Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 July 2011
Issue No. 1056
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Islamist movements after 25 January

The Islamist movements' dream of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt is now closer than ever to being realised, writes Mohamed Hafez

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WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY: Ostracised by the former regime, the Muslim Brotherhood has now been released of its shackles. Anti-clockwise from top right: the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 parliament; El-Banna and Qotb; Hassan, the MB and Salafis denounce the torching of Sol Church in Upper Egypt in March; current presidential contenders Abu Ismail, Abul-Fotouh and El-Awwa

The Egyptian national movement and the Islamist movements in particular have been breathing anew in the post-25 January period. Previously, the opposition parties and movements could only move in so far as the ruling party, the only effective political player, would permit. And the problem for the Islamist movements went deeper, since they were banned and frequently hounded throughout that era.

However, with the fall of the "third republic" in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution, the Islamist movements have been spurred into action in search of a role and political gains in the "fourth republic". Moreover, the present political disarray and weakness of the state have fired the ambitions of some to try to turn the next republic into an Islamic one, in fulfilment of the Islamist movements' founders some 100 years ago.

The Islamist movements in Egypt come in various shades. One is the Salafist movement, whose proponents once shunned political participation as an abomination and held that Islamist participation in parliamentary elections would be sinful. The People's Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, was a heathenish body, the Salafis held, and one that violated religious rules. Another trend consists of the Egyptian Jihad and the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which in the past condemned the country's rulers as heretics and called for the violent overthrow of the government.

Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, which since its founding has maintained that Islam is a complete religion that embraces all facets of life and that participating in elections could be a means towards political reform. The Muslim Brothers have experience in the political process that dates to the days of the movement's founder, Hassan El-Banna, and members of the group took part in previous elections, much to the disapproval of other Islamist movements. The Brotherhood has the numbers and the capacity to make a strong showing in the coming period.

Fourthly, there is the Wasat (Centre) Party formed by a breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood. While the founders of this party applied for a permit many years ago, they only received official approval on 19 February following the collapse of the former regime. Lastly, there are the Sufi movements, which have had no particular political agenda, but have merely been concerned to try to ensure their members' freedom to worship. There are around 15 million Sufis in Egypt.

After the 25 January Revolution, the map of the Islamist movements began to shift. Now that it has become possible for these movements to engage directly in politics, both openly and officially, their centre of gravity appears to have coalesced around two main forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: Under the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned and excluded from participating in politics. Nevertheless, its members could stand in parliamentary elections as independents, in which capacity they gained 18 seats in the People's Assembly in the 2000 elections and 88 seats in those of 2005. The Brotherhood withdrew from the 2010 elections citing fraud.

Today, the Brotherhood is the most politically powerful and influential Islamist trend. With its combination of political and proselytising experience, it is the only Islamist alternative on the political scene, the other groups not having an electoral platform or vision for an Islamic approach to government should they be voted into power in a democratic way. Moreover, the Brotherhood has already taken a number of steps to strengthen its political footing.

It has begun to engage with other political and social forces, for example, notably by opening dialogue with Coptic youth movements from Cairo and in Qena. Three Christian organisations ê" the Federation of Christian Youth Party (under formation), the International Federation of Christian Students and the General Organisation of Christian Youth Associations ê" have responded to these overtures. One outcome has been the first youth coalition comprised of both Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic members.

The Brotherhood has also amended its political platform in such a way as to settle the controversy over its position on the candidacy of women or Copts for the country's presidency. It has effectively reversed its opposition to such candidacies. It has also opened up channels of communication with other Islamist groups, such as the Jihad, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and Salafist and Sufi groups, in order to establish common ground or a unified vision that would strengthen their collective political leverage.

In the context of dialogue with other political forces, the Brotherhood has set in motion its "revival for the sake of Egypt and public community" initiative, and, in coordination with eight revolutionary coalitions, it has formed a Steering Committee for the Masses of the Revolution. The organisation has also been working to extend its grassroots base. Brotherhood youth have formed people's committees in towns and villages in the provinces as a way of preparing for the forthcoming legislative elections. The group's leadership has stated that it will not contest more than 35 per cent of the seats in the People's Assembly and Shura Council elections, the latter being the upper house of Egypt's parliament, and that it will not field a candidate for the presidency.

