The sheikh president
Even if he cannot run for the presidency, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail represents a new and deep-running trend in Egyptian social and political life, writes Khalil El-Anani
The Egyptian revolution overturned the political soil in the country and one of the fruits is that dozens, if not thousands, have ventured into the fields of politics. However, the overall harvest of the revolution is still poor, whether because of divisions and divergences created by the conflict over power, or as a consequence of the personalisation of politics in Egypt.
One of the personalities that the revolution cast into the public sphere is the lawyer (or "sheikh" to his supporters) Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who has become a political luminary par excellence, especially since his bid for the presidency.
When he first entered the political game, Abu Ismail looked like yet another greenhorn riding the revolutionary wave, so no one took him seriously. Few had imagined that this man would become a local political celebrity and a headline maker in both the domestic and international press. But there he is. Within a matter of months he became a major contender in the presidential campaigns, throwing off the calculations of all political players. Before the revolution, the most Abu Ismail could have aspired to was a seat in the People's Assembly -- the Muslim Brotherhood had nominated him for the 2005 parliamentary elections. Today he has his sights set on the highest office in the country.
It all began during one of the "million-man" marches after Hosni Mubarak stepped down. He stepped onto one of the platforms erected for speakers in Tahrir Square and, assuming the character of a budding revolutionary leader, he delivered a fiery speech that succeeded in capturing the minds and hearts of crowds of revolutionary youth with Islamist inclinations. The ambiguity of the Muslim Brotherhood discourse helped him, as did the liberals' lack of appeal.
Many find the man good-looking, and his unmistakeable charisma does much to compensate for his overly populist rhetoric. His "legitimacy" was certainly not based on a record of struggle against the Mubarak regime, unlike Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh or the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi. It was built on the scaffolding of diatribe against military rule by which means he constructed for himself a revolutionary persona that thrives on the mistakes of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and on the weakness and wavering of other politicians. This is what has extended his appeal beyond Islamist circles and enabled his popularity to spread.
During a quick visit to Cairo, I discovered that Abu Ismail has become more than just a man thirsting for power. He has become a religious and social phenomenon that should be studied and deconstructed in order to better understand the transformations Egyptian society is undergoing in the post-revolutionary phase.
The "Abu Ismail phenomenon" can best be understood in terms of three chief factors, the first being the absence of revolutionary rhetoric. Abu Ismail arrived at a moment when there was a revolutionary "vacuum", especially at the rhetoric level. When other political forces began to knuckle down to the post-revolutionary political game, they eased off on oratory as they sought to reach understandings and arrangements with SCAF on the matter of the transfer of authority. While they were bound by the exigencies of political balances and accommodations, Abu Ismail was not and he took advantage of this to court sympathy among the youth calling for the end of military rule. All he had to do was to tinker with his rhetoric to fill the vacuum and reach his target audiences.
The result was a distinct political discourse that was unlike anything else that could be heard in the Egyptian scene. It rests on three chief ideological and emotive levers -- Salafism, revolution and universalism -- creating a hybrid that we might call metaphorically "revolutionary Salafism" which has attracted tens of thousands of followers. On the one hand, it has struck the right chords with large segments of Islamist youth because it brandishes the torch of the "Islamist project", which conventional Islamists had set aside as they entered the narrower corridors of national politics and made political and ideological "compromises", as Abu Ismail's supporters put it. On the other hand, it is filled with tirades against the US and Israel (or against "prostrating" before the enemy, in the words of one of the sheikh's supporters), which drew in wider audiences.
The second factor is the growing space of religion in the Egyptian public sphere, or what we might term the "Salafisation" of the collective awareness in Egypt. Over the past decade, ethical standards, codes of behaviour and social relations have undergone an intensive process of religification. This does not necessarily mean that society's storehouse of moral and ethical values expanded. What it does signify is an increasing tendency to resort to religious hermeneutics to interpret political and social phenomena and, hence, to submit all political and social questions to the authority of religious explanations, which is the preserve of sheikhs and preachers. It also signifies a marked dichotomy between religion and religiosity, and values and behaviour. The upshot is that the more attractive a person's pietism is in looks and speech, the higher his social stock, which he can eventually turn to political ends. This was Abu Ismail's gateway into the public sphere in Egypt. During the five years before the revolution, he was a permanent guest on Islamist (specifically Salafist) satellite TV talk shows, which gathered huge audiences in Egypt and which developed into a major source of influence and wealth for numerous preachers across the diverse shades of the Salafist school. These shows offered Abu Ismail a forum to address ever-widening audiences among the youth and in popular quarters who were looking for a person with his specifications (modernist in performance, Salafist in appearance, and popularist in speech).
The third factor is what I term post-formal Islamism, a phenomenon that has spread considerably over the past decade. Observers of the Islamist movement will have noted that the realm of influence of conventional Islamist groups, parties and movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties has receded in favour of new Islamist trends, networks and leaderships that are liberated from the burden of organisational bonds and unrestricted by daily political calculations. This, too, is a product of the above-mentioned "Salafisation" and "religification" of society. "Islamism" is no longer a condition for "religiosity" and visa versa. In other words, one does not have to be an Islamist (in the sense of espousing a formal system of Islamic values and an Islamist project for political and social change) in order to belong to one of the Islamist political parties or movements. All people need to do is rally around a specific sheikh or follow a specific religious channel. It is therefore not surprising to see the rapid proliferation of emblems of religiosity in daily life (untrimmed beards, the increase in religious activities, the use of religious vocabulary in daily behavioural patterns, such as Islamic ringtones for mobile phones). While the condition is particularly prevalent among youth, it has also spread to public establishments, private sector stores and people's homes. One major consequence is an ever-broadening "religious marketplace," which is what shaped the ground for the emergence of the Sheikh Abu Ismail phenomenon.
Abu Ismail, himself, epitomises the spread of post-formal Islamism. He is not a member of a specific Islamic movement, organisation or faction, although ideologically he tends towards the Salafist school but with a Muslim Brotherhood flavour. His following extends beyond adherents of the Islamist movement in its traditional form. On the whole, it rejects religious partisanship in its political sense and is more inclined to the personalisation of religion. At the same time, however, it is looking for an alternative "trend," one located in the border areas of the conventional Islamist movements and that plays on their overlapping zones. Thus, you find among its ranks "Salafist-styled" Muslim Brothers and Salafis with Muslim Brotherhood leanings. One might also be surprised to learn that Abu Ismail's following has extended beyond the poor and middle class to youths from the upper middle class and even some from the upper classes. Also, if secondary school and university students formed the chief component of his support base (during his presidential campaign), he also drew considerable support among university graduates, as well as among people in their 40s and 50s.
During my last visit to Cairo, I met several members of the Abu Ismail camp. Some had never engaged in politics before. Others see the future through the eyes of their "sheikh". All are determined to see their project through to the end, even if the dream of his presidency is lost. To them, the question has less to do with the presidency than with the religious/political project championed by Abu Ismail, which means, at least to his disciples, that this project will survive, even if Abu Ismail is not awarded the title "sheikh president".
The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.