Egypt’s Islamists: asset and flaw

The forces of political Islam are everywhere in the kaleidoscope of post-revolution Egypt. But behind the confident exterior this is a movement divided and uncertain, says Tarek Osman.

Most strands of the Egyptian opposition that had survived under the surface of the Hosni Mubarak years - secular, liberal, religious - had something to gain from the country’s revolution. Of all of them, however, it is political Islam that seems now to be on an escalator to political power.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the most potent force of this strand. It lent decisive support to the uprising of January-February 2011 at its most critical phase. True, liberal groups also summoned up the will to initiate the vital demonstrations in the last week of January. But it was the Muslim Brotherhood that had the deeper capacity to focus that will into large, organised displays of rejection; to maintain the pressure in the last two weeks of the uprising; and to spread it across the country.

The Islamists were aided in this effort by the fact that their message, in contrast to the complex rhetoric of many liberals, is simple. They address the yearning of most Egyptians for a society run by and for everyday people, with Islam as the guiding principle, and without too many questions, analyses or complications. This straightforward discourse is embodied in the “Freedom and Justice” party set up by the Brotherhood in May 2011, and in the campaign of the likely presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (a former leading member of the group).

The moderate voices within political Islam, by repeatedly stressing that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, also try to present their thinking in a language that avoids affronting the liberal sections of Egypt’s middle class. The precise combination of message, language, tone here is crucial; for Egyptian society, notwithstanding the non-religious rhetoric of the 2011 uprising, remains pious and religiously conservative.

More generally, the new political landscape - where the previously ruling National Democratic Party is sidelined, and political influence and voting blocs are no longer centred on a single source of power - tends to favour Islamists, as the best organised of those now in the field.

The inner reality

But the Islamic movement also faces immense challenges, including divisions among its various currents. The liberal Islamist message may resonate among significant parts of Egyptian society, but it faces opposition (even outright hostility) from the more conservative wings in the salafist movement. Several ultra-conservative factions, emerging from decades of persecution, are becoming more assertive. In a number of poor Cairene neighbourhoods, some salafist groups - emboldened by the retreat of Egyptian police after the fall of the Mubarak regime - demand the closure of shops selling alcohol (and when refused, try to force the issue).

There have also been protests, including in front of churches, to press demands for an Islamic Egypt. Salafist groups have been behind the growing number of sectarian flare-ups. The differences in modes of operation, and ideology, between these ultra-conservative groups and liberal Muslims will evolve into cracks in the Egyptian Islamic movement.

These actions also blemish liberal Muslims, and the image of the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when the movement’s leaders are striving to assure almost anyone prepared to listen to it - inside and outside Egypt - of their moderation. The consistent message is that the Brotherhood believes in multiparty democracy; aims for a secular state where Islamic sharia (jurisprudence) is a guiding principle, but not superimposed on society; supports women’s participation in all social, economic and political spheres; and (of course) renounces violence in internal politics.

But there are clear signs of tension inside the Muslim Brotherhood. These were visible long before the revolution, in (for example) the enforced changes at the Brotherhood’s general-guide office in October 2009 following the promotion of several liberal members to the supreme council. They reappeared during the first days of the 2011 revolt, in the clash between a hesitant elderly leadership and fiery young members over whether or not to support the demonstrations.

These internal disputes, which continue in different forms, divert the energy of liberal Islamists from its main political activities. More revealingly, they suggest that political Islam in Egypt is pursuing two contradictory sets of values. On one side, it aims to put forward a liberal Islamic narrative that corresponds with the notion of a secular state; on the other, many of its leading constituents are antagonistic to liberal democracy and any deviation from Islamic sharia.

The movement's future

A wider confusion afflicts political Islam, in how it manages the relationship (and the difference) between society and state. A society has a number of frames of reference corresponding to the wants, aspirations and cultural orientations of its many constituents. A legitimate state, however, has an agreed-upon governing framework that all citizens subscribe to.

In principle, Islamists too acknowledge that such a framework for the state is indispensable; but the vast majority of political Islam’s influential leaders (not just the few spokespersons who regularly appear on Egyptian and international TV stations) in fact are ambiguous on basic questions of legitimacy. They do not hesitate to condemn any act of violence or rhetoric that appears menacing; but over crucial issues affecting Egypt’s governance, their language is skilfully evasive.  

This can be understood as both in immediate terms a media-political asset and in a deeper, longer-term perspective level a serious flaw. Egypt’s Islamic movement is handicapped by a conservative wing that clings to confrontational and regressive views that are at odds with the aspirations of a growing middle class and forward-looking young people. The evasions are a sign of rooted divisions that cannot forever remain unresolved.

It may be that today’s salafists (and some of the conservative wings of the Muslim Brotherhood) are making the same mistake as did their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s: championing a return to the past at a time when the active forces in Egyptian society are eagerly looking to the future. In this respect the Egyptian Islamic movement - for all its momentum - resembles the ubiquitous figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings: we see his surroundings, perceive his joy and anguish, but never make out his true face.

About the author

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of the international bestseller, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010) and has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.

Read On

Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Alison Pargeter, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010)

Bruce K Rutherford, Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Cairo Review of Global Affairs

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University Press, 2003)

AhramOnline

Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press, 2005)

Al-bab

Revolution in the Arab World (Foreign Policy, 2011)

Yasmine El Rashidi, "The Victorious Islamists" (New York Review of Books, 14 July 2011)

Brian Whitaker, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East (Saqi, 2009)

Olivier Roy, Whatever Happened to the Islamists? (C Hurst, 2009)

Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot, A History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2007)

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

More On

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)