Brotherhood candidates in the elections will run under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party headed by Mohamed Mursi. Before this party received official approval in May, there was considerable disagreement within the Brotherhood over its relationship with the mother organisation. Talks led to reassurances that there would be effective separation between the two bodies, and party heads, for example, would not be able to serve simultaneously on the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau.

Yet, it has not all been plain sailing for the Brotherhood, which is currently gripped by a series of internal rifts. Hardly had the organisation's Guidance Bureau announced that it would not be fielding a presidential candidate than Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a member of the Brotherhood's executive council, announced that he would be running for office in apparent defiance of the movement's leadership. Abul-Fotouh's decision, combined with a suggestion that he would join a separate party ê" the Nahda (currently under formation) ê" for the purpose, gave rise to intense speculation in political circles and within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The controversy continued to escalate, culminating in Abul-Fotouh's dismissal from the Brotherhood council in June for violating the leadership's directive not to run for the presidency. In taking this move, the Brotherhood leadership will have wanted to deliver a message of reassurance to other political forces, and to the public at large, that it was still committed to its pledge not to field a candidate in the presidential elections. The move also sent an implicit message to Brotherhood members and the Freedom and Justice Party that anyone violating the leadership's directives would face the same fate as Abul-Fotouh.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood has felt that it could not risk losing face or the public's confidence, which would impede its drive to obtain its publicly declared target of 35 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament. It has also hoped to ease anxieties among rival political forces that it seeks to monopolise power, thereby averting possible confrontation with those forces and making it easier to court their acceptance. The decision to dismiss Abul-Fotouh was also meant to deliver a third message, this time to the country's ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) and regional and international parties, in the hope that this would obviate potential obstacles to its political ambitions.

However, the Brotherhood's message to toe the line has apparently not reached all the movement's rank and file, for groups of Brotherhood youth have announced plans to form a party of their own. This envisioned Al-Tayar Al-Misri (Egyptian Current) Party could deliver a blow to the Brotherhood's own Freedom and Justice Party, and the Brotherhood's leadership has issued a stern warning to the group's members, threatening excommunication to anyone who joins a party other than the official party.

The splitting-off of these youth groups marks a qualitative shift in the cracks that have been appearing in the Brotherhood since the 25 January Revolution. On 26 March, Brotherhood youth groups held their first-ever conference, and, attended by some 1,000 younger members, this stirred disapproval among the higher echelons, which had tried to prevent it. That the youth groups defied the pressure and went ahead with the conference is indicative of generational rebellion inside the organisation and raises questions regarding its continued unity.

THE SALAFIS: The months since 25 January have brought a noticeable rise in Salafist activity in Egypt. The Salafis were a visible element among the millions who demonstrated in Cairo's Tahrir Square, virtually becoming one of the symbols of the uprising, as barely an Arab or foreign news report omitted to show images of bearded men or women wearing the niqab.

The Salafist influence on public opinion was also felt during the recent referendum on the constitutional amendments, which the Salafis on the whole supported. In addition, the Salafis have held more than 90 seminars and conferences over recent months, mostly in mosques and youth centres in Cairo and Alexandria, but also in the capitals of other governorates. A particularly significant event was the meeting that Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub held with Salafis in the Al-Hidaya Mosque in Imbaba, in which he delivered a controversial sermon describing the referendum results as "a victory in a raid on the ballot boxes".

Such developments throw into relief the profound ideological shift that has taken place in the Salafist movement with regard to political involvement, formerly designated as forbidden territory. The Salafis' emerging political profile has triggered considerable curiosity, especially among ordinary Egyptians who may have been unfamiliar with subtle distinctions in the shades of political Islam. Yet, even closer observers of this phenomenon might be mystified by Salafist ideology, for the map here is of an intricate and somewhat confusing weave.

