Islamism at the crossroads
Following the recent victories of the Islamists at the polls, which form of political Islam will Egypt choose, asks Gihan Shahine
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A file photo dated 6 May 2011, Egyptian protesters chant anti-American slogans and hold copies of the Quran, and a picture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, during a protest held by Islamist groups against the killing of Bin Laden, in front of the US embassy in Cairo
Now that the grip of the Islamists over the new Egyptian parliament has been decided, many people are becoming increasingly concerned over the policies the next government may introduce, perhaps setting the country on a conservative course.
A perhaps unprecedented fear of the Islamists is now beginning to emerge in Egypt, some fearing that an ultra-conservative form of Islam will now prevail, competing with what is now being ironically seen as the more moderate discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood, previously the bogeyman for many.
Egypt's first democratic polls in the post-revolutionary period indicated that a majority of Egyptians may want an Islamist government. Egypt's largest and best-organised Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, now constitutes the largest bloc in parliament, followed by the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party which unexpectedly is the second-largest political group in the parliament. There is also the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, formed of Brotherhood dissidents, which came fourth on the list of parties winning seats in the new parliament.
This strong showing on the part of the Islamists has concerned liberal and secularist groups, who worry that the new parliament, tasked with selecting a 100-member panel to draft the new constitution and arguably name the new government, will now push for an Islamist agenda. Egypt's Copts are also worried, while some of the young activists who spearheaded the 25 January Revolution that toppled the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak feel that their revolution has been hijacked.
Yet, political Islam takes many different forms, ranging from the liberal model found in Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey, to the more conservative patterns of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the fundamentalist doctrine in place in Afghanistan. Which form of political Islam the Arab Spring will usher in in the Arab world in general, and in Egypt in particular, remains an open question, though it is one worrying many inside and outside Egypt, especially in the United States and Israel.
On the domestic level, Egypt's liberal and secular groups have become fixed in a state of mourning at the Islamists' landslide victory at the ballot boxes. "A funeral" is how prominent political analyst and expert on Islamic affairs Fahmy Howeidy describes Egypt's political scene following the polls. "This state of 'grieving' on the part of secularists is similar to that of Israeli policy-makers," Howeidy wrote in his column in the independent daily Al-Shorouq.
However, while Howeidy wrote that he found it understandable that Israel should worry about the rise of political Islam, he could not understand why Egypt's liberals and secularists should be concerned.
The Islamists have been portrayed in the media as "coming to power over the bodies of the Tahrir martyrs," or chosen by "Egypt's 40 per cent of ignorant, impoverished and frustrated people" who are now "hijacking" the revolution. One liberal activist was quoted in the daily independent Al-Youm Al-Sabei recently as having vowed to "confront the Islamists' grip on the country, even if this means engaging in conflict with them."
Many observers are critical of this scenario of secularists versus Islamists in post-revolutionary Egypt, seeing it as having diverted the attention of the elite from attending to the more urgent demands of the revolution. Without improvements to the economy and the attainment of social justice, many speculate that the country will face a second wave of protests, this time by impoverished and hungry people.
The Islamists for their part insist that the current "Islamophobia" has been one reason behind the rise of a second wave of protests. Assem Abdel-Maged, spokesman for the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya group, is among those who accuse young secular activists belonging to the 6 April movement of "provoking constant turmoil" in order to impede the victory of the Islamists in parliament and to stop them from making any progress in their legislative programme.
However, secularist writer Salah Eissa contends that the secularists' fight for a civil state and against the Islamists is justified. "It is clear from the latest polls that the Islamists have strong popularity," Eissa said, but "the real problem with the groups representing political Islam in Egypt, including the Brotherhood and the Salafis, is that they are not open to ijtihad," referring to what he sees as their refusal to be open to new interpretations of Islam.
Eissa said that "the power of the Brotherhood relies more on public mobilisation and less on its having a programme adapted to the needs of the third millennium." Although the group has declared itself as representing a moderate voice of Islam, Eissa contends that its renunciation of violence has been the only advance that the group has made. "The Brotherhood still holds alarmingly conservative views regarding women and Copts," for example, Eissa explained. "They still insist, for instance, that women and Copts should not be allowed to compete for the presidency or be judges."
For their part, members of the Brotherhood insist that theirs is a moderate group that wants to implement Islamic Sharia law without sacrificing personal freedoms. They are widely viewed as representing moderate views of Islam, especially when compared to the ultra-conservative Salafi groups.
The group has also revisited many of its former positions, including those concerning women and religious minorities. Women constitute more than 10 per cent of the founders of the Brotherhood's new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, while the vice chair of the party is the prominent Coptic intellectual Rafiq Habib.
