Don't fear the Islamists

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Monday 8 Aug 2011

Recent demonstrations by Salafists reflect fears about threats to Egypt's Islamic identity. The solution is not to isolate Islamists but to integrate them into Egypt's new political space

Fear of the Islamists' rise reappeared after the predominantly Islamist demonstrations on July 29. Scenes of Islamists - mainly Salafists- carrying pro-sharia (Islamic law) banners and chanting, "Egypt will remain Islamic" have raised concerns from different groups both inside and outside the country. While some of these concerns are valid, they are largely exaggerated, and the significance of the demonstration has been over-estimated.

The July 29 demonstrations were supposed to be the finale of a three-week sit-in that started on July 8. Several groups with competing agendas participated in the sit-in, leading to a wide range of divergent demands. Yet, at the core of the sit-it were a few mutual demands, including stopping all military trials for civilians, dismantling the institution of oppression (primarily central security forces and state security apparatus which has been renamed as the national security apparatus) and bringing justice to the revolutionary martyrs' families through taking serious measures to bring to trial all those who collaborated in the killings.

On the margins were other demands, including the agreement on a set of supra-constitutional articles that govern the constitution drafting process, reversing the roadmap outlined by the constitutional amendments referendum through postponing parliamentary elections and formulating a constitution drafting committee, and demanding the ousting of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) currently running the country. These demands were hardly popular, as some of them were viewed as anti-democratic and others as anarchist in a conservative society. Specifically the first demand, about the supra-constitutional articles, was viewed sceptically by different political groups fearing a Turkish-modelled military intervention in political affairs, and by Islamists who viewed it as an attempt to alter the country's Arab-Islamic identity by the secular-liberal elite.  While not fully responding to any of the sit-in’s demands, the Supreme Council sent out signals that indicated it is considering responding to this most controversial one.

Islamist groups responded differently to the perceived identity threat. More experienced groups - most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood - understood that Egypt's identity could hardly be jeopardised in a free democratic context. They responded to the divergence of demands by mobilising for consensual ones. Salafist groups- with a classic rigid worldview and only minimal political experience - resorted to identity politics. Magnifying the practically inexistent fear of sharia marginalisation, they mobilised their masses to Tahrir Square to defend Egypt's identity from the minority of protesters attempting to alter the democratic process. Hundreds of thousands responded and different means of transportation were used to transfer Salafists from all around the country to Tahrir.

The scene in the square on July 29 was an overstatement of Salafists' popularity. According to Gallup statistics, only 7 per cent of Egyptians politically support Salafists. Another 15 per cent support the Muslim Brotherhood, and 5 per cent the Wasat party. Total political support for Islamists does not therefore exceed 27 per cent. But July 29 was about identity, not politics. That is, as highlighted above, Salafists resorted to identity politics to mobilise supporters to demonstrate. This automatically widens their support base from the traditional 7 per cent to the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, who – albeit not supportive of Islamist groups - support the Islamic identity of the state. According to Gallup statistics, 84 per cent of Egyptians wish to see a role for religion in public life (70 per cent want an advisory role for religious scholars and another 14 per cent want them to assume direct political roles), and the Salafists –alongside rightwing state-owned media opposing the sit-in- succeeded in convincing a good percentage of those that they needed to defend their religion.

Salafists opted for identity politics for at least two reasons. Firstly, their insufficient experience. Unlike other, more sophisticated Islamist groups, Salafists are new to the political scene, and have minimal experience. Aside from their individualist and ritually-oriented version of Islamism, they have not yet been able to come up with comprehensive platform, and therefore they choose, consciously or not, to resort to their comfort zone; identity politics. Second is the Salafists' dire need to make a strong presence and win a seat in post-revolutionary Egypt after their hostile attitude towards the revolution in its earlier days. Creating (or magnifying) a threat to identity and then combating this threat was therefore ideal for Salafists. It was therefore impossible for Salafist leaders to honour their agreements with other political group and mobilise for consensual demands, for that would have meant the retreat of many of their supporters.

It would have also been impossible for other Islamist groups to withdraw from the square and boycott demonstrations. With their members already in the square, asking them to retreat because of the Islamic slogans would have caused a serious split in these movements between those obsessed with identity and those experienced in politics. In other words, the identity card would have been played by Salafists against the leaders of these groups to win their followers’ support.

A few factors suggest that Egyptians should not fear the Salafist rise, but should work in a sophisticated manner to integrate Salafists in the political system. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in Tahrir Square on that Friday came from different governorates, and were defending their identity and not the Salafist political project. Politicians have the responsibility to forcing Salafists into real politics, which requires not challenging the perceived identity of the country. This in turn would force Salafists to face serious political questions, and would therefore make decisions that cause their divergence, and distribute them on the current trends of Egypt's politics.

Egypt revolted against a restricted political system, and the post-revolutionary polity will be an all-inclusive one. This requires politicians, critics, analysts and commentators to responsibly assume their roles, and to encourage the Salafist integration into Egypt's polity; whilst confirming their acceptance of the country's identity. Islamists, on the other hand, should realise they are not the guardians of this identity, and that throughout its modern history, Egypt had always observed this identity whilst following different political orientations.

The writer is a freelance columnist and researcher focusing on Islamic movements and democratisation.

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