INTERVIEW: Fear and Islamism in Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 6 Oct 2015

Three decades after members from their ranks assassinated Sadat, the Egyptian state is keen to maintain an aura of fear around Islamist groups, says political scientist Wahid Abdel-Meguid

Mohamed Anear El Sadat
Late president Mohamed Anwar El Sadat during a military last parade (photo: Al-Ahram)

“It will take the Muslim Brotherhood roughly a decade to decide upon political and more general stances. Meanwhile militant Islamism, no longer confined to Jamaat Islami like in the 1980s and 1990s, will continue, perpetuating the idea that all ideological movements have a radical version,” says political scientist and commentator Wahid Abdel-Meguid.

Abdel-Meguid was assessing the future of political Islam in Egypt. Security and political sources have suggested to Ahram Online that several governorates are on security alert following attempts by militant Islamists to recruit, and that debate rages across all levels of the Brotherhood about their next move.

Abdel-Meguid, a member of the Constituency Assembly of Egypt since 2012, is reluctant to endorse alarm concerning a supposed nationwide infiltration of militant Islamist movements. Nor is he willing to corroborate “exaggerated accounts” suggesting militant Islamist groups like ISIS are finding ready recruits in the Brotherhood ranks.

“That is an overblown story. I don’t deny that there’s a sympathy there, or that some young and angry members have defected to ISIS. But their numbers are limited,” Abdel-Meguid says.

Equally, he adds, only a limited number would agree with the sporadic calls for a full re-integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political system.

“I know that was proposed in some quarters, but most Brotherhood members are undecided about their next move and are waiting for the outcome of a serious dispute between those prescribing further radicalisation and those opposed,” he explains.

The internal Brotherhood debate is mostly independent from militant groups, according to Abdel-Meguid. “Those are two different camps of political Islam, it would be a mistake to confuse them.”

Qutb influence a myth

Abdel-Meguid says the Brotherhood has not been under the sway of Sayyid Qutb’s radical thinking. Qutb was an early Brotherhood leader with some violent ideas. It has been suggested that after Sadat harshly turned on the Brotherhood, having used them against what was in the late 1970s a forceful leftist movement, Qutb’s thinking was adopted. He was sentenced to death by Sadat’s predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser as part of a scheme to quash the spectrum of Islamism.

“That is security jargon – this Qutbi thinking. It’s popular in security circles and promoted by security-aligned media, in part to excuse the McCarthyism practiced against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abdel-Meguid opines.

Political Islam in modern Egypt, he says, has always had two camps; the socio-political type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the militant version represented in the 70s and 80s by Jamaa Islamiyaah.

“Sadat opted for a short-sighted scheme based on political expediency where he used one [camp] and his wish was reciprocated by [then Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood] Omar El-Telmessani,” asserts the politcal scientist.

However, Sadat’s scheme failed because although the Muslim Brotherhood was mostly willing to honour the understandings it had with the state, a militant Islamist group was, “then as now”, unwilling to do so.

Same old fear-based approach by the state

Abdel-Meguid says little has changed of the state’s approach to Islamism since Sadat’s assassination by militant Islamists on 6 October 1981 during a military parade celebrating the success of the 1973 War in which Sadat initiated the reclaiming of the Sinai and the Suez Canal from an Israeli occupation that had started in 1967.

Under the three-decade rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Abdel-Meguid says, the state continued the short-sighted and undemocratic scheme of using the Muslim Brotherhood to serve a political agenda.

Mubarak, however, did not aim to use Islamists groups to defeat other political movements, but rather to present moderate Islamist groups like the Brotherhood as an unsavory option – “the Islamist alternative” to his rule.

“The state allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to function across the social sphere. First within universities then within syndicates and then by establishing some 2000 NGOs – which are now being taken over by the state one-by-one in a McCarthyist campaign,” he says.

In any case, he continues, Mubarak was always willing to posit the history of militant Islamist groups, responsible for Sadat’s assassination and subsequent attacks on tourists, Copts and secular targets, as the possible future of any Islamist group.

So Mubarak did not use Islamists as a tool to scare off left-wing movements, but actually as a way of scaring the entire country by suggesting the only alternative to his rule was militant Islamism. He then cracked down on the Brotherhood at will. “He suggested the same to the West,” Abdel-Meguid adds.

For the most part, Islamists tangoed. The Brotherhood continued to act across the social spectrum, contesting parliamentary elections and criticising the regime, “short of criticising Mubarak himself”.

“This was the situation when they started taking part in the slow surge of political activities that started around 2005, but once the demonstrators started to use slogans directly slamming Mubarak they [the Brotherhood] would step back. This was the case until the early hours of the 25 January Revolution,” says the long-time politcal commentator.

The Brotherhood falls into the trap of public fear

“Then there was a revolution and the dynamics fully changed.”

The Brotherhood leadership were slow to abandon the code of conduct with the state, aware they needed time to rework the profile of their political presence in a society that had welcomed Islamist charity, but had never forgotten the chilling assassination of Sadat.

“As such the Muslim Brotherhood leadership agreed openly, in full political terms and at the highest organisational levels to refrain from nominating a candidate for the presidential elections,” says Abdel-Meguid, who was part of negotiating that deal between Islamists and other political forces.

The landslide success of all kinds of Islamist candidates at the 2011 parliamentary elections tempted the Brotherhood to go back on that agreement and to fall prey to the “arrogance of power”, says Abdel-Meguid.

This arrogance set off a series of misguided political choices that eventually reminded society of its fear of “the Islamist alternative”, an alternative that had now become reality.

“This explains the attitude of those who were very supportive of the Islamists in 2011 and were subsequently very supportive of the military in 2013,” when elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, was ousted.

The Islamists’ failure to grasp the political inclinations of society was highlighted when Morsi invited to 6 October celebrations one of the militants convicted of being involved in Sadat’s assassination at the same celebrations just 30 years before.

“This was not just the arrogance of power but also a demonstration of the Islamist-held fallacy that society is inclined by towards Islamism. That’s a poor interpretation of the excellent charitable enterprises Islamists undertook under Mubarak when the state was failing to provide basic services,” according to Abdel-Meguid.

According to the analysis of Abdel-Meguid what the actions of Islamists during Morsi’s one-year rule, which was brought to a sharp end by the 30 June 2013 demonstrations and subsequent 3 July ouster, was in a sense far scarier for society than Sadat’s 1981 assassination.

“What they did was suicidal and it will be a very long time before the damage is rectified, especially with the terrifying expansion of groups like ISIS scaring Egyptians and the wider world,” Abdel-Meguid concluded. 

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