyptian politics over the last two years, these having little clear ideological orientation and being a mixture of democratic aspirations, nationalist references and a leaning to the left.

It is also clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, like the country's other established political forces, was not present at the start of the uprising, and Egypt's religious establishment, like other political actors, was forced to respond to the uprising as it unfolded.

While positions varied, no religious actors supported the unfolding revolution, and most were distrustful of it. As a result, an Iranian-type scenario is unlikely to develop in Egypt, since the country's religious leaders and the demonstrators have not reached a moment of communion.

GAPS BETWEEN RELIGION AND STREET: The reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood to the demonstrations was a confused one. At first, it condemned the protests, before getting sucked in by the dynamism of the demonstrations. The Brotherhood then tried to open up negotiations with the demonstrators, though these were unwelcome to the latter who had shown themselves to be bolder than the Brotherhood in their demands.

This boldness was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections. The voice of the street was not necessarily the will of the people, however, though the country's Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached from it. Various Salafist groups, among them the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the demonstrators from the time of their first appeals onwards.

As for the country's official religious institutions, both Muslim, in the shape of Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Iftaa, and Christian, in the shape of the Coptic Orthodox Church, these had ties to the regime and were even further from grasping the new revolutionary spirit.

The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, first supported the regime and only later changed course with some difficulty and began talking of the demands made by the demonstrators using vocabulary that was less well aligned with that of the regime. However, this change of course happened very late in the day, and at the height of the demonstrations in early February El-Tayeb called for calm, condemning the deaths of the demonstrators but not saying clearly that these had been caused by a regime that had resorted to violence using its usual methods as well as young thugs recruited from the poorer parts of town.

For his part, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, called on the Christian population throughout the uprising not to join the protests.

The attitude of the leadership of the clerical institutions, both Christian and Muslim, was badly received by the people, and it risks jeopardising the leaderships' relationships with their followers over the long term. This was seen in the anger of the young Copts in Tahrir Square when they heard the position being taken by Pope Shenouda, as well as in the resignation of Al-Azhar's vice spokesman Mohamed Rifaa El-Tahtawi, who then joined the demonstrators on the streets, and the number of Al-Azhar preachers and imams who joined the protest movement while wearing their official clothing.

The huge numbers of people who abandoned the official mosques on the Fridays of the demonstrations to join the demonstrators showed the crisis of communication that was taking place between the religious establishment and the people. Fatwas calling for calm were disregarded, and many among the country's Copts also joined the protests.

The prayers of Copts side by side with Muslims in the streets showed a double rejection, being both a rejection of the regime, and also a rejection of the church's political support for a regime that many Copts feel has done nothing for them. Copts complain that the previous regime was responsible both for the growing Islamisation of Egypt and for the separation of Egyptian identities along confessional lines.

Strangely enough, it was a person whom everyone had thought would be the least inclined to get involved in politics, Amr Khaled, the young preacher and religious conscience of the Muslim middle classes, who supported the protest movement most openly. Khaled supported the uprising from the start, issuing political demands, notably for the revision of the constitution, and calling on activists from his network of development initiatives to support the protests. He also promised to send "50,000 young people into the streets to protect public institutions."

Khaled went to Tahrir Square in person several times and called on the regime to "listen to the demands of the young people". If Khaled has been becoming increasingly politicised, this was clearly accelerated and clarified by the protests.

RECONCILIATION AND REVOLUTION: The Salafist groups found themselves deeply at odds with the dynamic of the streets. From the start and up to now, their position has been unequivocal: to boycott the protest movement because protest means chaos. It is better to choose the iniquity of the regime than be led into the void that opposing it could open up. The Salafists base their views on a fatwa issued by the mediaeval Islamic thinker Ibn Tamiya, which says that 70 years of iniquitous rule are better than one day without rule.

Yet, influential Salafist sheikhs in Egypt, especially those who have established strong positions through religious satellite television channels such as Al-Nas and Al-Rahma, also scaled down their overall objections. As the protest movement grew, they stopped opposing it and instead tried to contain it, making do with reminders of the importance of protecting public property and underlining the need to oppose thugs and gangs.

This Salafist theology of political submission, present through the influence of Saudi sheikhs Rabia Al-Madkhali and Mohamed Aman Al-Jami, had the blessing of the authorities, even though its radical nature, especially because of its rejection of Egypt's Coptic population, had earlier caused a hardening of positions on the confessional front.

