Muslim Brothers, Jihadists and Salafists: Egypt's Islamists come in from the cold

Dina Samak , Friday 18 Mar 2011

After decades of repression, the Islamist movement in Egypt is enjoying unprecedented openness, thanks to the revolution. This may not translate into greater strength, however

Abboud El-Zomor
Abboud el-Zomor, surrounded by family members after being released from Liman Tora Prison at Helwan (Photo: Reuters)

Finally the old sheikh was released from his prison upon the demands of a revolution in which he did not take part. Abboud El-Zomor, who was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for his part in the assassination of the ex-president Anwar Sadat, had had his sentence extended by five years under the emergency law imposed after the 1981 shooting.

The old sheikh, whose release was met with great attention from the Egyptian media, does not seem to regret the assassination of Sadat and think that it is a justifiable, yet unrepeatable action. This among, other things, has provoked renewed fear and suspicion towards the role of Islamist groups in Egypt, from the conservative Salafis to the politicized Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Brotherhood's participation in decision-making over Egypt's future has raised many concerns,” says Mamoun Fandy, director of the Middle East Program and Gulf Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The prime minister’s meeting with representatives of those who demonstrated for the immediate release of Kamelia Shehata while a Coptic sit-in was held after a church was torched down, and later the extravagant reception of the El-Zomor cousins (Abboud and Tarek), increased suspicion that radical Islamists will have a say on Egypt’s future."

However, it is not right to deal with Islamic forces as one homogeneous group as, according to Fandy, even the Brotherhood cannot be viewed as a single entity with a firm perspective.

"For anyone who has been in Tahrir, it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is a spectrum of opinions, some are hard-line, some moderates and others are like any other Muslim in the street," he says. "The political Islam in Egypt is the bogeyman that Mubarak used to frighten the west and they have to explain themselves in a new light and this will not be an easy task."

Fandy could be right. While the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have made a clear decision on the shape and size of their political participation in the future, the group is facing criticism from within. A call for "the revolution of the Muslim brothers" was recently contained by the group’s Shura council after it promised the opposition from within that their views will be considered and that a conference will be held to further debate issues of contention.

"We are a democratic group and we solve our problems in a democratic way" says Mohamed Morsy, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsy insists that the media has exaggerated the differences within the group, differences he considers as healthy as long they do not threaten the unity of the group.

However, such a threat seems to exist, according to those who look suspiciously at the Supreme Guide’s announcement on 15 March that the "Freedom and Justic Party is the only party representing the Muslim Brotherhood and no member of the Brotherhood is allowed to join or participate in any other party."

Other Islamic groups in Egypt are not so clear about their future plans.

Al-Jamaat Al-Islamiya, or the Islamic group, is one of the groups to have been revived since the ouster of Mubarak. Affiliated with Jihad, with whom it organised and carried out the assassination of Sadat, since the eighties, the two are now considered as one entity. As a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of the group and many of its members were imprisoned for years under Mubarak's rule, with more than 150 of its leaders released in the past few days.

The loosely organized Jamaat has been inactive for years and this, according to Tarek El-Zomor, will make its reorganization hard but not impossible. "The reorganization of the Jamaat after long years of oppression will be a hard thing but in time, and especially after refuting violence and getting more involved in political and social action, the group will have a bigger presence and effect on the society," says El-Zomor.

The younger cousin who was released from prison on the same day as Abboud, seems more open to working with other Islamic groups. "The most important thing now is to push the Islamist current forward and to encourage its members to participate in politics and to organize and correlate with each other," he adds. El-Zomor is even willing to open a dialogue with all colours of the political spectrum to reach the best scenario through which everybody can play a role in developing Egypt after the revolution.

But even though the necessity of working on the group is a common factor between all factions of the Jamaat, how to do so is not yet clear.

"We are not seeking power," says Nageh Ibrahim, one of the Jamaat leaders, "we need a legitimate umbrella to help us work in the society to spread our ideas and beliefs, and a political party will be the best option in the new Egypt." The new party, according to Ibrahim, will be a civil one with an Islamic identity. "We, as Muslims should support a just ruler even if he is not a Muslim and condemn the unfair regime even if it claims to be ruling in the name of Islam," he explains.

But for Karam Zuhdi, head of the Jamaat Shura council, the idea of founding a party is not yet crystallized.

Zuhdi was released in 2003 after condemning the participation of the Jamaat with the Jihad group (of Abboud El-Zomor) in the assassination of Sadat. "What we are seeking is a foundation that helps us spread the religion, educate young people and prepare them to be real Muslims and help the poor," he says. "If a political party is the best legitimate form, we will go for it or else we will look for another mean of organization."

