Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The new Islamist scene in Egypt

The more democracy gains hold in Egypt, the more fragmented will be the Islamist political scene, writes Khalil El-Anani*

I have intentionally refrained from writing about the state of Islamism in the post-25 January period, preferring instead to wait until the dust settled and the contours of the new political map became visible. Yet while it is premature to issue categorical judgements on how recent developments will affect the shape and future of political Islam in Egypt, it is nevertheless possible to make certain observations on the new Islamist scene in Egypt.

Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of this scene is its considerable plurality and diversity, to the degree that one gains an impression of intense fragmentation. By plurality, I refer to both the organisational and the ideological dimensions. The organisational aspect is one of the legacies of the lack of political horizons under the Mubarak regime, which closed off public space to the development and diversification of political Islam, effectively reducing it to two chief trends. The first of these was pragmatist and pacifist, compelled to play by the rules of the game set by the Mubarak regime and whose agenda, rhetoric and actions were restricted by the threshold set by government authorities. This trend consisted of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and independent Islamists. The second is the radical trend that confronted the regime through recourse to violence but failed to accomplish its aims due to heavy and sustained assault by the security forces. It eventually buckled under the pressure and its leaders issued ideological retractions, renouncing violence and the recourse to arms as a means to obtain political ends. This "compulsory" duality contributed to distorting the perception of political Islam. It engendered the public perception that to belong to any Islamist group, even a moderate one, was to oppose and enter into conflict with the government. The perception repelled many potential partisans who preferred to remain in the non-politicised religious space.

The post-25 January Revolution phase triggered something of an "explosion" in religiously inspired political formations. Political participation now became the preferred course of most members of Islamist groups and trends, including those that had formerly rejected and, perhaps, condemned political participation and political party activity on religious and ideological grounds. Many Salafis and Jihadists, for example, now see participatory democratic politics as the best avenue to advance their religious and political projects and to obtain legitimacy in the public sphere. Meanwhile, for the first time in its history, the Muslim Brotherhood founded a political party. In spite of the many reservations that have been aired with regard to the lack of transparency that surrounded the establishment of the Freedom and Justice Party, it still marks a turning point in the process of the assimilation of the Muslim Brothers into political life. The Salafis, for their part, have founded two new political parties so far -- Al-Nour (Light) and Al-Fadila (Virtue). There is a good likelihood of more Salafist parties to come, especially given the considerable fluidity that characterises that trend at present. But perhaps the greater surprise comes from the former Jihadist trend (Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the Egyptian Jihad) whose leaders are also now inclined to participate politically through the aegis of a political party. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (which has been exhibiting a clear drive to engage in public political life since the recent release of its leaders from prison) has chosen Tareq Al-Zomor, once charged with the assassination of president Anwar El-Sadat, to represent the party's founders, who also include Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leaders and former militants Safwat Abdel-Ghani and Mahmoud Taha. El-Zomor was among those recently released from prison, as was his relative Aboud El-Zomor.

The Egyptian Jihad's political party project is the Peace and Development Party, which is to be headed by the well-known scholar and former Jihad leader Kamal Habib. At the same time, an amorphous group of individuals that call themselves "independent Islamists" are also in the process of creating political parties. One project -- Al-Tawhid Al-Arabi (Arab Unification) Party -- is an extension (or perhaps breakaway faction) of the Islamic Action Party whose application has been frozen since the mid-1990s. Another is the Egyptian Change and Development Party, founded by a group of individuals who describe themselves as Islamist in the cultural sense.

The proliferation of Islamist parties and party projects after the revolution has simultaneously brought a boom in the intellectual, ideological and rhetorical diversity in the Islamist scene. No longer can the conventional dualities (moderate/extremist, Muslim Brotherhood/Salafi, fundamentalist/jihadist) serve to depict the shades of the current scene. More appropriate would be to describe some as having "civil" or liberal tendencies and others as traditional or conservative. Certainly, there have been radical transformations in the political, ideological and doctrinal discourses of these movements.

Perhaps the most vivid change has occurred among the Salafis who gradually shifted from condemning political involvement as heretical, to reluctance to participate on principle, to willingness to participate under certain conditions. Of course, it would be mistaken to generalise across the whole of the Salafist movement that comprises a large range of different groups and associations that are frequently not organisationally affiliated with each other. However, it is still possible to speak of a general shift in the Salafist move in favour of political involvement in the broadest sense. A more pronounced shift can be discerned in the substance of the platforms of the Salafist parties that have already been established (Al-Nour and Al-Fadila). Their rhetoric largely echoes that of other Egyptian political parties in that they embrace a certain set of values (freedom, equality, social justice) and subscribe to peaceful action as the sole means to attain political aims and ends. These developments are signs of the direction of the current phase of evolution in Salafism in Egypt, whether with respect to ideas (agreeing the rules of the democratic political game, building alliances, accepting plurality, respect for the other, etc) or with respect to rhetoric, means (which are no longer confined to mosque podiums and now utilise satellite television, the Internet -- Facebook, Twitter -- and other such modern communications channels) and tactics (including holding conferences and staging demonstrations). Still, the most remarkable about-face comes from former jihadists -- the Islamist militants who once shunned political participation, condemned those who did participate as heretics and branded political parties as heresies. Today, they are becoming involved in civil politics and forming political parties in tandem with their "political revisions," to quote the term used by journalist Ali Abdel-Aal, an expert on the Salafist and Jihadist movements, on his website "On Islam". I believe that these transformations will continue as long as the Egyptian political climate continues to grow more open.