In 2010, as confessional relations worsened, as was indicated in the excellent report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Mubarak regime decided to suppress religious television channels dominated by salafist sheikhs in the interests of social peace. But these same clerics managed to re-establish themselves, not by reclaiming the banned satellite TV channels, but instead by appearing on the official Egyptian ones. Sheikhs such as Mohamed Hassan, Mahmoud El-Masri and Mustafa El-Adawi endlessly churned out their condemnations of the protests, reminding viewers of the benefits of social peace.

Some even went so far as to call the revolts a "Zionist plot", their position being aligned with that of the official Wahhabism of the clerics in Saudi Arabia, whose mufti had declared in similar vein that all protest movements in the Arab world are to be understood as western machinations against the Muslim community.

Sheikhs from this Salafist trend have maintained an unchanging line. One of them, Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, declared the candidates who stood against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections to be illicit, religiously speaking, since he considered Mubarak to be the guarantor of the Muslim community's affairs.

When the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and high-profile opponent of the regime Mohamed El-Baradei said that he would stand against Mubarak in the presidential elections, Sheikh Amer declared that El-Baradei's blood was "licit", an indirect call for his killing, on the grounds that he was "inciting civil insurrection against the Mubarak regime" (cited in Al-Ahram Hebdo on 22-28 December 2010).

However, while the position of the loyalist wing of Saudi Wahhabism was foreseeable, that of the Salafist sheikhs of the Alexandria school was awaited with more curiosity. This school has developed a more autonomous line vis-à-vis the regime than that of preachers ideologically aligned to the official Saudi clerics. Indeed, the Salafist Alexandria school had found itself in a position critical of the regime, and it was subject to pressure from the security services and a wave of arrests, culminating after the Alexandria attack of 31 December 2010 with the imprisonment of hundreds of members of the movement and the death from torture of one of its members, Sayed Bilal.

In spite of this government crackdown, the leaders of the Alexandria school and their followers in over 10 Egyptian governorates refused to support the insurrection, even less to join it. Furthermore, they went along with the campaign of intimidation, emphasising the risk of chaos. In the movement's mosques, preachers spoke of the threat the protest movement represented to "Islamic identity," and on the Arabic SalafVoice website, Sheikh Yasser Burhami, one of the movement's most prominent preachers, pronounced a fatwa affirming the illicit nature of the demonstrations.

The height of the political abdication of the Salafist movement came when some Salafist mosques stayed closed during the second Friday of the demonstrations on the famous "Day of Departure".

The attitude taken by former jihadists was less clear than that taken by the Alexandria school or by the sheikhs following the loyalist Saudi line. Over the past few years, jihadists have made a series of ideological revisions leading to a theological position that rejects the resort to violence. During the uprising, the group mostly remained silent. There was one communiqué from two of its mentors, Tareq and Abboud El-Zummur, supporting the mobilisation, but most former jihadists leaned towards calm and an end to the political standoff in the belief that people would be satisfied with Mubarak's promise not to stand again in the next elections.

The former jihadists thus sought to position themselves within the framework of the national dialogue, a stance interpreted by some as a strategy to dilute demands for change through the presentation of potentially contradictory agendas.

However, there was one discordant note in this loyalist Salafist concert, which was that of the reformist Salafist current emanating from Saudi Arabia, part of an attempt to fuse Wahhabite conservatism with Muslim Brotherhood-type activism. This trend, though very small in Egypt, has been present through the action of personalities such as Gamal Sultan and the Reform Party political party. From the start, it has unambiguously supported the movement for democratic reform.

THE ROLE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERS: The Muslim Brotherhood's position developed under pressure from the street and not vice-versa.

At the beginning and during the first demonstration on 25 January, the Brothers joined in the protests but only in a symbolic way, sending small groups from their youth movement out to demonstrate. Then, during the "Day of Anger" on 28 January, the Brothers concentrated their efforts on Cairo and mobilised about 100,000 people in the demonstrations, according to one of their leaders.

As events unfolded, including continued confrontation, massive repression, deaths, the disappearance of the police, and the regime's strategy of chaos, positions radicalised. Mubarak blamed the Brotherhood for the disturbances, and the Brotherhood through their supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, accused Mubarak of "state terrorism". According to one Brotherhood official, some 40 members of the Brotherhood died in the demonstrations.

There was a feeling of no return among the Brothers, who were aware that they would be the main victims of the restoration of order if the protest movement did not succeed. "Our only card is the mobilisation in Tahrir Square," said one Brotherhood leader. "It has become our life insurance against the swing of the pendulum which awaits us if the regime gets back on its feet."

