Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2011
Issue No. 1059
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Islamists and the future of Egypt

The question is not whether the youth can realise the revolution's aims, but whether the revolution can pull Islamists away from autocracy and towards freedom, writes Azmi Ashour

Political and religious ideological movements and groups always strive to solicit the un-indoctrinated "silent majority" in society. Religious-ideological movements, in particular, operate on the assumption that Arab societies are religious and that religion plays a major role in shaping Arab mentalities and ways of thinking. Certainly, the radical Islamism approach to winning the minds of the people plays on this religious factor and, in various other circumstances it has frequently succeeded in impassioning large segments of the silent majority and harnessing their minds to the ideas and will of its political/religious elites. The resultant religious despotism is ultimately more dangerous than political despotism, for people would be more hesitant to rebel against the tyranny of religious despotism than against the tyranny of secular despotism, because the former is so intimately connected to their religious creed.

Now, the question is whether, in view of the virtual reality that helped create a new generation that is not restricted to a single framework of knowledge, today's youth is rebelling against religious authoritarianism in the same manner is it is fighting political dictatorship. The following two factors should lead to an answer.

First, how did Islamists win over the silent majority in the past? For four decades, Islamists have displayed a remarkable ability to sway this crucial segment of the populace and fill public space in various forms. Among the reasons for this were the despotism of the existing regime and the poor resistance of their societies to religious authority. What is crucial here is that the silent majority could be part of the cause and the fillable public space at the same time. For example, an attack against Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem would arouse the fury of the Muslim silent majority; however, that fury needs something to channel it into action, such as protest demonstrations. This is where the Muslim Brotherhood excelled. They were able to attract and move an otherwise directionless and politically unaffiliated silent bloc ultimately towards the advancement of their own interests. University campuses, in particular, were a major theatre for Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations and recruitment against the backdrop of Israeli actions and US policy in the Middle East. Rarely did a demonstration focus on a situation inside Egypt.

Second, the new generation has come to contest the Muslim Brotherhood's hold over the silent majority. Since the 2005 elections and the emergence of the Kifaya (Enough) Movement the previous year, this generation established for itself a significant sociopolitical space from which it attracted large numbers of the youth and other social strata that opposed the perpetuity of the Mubarak regime and the succession scenario. This generated a new dynamism that motivated professional syndicates, such as the Judges' Club, and an important segment of the intelligentsia, namely university professors, to summon the courage to press for the same demands. Suddenly, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had long boasted its exclusive ability to move the masses, was finding its dominance of the protest scene being swept from under its feet. This helps explain the arrogance that characterised the Muslim Brotherhood's interaction with the new activist groups. It would assign representatives to these groups, but on the condition that they retain their distinct Muslim Brotherhood identity. The purpose of this was twofold: to exert an influence on the groups and to forestall the rise of a major rival in the domain of mass protest action. For some time, this is how the situation remained. The Brotherhood had representatives in all the movements pressing for change, not so much to unify all in the pursuit of a common cause, but in order to prevent others from encroaching on its silent majority preserve, elements of which had already begun to trickle away.

In this regard, the return of Mohamed El-Baradei came as a surprise not only to the former regime but also to the Muslim Brotherhood. Suddenly there was a figure that could attract supporters from that critical silent majority and serve as an opposition leader of the sort that the regime had not planned for. The new generations found in El-Baradei a good alternative to the transferral of power, and El-Baradei himself succeeded in rallying secularist liberal and leftist forces that had no connection with Islamist outlooks. This came as a powerful blow to the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now there was a civil scenario for change and this is what the youth of 25 January put into action, in the course of which they proved their ability to move the silent majority and channel its energies towards the realisation of a purely secular aim, which was to bring down a dictatorial regime.

By the time the Muslim Brotherhood climbed aboard a revolutionary train that was not of its making, all the chants, actions and media had united behind this aim. There was no ideological sloganeering, and particularly no religious sloganeering, and the Muslim Brotherhood found itself swept into the events, not as a leader as the Brotherhood chiefs would wish, but as another of the many political forces determined to end the existing regime.

But the more politically astute soon began to ask that tantalising question as to who would reap the gains that this youth revolution made available. With the first signs of victory, one could detect subtle moves on the part of the Islamists to hijack the revolution. They had reason to feel confident. They were more politically experienced and, as a product of their years of persecution at the hands of the former regime, they were much more tightly organised and much more focused on their own ends than the young men and women of a revolution that was shaped by a spirit of unity, collective purpose, courage and persistence, even at the risk of death. The machinations surfaced palpably in the run-up to the 19 March referendum when the Islamists invoked the religious trump card in order to sway the public to vote in favour of the amendment of certain articles of a constitution that had been effectively nullified by the fall of the Mubarak regime. Apart from how a "Yes" vote on the referendum would advance their power prospects, they also saw it as an affirmation of their existence and their leadership of the revolution, even if that they had to use illegitimate methods to get their desired result. Their cynical use of Fridays to preach against the sin of voting "No" in the national referendum was at once comical and extremely disturbing because of the herd mentality it exposed.

Does the youth revolution still stand a chance to reach fruition? Naturally, that would produce something entirely different to the Islamists' herd culture, which differs only from the political outlook and practices of dictatorial regimes in the use of ostensibly religious pretexts to suppress civil and individual freedoms. In fact, perhaps I should rephrase the question as follows: Will the revolution be able to produce, as one of its benefits, a change in the thinking of Islamists, steering them towards an open-mindedness and sense of collective purpose in keeping with the spirit of the revolution? Or will the Islamists remain bent on their own ideological agendas, which will inevitably clash with many concerns in Egyptian society, not least of which are those of the Christian communities that make up at least eight per cent of the country's population?

Such are the questions raised by the revolution spearheaded by Egyptian youth. If they can rebel successfully against a dictatorship of a purely political dimension, could they do the same against a theocratic dictatorship, particularly one with a rigid and insular Salafist outlook? Only developments on the ground in the coming days can provide the definitive answer to that.

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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