For the sake of simplicity, it can be said that there are two Salafist trends: the Salafist Path, which focuses more on practices and includes such groups as the Ansar Al-Sunna and the Islamic Sharia Society, and the more traditional version of Salafism, what might be termed "academic Salafism", which consists of older Salafist schools and teachers in Alexandria, Cairo and Mansoura, as well as independent preachers such as Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub. However, there is considerable overlap between these two general groupings, as well as some interweaving with formerly jihadist groups that have issued ideological revisions renouncing the use of violence.

Three chief trends can be discerned among Salafis since the 25 January Revolution. One has been to continue to focus on proselytising work and to stay out of politics, apart from supporting policies that would serve to promote the creation of an Islamic state. The second advocates joining with one of the Islamist political parties, but as individuals rather than as a distinct group. A foremost proponent of this course has been Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, who has argued that the Salafis and Muslim Brothers could form a powerful coalition in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. In his view, "if the Islamist groups and trends can overcome their differences, they will be able to create a powerful front capable of reviving the glories of the Islamic state and building a new nation based on constructive dialogue."

The third tendency, which has gained considerable ground in Salafist circles, goes one step further towards direct political involvement, advocating the establishment of an official Salafist political party. In fact, one such party received official approval in June in the shape of the Nour (Light) Party, headed by Sheikh Emadeddin Abdel-Ghafour. A second, Al-Fadila (Virtue) Party, headed by prominent Salafi proselytiser Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, may also soon be formed.

The Salafis have made a powerful entry into the Egyptian political field and far more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. Nevertheless, if they are to make further inroads, they need to order and solidify their ranks, officially revise their self-imposed ban on political involvement, and move towards a new ideological outlook that is more consistent with the spirit of openness in the Egyptian political scene.

AL-GAMAA AL-ISLAMIYA: The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya arose in the 1970s against the backdrop of former president Anwar El-Sadat's strategy of encouraging the Islamist trends as a way of offsetting the Egyptian left at that time. The group also included members who would subsequently break off to found the Egyptian Jihad during the roundups of Islamist extremists in Egypt in 1981. After members of the Al-Gamaa were released from prison in 1983, the movement spread rapidly, becoming the country's most powerful Islamist force with a heavy hold over Upper Egypt and strongholds in Cairo, particularly in Imbaba and Ain Shams. The group's proselytising activities also spread throughout the governorates of Lower Egypt, though its presence there was not nearly as strong as it was in the south.

Some 12,000 members of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya were freed from prison in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. Foremost among these were Aboud and Tareq El-Zomor, convicted in 1982 for their involvement in the assassination of Sadat. However, the new revolutionary climate has also thrown this group into disarray, and its executive body has been forced to make sweeping changes as a result of tensions between its founding generation and senior leadership and its mid-level leadership and youth members, an estimated 200,000 of whom took part in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Some members of the mid-level leadership have even called for a new charter to be drafted for the organisation, as well as changes in its hierarchical structure and internal elections to be supervised by civil society. Moreover, the Al-Gamaa has turned a new leaf in its positions towards the Copts, tourists and police. In the organisation's first legal conference, held on 8 April in Luxor, they referred to the Copts as "partners in the nation and humanity".

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Al-Gamaa is a social one: the majority of the group's 12,000 members that have been released from prison are now unemployed and have no means of support. For the moment, this crisis has predominated in the concerns of the organisation, but it has not diverted it from the need to formulate a programme consistent with its renunciation of violence and reorientation towards involvement in the formal political process.

Recently, the Al-Gamaa announced its intention to form a political party that would represent its vision of social justice and address the particular concerns of its members. The proposed Construction and Development Party is defined as having an Islamic outlook and being organisationally separate from the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. Membership would be open to Copts, and women would be allowed to assume leadership positions. The group has also announced that it will be fielding candidates in the elections in most constituencies in coordination with other Islamist movements, perhaps in the form of a unified list.

THE SUFIS: Egypt's Sufi orders are more of a socio-religious phenomenon than a political one. There are more than 74 Sufi orders in Egypt, with a combined membership of over 15 million people. Each order has its own rites and rituals, and the disciples of each vie to attract a greater number of followers to their order.