A recent editorial in the British newspaper The Guardian entitled "Islam in Egypt: fear and fantasy" suggested that people should be more anxious about the future of Egypt than fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood. The editorial argued that the Brotherhood should not provoke the public's fear, since it is "now less a radical organisation than a conservative one, striving to be relevant to modern needs, and divided on how far it can or should trim its policies."
Chair of the Freedom and Justice Party Mohamed Mursi was quoted in the editorial as saying that "the country's new constitution would guarantee equal rights to all Egyptians regardless of religion, gender, race or colour," and these comments also appear on the party's Twitter page.
Mohamed Sudan, foreign relations secretary for the Freedom and Justice Party in Alexandria, was also quoted as insisting that the Brotherhood was known as "the most moderate political group in the Islamic world". The group would "guarantee everyone his or her citizenship rights, regardless of faith" and would "not interfere in the relationship between the citizen and his God," according to the Associated Press.
As a result, the Salafis are widely viewed as being perhaps a stronger threat to individual freedoms in Egypt. The Salafis, who dominate the Nour Party, are newcomers to the political scene, and they previously avoided direct involvement in politics mainly because they were often persecuted or jailed by the former regime. The Salafis are known to adopt a strict interpretation of Islam similar to that in Saudi Arabia, which promotes the segregation of the sexes and women's wearing of the Islamic veil.
Since they are new to politics, some Salafis have been trapped by the media and quoted, or even misquoted, expressing extreme opinions that may pose a threat to personal freedoms. The media has had a field day reporting the words of some Salafis to the effect that they want to impose an agenda on Egypt that would impose the Islamic veil on women, prevent women's employment, mixed workplaces and beaches, and ban alcohol in public areas.
However, a spokesman for the Nour Party told the news agency AFP that the group had been the target of a "campaign of fear-mongering and slander over the past 10 months," insisting that "neither the country's large Christian community nor liberal Muslims had anything to fear from his group, which he said would focus on improving all Egyptians' lives."
The spokesman also tried to appease fears that the Salafis might try to ban alcohol by arguing that this was a marginal issue concerning only perhaps 20,000 people out of Egypt's total population of 80 million that do not drink alcohol. Meanwhile, nearly half the population, something like 40 million people, do not have safe water to drink, he said. "Do you think that in parliament I'll busy myself with people who don't have water, or people who get drunk," the spokesman asked.
Yet, despite these reassurances Eissa contends that it remains worrying that some members of the Salafi groups have said that they are seeking the establishment of an "Islamic state" in Egypt, and that laws that in their view contradict Islamic Sharia law cannot be passed.
Many observers now say that the identity of post-revolutionary Egypt will depend on whether the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party will move to the right and ally itself with the Salafis, or whether it will aim for a centrist coalition that includes secularist parties. So far, the Brotherhood has seemed to be seeking to form a centrist alliance, but many still fear that this may change over time.
"Many secularists fear that the Islamists are only appeasing public fears and adapting their agenda to suit public demands until they tighten their grip on the country," said Hani Raslan, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "Once in power, they may start pushing their ultra-conservative agenda."
Raslan, however, is not unduly concerned. "The masses that flocked to Tahrir Square to commemorate the 25 January Revolution were sending a message to the parliament to the effect that no single party can rule the country according to its own doctrine alone," Raslan said. The real intentions of the Brothers will be made clear in a few weeks' time when the drafting of the new constitution begins. Thus far, the group has said that it wants this to represent all political trends. The Islamists will be shooting themselves in the foot if they attempt to impose their views, or if they do not respect the moderate Islamic identity of the already religious population, he said.
"They will be rejected by the public if they try to do this," Raslan insisted. Though Eissa suspects that the Brotherhood's "seemingly moderate statements may be part of a PR campaign to counter secularist attacks," he also speculates that "the group will have to adapt its agenda to meet demands for a civil state."
"This is my personal bet," Eissa told Al-Ahram Weekly. "History has shown that all ideologies ultimately have to adapt to reality."
Other observers agree that the Salafis' "political immaturity" is bound to change over time, with Raslan for one contending that experience in parliament will oblige them to modify their views to a more down-to-earth agenda. "The Salafis will change their superficial outlook, which puts the emphasis on appearances and religious rituals, to a more sophisticated approach that attends to more urgent needs related to poverty, illiteracy, poor education, housing and health services," he said.
Many would agree with Raslan that the Salafis' recent engagement in dialogue with Israeli policy-makers and the US ambassador, together with their attempts to quell fears regarding Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, already show a step in this direction.
