What fate does political Islam have under El-Sisi?

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 14 Jun 2014

Opinions are divided among different Islamist groupings and parties as to how best to return to the political scene

Egypt's Islamist led parliament in 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

"Today is the real celebration of the defeat of Muslim Brotherhood; today we can really say that they are gone once and for all and that Egypt is back for all Egyptians and it is all because of the intelligence and bravery of this great man who is now our president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi," said Moushira, a 55-year-old engineer.

Speaking from Tahrir Square, where she went with her husband, a medical doctor, and three teenage children to celebrate the official inauguration of El-Sisi as president on Sunday afternoon, Moushira said that she voted for El-Sisi "essentially because he is the man who removed the Muslim Brotherhood who were trying to take Egypt away from being the diverse modern state, which had lots of problems but still was a modern country, to a medieval version of a part of the Islamic caliphate."

Moushira is meanwhile "confident" that the new president is up to the job of running a country with "so many challenges like Egypt today.” For her, however, his main claim to fame is his ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who was elected and ruled for only a year before the intervention of El-Sisi as military chief on 3 July last year amid mass protests demanding his removal.

This middle-aged lady's qualification of El-Sisi as "the man who removed the Muslim Brotherhood" is a very common reference that many people, of diverse socio-economic backgrounds, used to explain why they voted for El-Sisi as the new president of Egypt.

The Brotherhood, as the oldest political Islamist group and the best organised non-revolutionary political opposition in Egypt, had been respected and sympathised with since their establishment in the 1920s. However, it took only a few months of the rule of Morsi and the violence practiced by some of their members and, more importantly, militant groups that affiliate themselves with the Brotherhood, for them to become the most disliked political faction that is almost seen by a great number of Egyptians as "a terrorist group that is trying to undermine the state after it had failed to rule it". Of course, as some informed sources would put it, all this made the group an easy target for the orchestrated media to demonise them.

Most of the leaders of the group, along with Morsi himself, and thousands of its members are jailed on a variety of charges that could bring capital punishment. The remainder of the leaders are on the run, and the base of the group is faced with what is probably an unprecedented challenge from state and society.

Short term and long term prospects

In the reading of Ashraf Thabet – a leading member of the Salafist Nour Party, which supported the 3 July 2013 ouster of Morsi but declined to join the unelected transition government – when all is said and done, sooner or later El-Sisi will have to find a way to deal with political Islam – "not excluding the Muslim Brotherhood, but of course under certain conditions".

El-Sisi himself is a man who is openly proud of his conservative Islamism – something that caused for him to be dispatched as military attaché in Saudi Arabia before and the main reason he was chosen by Morsi as defence minister less than eight weeks after the inauguration of the former president.

During Sunday's inauguration ceremony, El-Sisi's spouse, daughter and daughters-in-law were all veiled.

In the words of Thabet, who says he has met with the new president quite a few times, "El-Sisi has no animosity with political Islam and he would not have acted to remove Morsi had it not been for the mistakes and arrogance of the leadership of the Brotherhood that turned the people against them".

Thabet finds it "possible, in a way" that some sort of co-existence scheme can be "eventually but certainly not now" worked out, despite all the animosity and the inevitable vendetta between the Brotherhood and El-Sisi that make all group members qualify the new president as a "killer and traitor", a reference to the bloody dispersal of two Brotherhood sit-ins last August, six weeks after the ouster of Morsi.

This, he argued, as have other politicians from the non-political Islam sphere who also met with the new president before his election, "would depend on what the Muslim Brotherhood would have to offer – because El-Sisi himself has nothing to offer them now".

Political Islam researcher and analyst Ahmed Ban argues that what the Brotherhood would have to offer is precisely what El-Sisi would expect of all other political Islam groups, not excluding the Salafists of the Nour Party, who have so far been on his side, even if only because they traditionally despise the Brotherhood: "a total separation between Islamism as a cause, that might include preaching and charity work and politics, and that would have to be exercised strictly in the obvious party system".

As such, the Freedom and Justice Party – the Brotherhood's two-year-old political arm, which was originally cosmetic – is likely to be allowed to continue to operate to serve the one and only legal umbrella that could allow for younger – and as state officials would insist to promptly add, "non-violent" – members of the Brotherhood to "practice politics" quietly – if not subversively.

El-Sisi could well be celebrated for now as the man who removed the Brotherhood from the presidential palace, but in the long run, and short of an unlikely radical economic boom, he won't be able to completely eradicate political Islam, which took around two-thirds of the seats in the first freely elected parliament after the 2011 uprising.

"The objective of El-Sisi, once the new parliament is elected, is to introduce a new set of laws that would make it impossible for political parties to carry the banner of religion in anyway. He would in parallel act to deny preachers from engaging in politics. Eventually, he would be creating the total split-up between politics and religion on the ground – just as it is for him," Ban argued.

The early sign of El-Sisi’s possible adoption of this precise line came in his inaugural speech, where he stressed the commitment to pursue an all-out social cohesion – apart from those who have been involved in violence.

And in the words of one informed official, a limited number of Brotherhood youth are likely to be included in an amnesty that the newly-inaugurated president might be issuing in the near future. The amnesty will essentially focus on secular detainees, upon the advice of outgoing interim president Adly Mansour, said the source.