One of the factors that have led to the orders' pattern of geographical distribution in Egypt, particularly in the countryside where they are more prevalent, is their connection with certain sheikhs and holy men. For example, the Shazli order, which takes its name from Sheikh Abul-Hassan El-Shazli, has its largest following in Upper Egypt, in the Aswan and Qena governorates in particular, while the Ahmedi order, named after El-Sayed Ahmed El-Badawi, is more prevalent in the Delta, notably in Tanta. The Rifaai order, named after Sheikh Ahmed El-Rifaai, has its largest following in the villages of Esna and Oment in Qena.

The Egyptian authorities have always been supportive of the Sufi orders, primarily because the relationship between the two has been mutually beneficial. For the authorities, the Sufi orders have been useful in promoting stability, affirming legitimacy and acting as a counterweight to the radical Islamist movements. The Sufis, in return, have received material support and moral backing from the country's official media.

Following the 25 January Revolution, some Sufi orders have proclaimed their intention of taking part in the parliamentary elections, in which they believe that they could make a powerful showing on the basis that the country's 15 million Sufis constitute the largest single voting bloc. A major factor behind this decision has been the growing antagonism between the Sufis and the Salafis, whom the Sufis allege have been responsible for the destruction of six Sufi shrines. The Sufis already have two political parties in prospect, the Social Tolerance Party and the Egyptian Liberation Party, and their leaders have announced that they will not support any Salafist candidate for the presidency.

THE WASAT PARTY: A further party with an Islamic frame of reference, the Centre Party, was founded by a group of individuals who were among the leaders of the Islamist spectrum in the student movements of the 1970s and are among the leaders of the syndicates today. Most of the founders are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which they split off in 1996 in order to form the Wasat Party. An application was submitted four times, only receiving official approval after the revolution in January.

The Wasat Party stands out for its clear and sophisticated platform and the intellectual and social stature of its leaders, organisers and ideologists. Many believe that it will attract a large membership among Islamist youth, who have yet to find a political party that caters to their ambitions for political involvement from a classical Islamist perspective, or who seek a party that can reconcile authenticity with modernity along the lines of the Turkish Justice and Development Party.

OBSERVATIONS ON THE ISLAMIST MAP: In spite of statements issued by the leaders of the movements and trends listed above with regard to their support or non-opposition to a civil state in Egypt, their reassurances have been mostly unconvincing. It is obvious that they are determined not only to compete with, but also to work against, the principles and aims of the liberals, the movements for change and the 25 January revolutionaries.

First, all the Islamist movements have formed political parties to enter the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Three have already received official approval, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafist Nour Party and the Islamist Wasat Party, and several more are under formation, including the Sufis' Social Tolerance Party, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's Construction and Development Party and Unity for Freedom Party, the Salafis' Virtue Party, and the Nahdat Misr and Nahda parties.

Second, in spite of pledges that they will not field a candidate for president, there are already four presidential candidates having Islamist outlooks. These include Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who was dismissed from the Brotherhood for having violated its dictate not to run for president, but who clearly believes that he can count on the Muslim Brothers' votes and the support of the Islamists in general come polling day.

There is also Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafi with Brotherhood sympathies who is the son of the late Muslim preacher Sheikh Abu Ismail, director of the office of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and a Muslim Brotherhood member who served as a member of the People's Assembly in the 1970s and 80s and who issued a famous fatwa condemning Sadat as a heretic. Sheikh Hazem will also be able to count on the support of the Islamists in the polls. Moreover, there is Zein El-Abidin Abdel-Aziz, the first Salafi officially to announce his candidacy for the presidency, and there is Islamist thinker Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, who represents the Wasat Party.

Third, the Islamist groups have refused to make common cause with the liberals and the 25 January Revolution coalitions. They did not take part in the second Friday of Anger demonstrations on 26 May, and they only made a brief and token showing on the Day of Reckoning demonstrations on 8 July.

The actions of the various Islamist trends confirm that they are working collectively towards the same end, which is to come to power in Egypt. The dream that has driven the movements' founders and ideologues for decades, of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt, is now closer than ever before. The groups can almost feel it to be within their grasp, and, in the current climate and under present conditions, it may well soon be.

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