Islamism in Egypt: legitimate concerns?

Said Shehata, Wednesday 20 Apr 2011

With the Muslim Brotherhood issuing moderate statements in an effort to calm fears that they will alienate anyone who isn’t male and Muslim from politics, what are Egyptian secularists and Copts afraid of?

Islamic groups have accelerated their presence and gains since the January 25 Revolution in Egypt. Those groups are mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and the Salafists. Some of their figures have become TV stars and their message got unprecedented popularity through media outlets. Even Aboud El-Zomor, who played a part in assassinating former president Sadat, was received as a hero and interviewed by many TV stations and newspapers.

Those groups have been living a dream and enjoy a freedom that they never before experienced in Egypt. They grabbed this golden opportunity and have been working hard to fulfil their goals of establishing an Islamic state in different ways, for example, they did their homework to pass the constitutional amendments - and succeeded. The question is: if the Islamic groups are Egyptian and respect democratic rules, then why are there concerns and fears from the rising star of Islamism?

The first concern is mixing religion and politics, which will necessarily lead to a religious state that might discriminate against non-Muslims and women. While the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood is a democratic state and the rule of people, this discourse is vague and misleading. For example, Essam El-Eryan said the Muslim Brotherhood does not mind a non-Muslim or a woman to be the president. However, there are no women in the organisation that hold leadership positions, such as in the Upper House Shura Council.

In addition, Abd El-Monem El-Shahat, spokesperson of the Salafist Group, said to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) newspaper that the position of the president is limited to a male Muslim. He also has some doubts about democracy since the source of legislation is people and not God. The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie said that the Freedom and Justice Party membership will be open for Christians, which is unlikely to happen in practice, since the party is based on Islam and Copts would be reluctant to take part in any Islamic party.

The second issue is that their power is exaggerated. In the most optimistic scenarios the Muslim Brotherhood will not get more than 20 per cent of votes in any fair and free election. This is conditioned on the active participation of other non-religious political forces in the elections. Surprisingly, hosts of several TV shows who interviewed leaders of Islamic forces propagate the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood will get 30 per cent in the coming elections - - as if this is a fact. The interview that was conducted by Tamer Amin with the spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, is a clear point in case.

While it is undeniable that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organised political force in Egypt, their political experience is not strong enough to make them a viable alternative. Their work and efforts over the years were more religious than political. Mohamed Morsi was right when he said “The Muslim Brotherhood should Islamise society first before getting the majority in the elections, according to the philosophy of Hassan Al-Banna, the Group founder.” In this context Mahmoud Ezzat and Saad El-Husseini, leading members of the MB, have recently highlighted the necessity of Islamising the society before governing by sharia (Islamic law).

Another leading member of the MB, Hamdi Hassan said “if 80 per cent of Egyptians go for the full application of sharia, then this is what must happen.” The MB does have the intention to put religion as the reference for political life and are keen to replicate the Jordanian model, which has a political party and a religious group. The latter will guide the former in all aspects of its activities. Moreover, the MB is not ready and/or willing to compete for the majority votes because of the huge task before them to establish any coming government.

The third concern is the conservative interpretation of both the Islamic Group and Salafists. Al-Zomour said after his release that establishing an Islamic state is an Islamic goal. The preaching and Friday sermons by Salafist sheikhs, such as Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, contributed to the tension between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. Islamic slogans abounded during the referendum on constitutional amendments on 19 March stating to voters that a “Yes” is a religious duty necessary to challenge the Copts’ desire of establishing a secular state.

Playing with religion to get votes of the non-educated and common people is a dangerous game in a society that consists of about 8-10 million Copts and millions of secular forces. The presence of Salafists helps boost the look of the Muslim Brotherhood as a democratic force and a moderate group, however, analysis and studies highlight the common goal amongst the different Islamic forces in Egypt of building an Islamic state. This can be hardly seen as a civil and democratic state.

Gamal Assad, secular Coptic thinker, warned of the division between Islamists on one side and both secularists and Copts from the other in the coming elections.

Finally, the religious tone is loud and attracts ordinary people, particularly those who don’t live in major cities in Upper and Lower Egypt. The spirit of the revolution did not reach many places in Egypt. It is easy to control people through religion, as Gramsci mentioned in his famous book, Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks).

Gramsci explained that shaping people’s mind and attitude can be done through religious institutions, as well as media and educational agencies. The Islamic discourse should be challenged and there should be a clear definition of the meaning and elements of Islamic sharia.

The above concerns and others that could be examined in another article have been discussed amongst the secular and Coptic circles. Their conclusion is that no answer from the Islamic groups will calm those fears. So, the other way forward to tackle those concerns is to strengthen the liberal and non-religious forces through media and reaching out to people all over Egypt to avoid establishing a religious state in the coming elections. The situation is still unravelling.


Said Shehata is a London-based Egyptian academic and writer


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