The Brothers in Tahrir Square, mobilised and strongly influenced by the other groups who started the protest movement, began to call for Mubarak's departure ahead of any negotiation. Nevertheless, on 5 February the group's leadership began talks with the then vice president Omar Suleiman, former head of Egyptian intelligence. According to one observer, the Brotherhood's leadership thought that it could not pass up this chance of winning some sort of recognition, or even legitimate presence in Egyptian politics. This move only exasperated the young Brothers out on the streets.

A NEW POLITICAL CULTURE: Unlike other Islamist movements, which have tried to clarify the structural dilemma of Islamism -- whether it is a movement of preaching or of political participation -- the Muslim Brotherhood is based on the concept of shomuliya, or globalism. This makes the group not just a political organisation, but also one that is religious, social and economic. This confusion between politics and religion made the movement out of place in an insurrection whose spirit was above all political.

As a result, during one of the mass demonstrations that took place in Alexandria, with the streets overflowing and observers claiming a turnout of a million and a half people, one Brotherhood preacher launched into a confrontational sermon that called for revolution and that was very much in tune with the mood of the day. However, abruptly forgetting the revolutionary pleas that had won him such an audience, he then called, as Brotherhood policy said he should, on everyone to go home.

Elsewhere in this demonstration, when the time for prayer came and no one had performed their ablutions or were in a position to do so, the crowd being mixed and it not being possible to put shoes outside the space for prayer, the pious simply prepared themselves to pray anyway. This angered some young Islamists, who condemned praying in a state of impurity and with both men and women present. The crowd insulted the Islamists in return, and one young man shouted at them that "this is not your revolution."

Such anecdotes from the revolutionary days are telling, since the revolution had a political logic and culture. It was not religious, which does not of course mean that the post-authoritarian political equation will not give the religious their due. But the revolutionary political culture was not that of the Brothers, who tended to confuse religious norms with political demands and to sacrifice the demands of the people, and the political forces that represented them, to narrower interests.

The Muslim Brothers did not lead the revolution, and they definitely do not appear to be the guardians of its spirit. Though it may currently be ill-defined, a revolutionary spirit is taking shape between Tunis and Cairo that could hardly be further from the political culture of the Brotherhood. It is not programmatic, and it does not prefer one ideology over another, but instead demands a transparent framework for political competition. It is anti-authoritarian, and it is democratic and not religious. It functions in a loose set of networks, notably through Facebook, and it is the reverse of a pyramid structure of secrecy and submission.

It bypasses the existing political actors in their entirety, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and it recruits among the young of these parties and pushes them beyond their existing training. The Facebook experience has given birth to a movement, modest but real, of self- critical young people who have now rejoined a network of existing mobilisation. The enthusiasm of one young activist was revealing, as was so much else at Tahrir Square, this man rejoicing because the first demonstrations had been led by secular Christians who had disagreed with their own church.

Such a dynamic has profoundly affected the Brotherhood. When dialogue started between some of the young Brothers mobilised in the streets and the Brotherhood's elite, disagreements were deep. One Brotherhood leader close to Abul-Fotouh, the leader of the Brotherhood's reformist wing and closest to the Turkish AKP model and the least ready for accommodation with the regime, said that the "rupture between the Brothers in the streets and the political leadership is total. Since dialogue started, and as a result of the mobilisation, young Brothers are calling into question the very foundations of the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for bottom- up transformation through the education of activists."

"What the Brotherhood's leadership wants is top- down transformation and toeing the line of peaceful opposition. Abul-Fotouh rejected this sort of spirit. He thinks one must break with what he calls the 'oppression syndrome' and the political passivity it brings."

Younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially those who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, are now rallying to the militant spirit coming from the new networking initiatives that were at the heart of the uprising and with which the Brothers had difficulty competing. These initiatives, including the Khaled Said Group, the young people mobilised around Amr Khaled, and the Control Group, an electoral monitoring group set up by young members of the Brotherhood during the 2010 elections that monitored police actions during the uprising, owe little to the established political parties and even less to their spirit.

Throughout the demonstrations, the dynamism of the demonstrators revealed the exhaustion of the authoritarian models of the regimes in place, as well as those of the traditional forms of opposition to them. What is happening in Egypt is not just the contestation of a regime, but the calling into question of an entire political culture.

Hossam Tammam is an Egyptian researcher on Islamist movements; Patrick Haenni is a researcher at the Religioscope Institute in Switzerland.

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