Choices of the Muslim Brotherhood

In recent weeks, the Brotherhood have, at least at a partial level, opted to cut their losses through a sequence of statements whereby they parted from the demands that had been championed for nearly a year by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy – a coalition that brings together the oldest political Islam group along with other Islamist factions, with the exception of the Nour Party leadership and former Brotherhood members of the Strong Egypt Party.

The sequence of statements, which appeared in unsynchronised tones of speech, opted for a lower ceiling of demands that does not fully challenge the legitimacy of the post-3 July political process, as has been the case before, but instead offers the integration of the Brotherhood and the alliance based on new rules of engagement.

The statements, which according to identical sources from within and without the group, were issued by a limited group of the exiled leadership, with the support of the international organisation's leadership, have failed to solicit the kind of positive political response that they were hoping for. This has in reality strengthened the current of the "imprisoned leadership" which is opposed to taking any initiatives towards the regime of El-Sisi.

This, as Ban explains, is not just about the mix of conviction – and hope -- of this leadership that the political survival of the new president is questionable, but essentially because the leadership has no explanation to offer to its rank and file on why they should accept a deal now "after these huge sacrifices".

Sara Khorsheid, a commentator that follows closely the developments of political Islam, argues that within the rank and file of the Muslim Brotherhood there is a large group that has "given up on the whole peaceful approach; they are basically saying ‘why should we peaceful when nobody has been peaceful with us?’"

It is hard to assess which group within the Muslim Brotherhood holds the majority, the hawks or the doves. The leaders of each side are convinced that the rank and file is on their side.

"In reality, the splits within the Muslim Brotherhood today go well beyond the hawks and doves because there are other splits between the leadership of Egypt and those of the international organisation and between those of Egypt in jails and those out of jails and so on; the command of the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer central," Ban argued.
It is this overwhelming division, Khorsheid says, that allowed for a presidential election with no participation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood had had a stance on every single election and has always bargained for a share either in parliament or similar gains. "But in this recent presidential elections [in which El-Sisi was elected] they just fully boycotted – and this is a first, I would argue," she said.

Parliamentary elections

It is not clear yet whether the Brotherhood will pursue a share in the parliament which will be elected, according to the current plans, later this year.  

Most likely, the same sources suggest, some “Brotherhood associates and sympathisers, but not members, would contest a good few seats” – with the support of the voting bloc of the Muslim Brotherhood whose position on the current political process remains negative.

It is not clear what other Islamist groups’ share would be. Thabet is convinced that in total Islamists and especially the Salafists would have a visible share of the seats of next parliament – "despite everything".

This leader of the Nour Party is of the opinion that "when all is said and done there is a particular voting bloc that is not of organisational Islamist association but which are set on voting for Islamist candidates anyway; they would vote for the Salafists, as for other Islamists, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood or supported by them."

Thabet is willing to argue that "at the very least those of Islamist association cannot have less than 20 percent of the seats of the next parliament" – an assessment that is quadruple that offered by most political commentators.

Khorsheid is at least willing to be skeptical about Thabet’s proposition. "One thing we cannot ignore when we look at the current political scene is that the Islamists, in general and not just the Muslim Brotherhood, who had for long been perceived as pious, are now discredited and have lost considerable sympathy," she said.

Return to the political scene

Thabet argues with confidence that the Islamists will remain an integral part of the political scene and that the Salafists will be the ones to reassemble them under the same platform of pursuing the application of sharia.

This “goes perfectly well with article two of the constitution” that stipulates that sharia is the principle source of legislation, he says.

But this would be an alternative scheme "that is based on political realism – maybe even political pragmatism".

"We have not given up on our original concept but we are not stubborn and we could consider alternative approaches," he said.

Political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Poltical and Strategic Studies, Amr Hashem Rabie, is convinced that the Salafists will continue, possibly unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, to be an integral part of the political scene – with the consent of the new regime that hopes to tame but not to fully eradicate political Islamism.

It is not clear for Rabie, however, the path that the Salafists would take "given that they subscribe to different shades and do not have a united leadership" and given that some of them have a close association with the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Those might for sure refrain from direct political engagement now, but it is not clear what choices they would make for the future," he said.

Other shades of political Islam might survive the storm but with no marked impact  on the political scene in the short or medium term. This would include the Strong Egypt Party, which according to Muslim Brotherhood sources is attracting some members of the group.

Mohamed El-Mohandes, member of the political bureau of Strong Egypt, is quick to deny both that his party can be classified as part of the political Islam spectrum, and that it is attracting frustrated members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Strong Egypt has been weakened, El-Mohandes reluctantly accepts, not because of a wider decline of the approving rate of political Islamism but rather because of the decline of the political process in general.

The party has been subject to the harassment that all political activists have been facing, he told Ahram Online, particularly during the party’s attempt to lobby for a no vote against the constitution that was adopted early this year.

Still, Strong Egypt, with or without cooperation with other political groupings, is planning to participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.

Once in Parliament, El-Mohandes said, Strong Egypt will ally itself with those who are willing to defend the agenda of social justice and freedom – certainly not excluding Islamists.

Thabet too believes that alliances in the parliament will include but not be strictly confined to Islamists.

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