The second most striking feature of the new Islamist scene is the burst of dynamism after four decades of organisational, intellectual and generational stagnation. It is as though the 25 January Revolution burst a sort of dam, unleashing new revitalising energies that are pushing to restructure and reorder the movements and that may well surface in the form of disputes and rifts. The Muslim Brotherhood is a major exception to this, preoccupied as it currently is with the political arrangements that will secure it a position commensurate with its history and influence. As a consequence, any internal revision process has been put on hold, much to the dismay of many of its younger generation who are increasingly angered at the persistent grip of elder conservative hardliners on all the decision-making positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and its nascent party in spite of the fading security threat. However, other groups and trends on the Islamist spectrum are undergoing significant organisational transformations. The Salafist Calling, based in Alexandria, the organisational home of the Egyptian Salafist movement, has recently created a new leadership board called the Presidential Council. It has simultaneously sought to re-energise its branches throughout Egypt by promoting their proselytising and philanthropic activities. Interestingly, although the Salafist Calling has announced that it would actively participate in politics in Egypt it has yet to resolve to form its own political party or to come out in support of any of the other Islamist parties. While the members of this organisation would be naturally inclined to support Al-Nour or Al-Fadila, they have no organisational or even political links with either of the two Salafist parties. The irony is that the Salafist Calling appears more "progressive" and politically astute than the Muslim Brotherhood, which is determined to keep its Freedom and Justice Party under its direct ideological and political control. In addition, the Salafist Calling youth are very active on the Internet and the substance of their web pages and YouTube videos that have begun to proliferate in hyperspace suggests that they are much closer to the pulse of the post-revolutionary Egyptian street and much more involved in its "worldly" affairs, from which they had most often chosen to remain aloof until the eve of the revolution.

The formerly militant jihadist groups, notably Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, arouse our wonder even more. Just a few weeks ago, this organisation publicly announced that it would hold its first ever elections for its emir, vice emir and new Shura Council (a general assembly and local consultative councils at the governorate had been chosen several months earlier). The elections themselves produced more surprises, for they ousted the long-term leader Karam Zohdi that, in turn, precipitated the resignation of Al-Gamaa's founding father, Nageh Ibrahim, from the newly elected Shura Council, in protest against the elimination of Zohdi. On top of this, the "opposition" wing inside Al-Gamaa swept all the leadership positions (Essam Darbala is now the emir and Osama Hafez is his deputy).

One observes, thirdly, the extent to which the identity question has come to prevail in the discourse and agenda of Islamist trends in the post-25 January period. Identity, here, extends beyond the narrow organisational framework and into the cultural space. True, this question has always existed in the agendas of Islamist movements, if only as a mobilisational and functional element. However, it has recently acquired an increasing and polemic stridency against the backdrop of the escalating polarisation between Islamists and secularist/liberal trends during the past few months, as evidenced by the mounting scaremongering and recriminations between the two camps. The growing weight of the identity question in public space casts to the fore the problematic of the relationship between religion and society and between religion and the state, which the Mubarak regime had suppressed from public debate or any constructive dialogue. After the collapse of that regime, the problematic suddenly burst into the open and it will remain a kind of thermometer with which to gauge the relationship between Islamist trends and liberal/secularist trends in the upcoming period. It would appear that the latter trends are trying to compensate for their organisational weakness with respect to Islamist forces by trying to raise fears and suspicions of the Islamists' political intentions, a tactic that may ultimately backfire against liberals and secularists.

This leads me to my fourth observation, which is that the more the political climate in Egypt continues to liberalise and move towards the establishment of a genuine democracy, the greater will become the tendency of the Islamist movement to diversify and, possibly, fragment, as its various groups compete to win the hearts of voters, obtain or expand their presence in representative bodies, and expand their social influence. This competitive process will have two significant effects. First, it will propel Islamists towards more realistic political party platforms in order to cater to the wishes of the public, which, in turn, will entail ideological and doctrinal compromises. Second, it will increase the chances of alliances and coalitions between the new Islamist parties, and perhaps lead to mergers between likeminded parties such as those representing the Salafis and the independent Islamists. This likelihood will be all the more great if liberals and secularists ally in order to compete against Islamists in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Another consequence of democratic competition will be that the Islamist trends in general will gradually move towards the political "centre" and away from the ideological "peripheries", generating what we might term a centre, a centre-right and a centre- left in the Islamist political spectrum. This will yield a diversification in the ideological and doctrinal theses of the Islamist trends and a simultaneous avoidance of extremism and fanaticism. Otherwise put, Islamist discourse will undergo a spontaneous taming process that will render it more accommodating, more inclusive and more accepting of political plurality and intellectual diversity. As this transpires, ideological polarisation will wane; the importance of identity issues, the form of the state, and the role of religion in the public sphere will recede, and the more society will be able to focus on education, health, job creation and other crucial life issues.

In sum, the current fluidity in the Islamist scene is propelling us towards an end of the conventional image of Islamist groups and trends as they undergo the transformation from fundamentalist religious movements to socio-political movements that play by the rules of the democratic game and respect its outcomes. However, such a development remains contingent on two factors: the development of a solid democratic system in Egypt, and secondly an end to the scaremongering campaigns against Islamists and to their deliberate exclusion from political life in Egypt.

* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

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