The models of Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey already show that a combination of liberalism and moderate Islamism is possible, but the question remains whether such models can be introduced in Egypt. The rise of the Islamists in Tunisia and Morocco has also not stirred up as much controversy, fear and antagonism as it has in Egypt.
Howeidy said that one main difference between Egypt and Tunisia lies in the fact that political Islam in Tunisia is represented by only one dominant group, the Nahda Party, which scored more than 40 per cent of the parliamentary seats with allied parties in last year's Tunisian elections. The Nahda Party, commented Hani Nasira, a writer and expert on Islamist ideological movements, also "did not witness the same internal and structural divisions [as those in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood], and it was perhaps more pronounced in its criticism of the military and interim government" in Tunisia.
In his article "A comparative look at the Islamists of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions", Nasira argues that Tunisia's Islamists have also been "more open to reform and compromise than has the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt], as seen in their acceptance of the Tunisian Republican Covenant." According to Nasira, the later agreement includes "the basic principles of the expected Tunisian constitution, as well as an acceptance of the electoral act, which provides for the equal representation of men and women."
Members of the Tunisian Nahda Party are also perhaps more experienced and eloquent than are members of Egypt's Brotherhood, possibly because they have been more open to foreign cultures. "Many of the movement's members were educated in France, and that has definitely reflected on the ability of the group to approach their own secular society with an enlightened discourse," said Amr Hashim Rabie, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
This has not been the case in Egypt, where political Islam takes different forms and where many fear that the rise of the Salafis and the emergence of the more radical Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya may push the movement as a whole to the right. "Although the Brotherhood remains the largest Islamist group in Egypt, it is apparent that their moderate discourse may not be the loudest voice, now that the Salafi groups have proved that they have a major influence on society," Howeidy said.
The Salafis are themselves divided into five political groups, sometimes having different intellectual and political tendencies, and there are at least seven political parties and groups representing political Islam on the scene overall. Many members of these groups are new to politics and thus can seem rather amateurish in their discourse. Now that they are suddenly in the spotlight, Howeidy said, "many seem lacking in eloquence and know-how, and certainly in being able to approach society with a moderate discourse that does not create conflict."
Whereas Tunisia's Islamists have worked on quelling public fears by adopting a discourse that focuses on important economic and developmental issues and guarantees respect for personal freedoms, Egypt's Salafis have been focussing on issues related to women's dress and public conduct, with little attention given to personal freedoms, Howeidy continued.
There have also been differences in approach to foreign relations, notably during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Egypt and Tunisia last September. "The Brotherhood rejected Erdogan's statement of faith in the role of secularism in constructing nation states," Nasira wrote in his article. "But Tunisia's Nahda accepted his statement, and even confirmed their acceptance of it after the 23 October elections in the country." For Nasira, the difference can be explained by the fact that Egypt's Salafis constitute a greater challenge to the Brotherhood than do Tunisian Salafis to the Nahda.
Raslan insists that the Turkish model of political Islam cannot be viable in Egypt either. "The Islamist movement in Turkey was born in a secular environment where both the law and the constitution are secular," he explained. "The Islamists thus had to adopt a liberal discourse that would not create conflicts within the society and in order to maintain their very existence." There is a consensus among analysts that the ruling Islamist party in Turkey is restrained by the country's secular army and legal system, a pair of strong institutional checks that countries such as Egypt lack. Egypt's Islamists would "reject the Turkish model of Islam as being closer to secularism than it is Islam," Raslan added.
Yet, if Egypt is not to adopt the Tunisian or Turkish model, observers do not believe that it will lean towards the stricter Islamist model found in Saudi Arabia either. "Egypt has a great civilisation, culture and identity that do not need to adopt the model of any other country," Raslan said, Rabie adding that "Egyptians have always been religious in a moderate way, and they have kept their own identity over the centuries. Nothing can change this."
In fact, both Raslan and Rabie reject the very concept of "Islamisation". Raslan said that in his view those who voted for the Islamists in the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt were not seeking Islamist rule. Rather, he said, "they cast their ballots for the Islamists because they believed that they had integrity and that they were people with clean hands who would not steal from the country like the former regime did."
Many observers say that the revolutionary masses of the Arab Spring are now choosing Islamism at the polls because it represents a new and untried alternative to secular, leftist and liberal ideologies that in the past have led to authoritarian regimes that failed to meet the people's aspirations. And, politics aside, many of them insist like Raslan that "the Egyptians will remain religious in the same way as they always have been, be they Muslims or Copts, and they will not accept any radical alternative to their identity."