But whether the Jamaat decide to form a new party or to form a social NGO, the entire group's figures emphasise that they stick to their theological position of rejecting violence, which they reached after a series of ideological revisions.

The Salafis are the least politicized of Islamic groups but are seen by many as the major threat to a secular civil state.

In the build up to 19 March’s referendum on constitutional reform, leaflets have been distributed in poor neighbourhoods calling on people to vote for the proposed amendments, saying that it is a “religious duty” to do so. Moreover, some leaflets liken voting against the amendments to creating a new constitution that will dismiss the second article that stipulates Islam to be the official religion of the country. This article, added to the Constitution in 1980 by Sadat, is considered a red line by many in predominantly Muslim Egypt.

While seeming to be the loudest Islamic voice at the moment, the Salafis are not united over their approach towards politics.

They did not embrace the revolution nor did they call on their members and sympathizers to join in the demonstrations in its first weeks. More significantly, their clerics, who became famous through their appearances on religious satellite television stations, are yet to agree on whether the social movement is a positive thing.

These groups only started to mobilize after the ouster of the president in defence of the second article of the Constitution. Conferences were held in a number of cities and flyers and petition signing campaigns were organized. But while all this is taking place, the Salafi movements, represented by four main groups, are still indecisive on whether they should participate in politics. Such participation was viewed for years as a negative thing that would affect their religious goals.

“We need to revise our position,” says Mohammed Hassan, a prominent Salafi cleric who played a role in trying to extinguish secular tensions in the city of Soul after a church in the village was torched by Muslims. Hassan is also a member of the Shura council of the Al-Sunna Al-Muhammadia Salafi group that recently released a statement that said there is no religious reason to prevent Muslims from participating in elections because elections are considered a tool to help in spreading religious views.

The statement adds, however, that Salafi clerics are not supposed to run for any political position because this will divert their attention from religious preaching.

“No one can keep the young religious Muslims away from participating in shaping the future of the country,” says Hassan, “the nation is changing and we need to reconsider our position and provide these (Muslims) with the right answers and the right tools in their fight for preserving the Islamic identity and values.” Hassan adds that religious clerics should have participated in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to help young people face the challenges they are subjected to everyday.

But the situation is not as clear to all Salafi figures as Hassan’s words make it seem. Abu Ishak El-Huainy, another dominant Salafi cleric, considers the revolution to be a “Fetna” (a disorder that can cause wrong temptations) and advises all religious figures to wait until a clear vision develops. El-Huainy is not alone on this.

For years the relationship between Salafi movements and other Islamic groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, has been a tense one. The Salafis adhere to a more conservative belief system that sees political activity as a field that would force them to yield more compromises than the religion could accept.

Dialogue with secular groups or around laws that do not abide to Islamic rule is unacceptable to many, as is sitting in a parliament with women.

What all Islamic groups seem to agree upon is that Egypt is passing through a significant moment that requires a real revision of strategy. This moment is witnessing the emergence of a united position on the importance of preserving the Constitution’s second article for the sake of the country’s Islamic identity, as well as supporting the current government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

However differences will soon start to show up according to many analysts.

“The problem of the political Islamic groups is not only that they don’t seem to agree on future political tactics but also that they are not socially coherent,” says Sameh Naguib of AUC’s Middle East Studies centre.

According to Naguib, oppression was one of the main reasons for Egyptians to sympathize with religious discourse and now, with society becoming more politicized, the Islamic groups are set to lose a big advantage. “People need to hear concrete answers to their economic and social problems, and this does not only apply to the general public but also to members of these groups,” says Naguib. “If this is not supplied by the clerics, they (both the public and the members) will have to look for these answers elsewhere.”

Mamoun Fandy agrees with the political science professor’s analysis. “The Islamic groups faces a serious dilemma at the moment,” says Fendy. “Both choices of whether to participate in politics or not will be a serious challenge for them.”

“If these groups choose to be isolated and to concentrate their efforts on religious preaching they will lose the ground to other political forces in the society,” explains Naguib. “And if they decide to take part in the political life at this revolutionary moment they will have to face challenges which they are not trained or have the tools to face.”

Both Naguib and Fandy agree that the real problem of Islamist groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafis, is the repression-imposed shadows under which they operated in the past served to obscure their differences. Now that the spotlights are on, they might find it harder to keep these at bay.

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