Egypt’s new Islamism

Emerging tensions as a nation tries to finds a united voice


“We are creating an era of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Alyaa told me with a smile as the second round of parliamentary elections came to an end in Egypt [at the close of 2011]. A year after the so-called Arab awakening, Muslims are rediscovering their religion. In Tunisia and Libya, voters put their hopes in Islamist parties. In Egypt, at least one in every eight Egyptians voted for the Brotherhood. Without a doubt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis will emerge as winners in post-revolution elections.

But not everyone is happy with the growing popularity of Islamist parties. While the masses cast ballots for a new parliament, the Egyptian Bloc – an electoral alliance formed by liberals and leftists – said the Islamists were violating election laws by sending food to poor Egyptians and conducting campaigns near polling stations. The Bloc also condemns the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood, and the more conservative Salafi Nour Party as political opportunists manipulated by religion. To some liberal activists, Islamists are a bigger rival than the army, because they fear Islamists will take away social freedom and the rights of women.

The press and television join the liberals in interpreting the emergence of an Islamic majority as a threat to Egypt’s tourism, banking and above all its year-long democratic revolution. Ever since the Islamists won out in the first stage of elections, newspapers and TV programmes have campaigned vigorously against them. News reporters claim the Nour party is determined to ban alcohol, blow up the Sphinx and impose strict Islamic rules on tourists. Political commentators blame unfair competition during elections. They spread fear that Egypt will become a religious state run by clergy, and urge voters to contain the powers of the Brotherhood. 

Supporters of Islamist parties, on the other hand, do not stand aloof from the debate. In their opinion, the Egyptian Bloc is dominated by atheists and backed by the Coptic Church and western governments. Facing a common enemy in the January revolution, the Islamists joined hands with liberal activists to oust Mubarak from power and bring down Egypt’s corrupt political system. But when it comes to rebuilding the country, differences between the two blocs are obvious.

The liberals treat western democracy as their final destination; the Islamists believe Islam is the solution. Fighting tyranny for freedom, equality and justice is a crucial virtue of Islam, and an important religious duty (jihad) for Muslims. Seeing a large discrepancy between the Quranic ideal and former secular regimes in Egypt, supporters of Islamist parties complain that the leftists and liberals have let them down for a long time and are constantly spreading misinformation about Islam. “The leftists had their chance in Nasser’s era, and the liberals during the reign of Sadat and Mubarak. Now we should give the Islamists an opportunity,” said Shaimaa, a 25-year-old editor.

Political Islam plays a vital role in post-revolution Egypt, reaching out to a large number of voters. Most people follow Islam during elections, although they do not necessarily want a religious government. The fact that religion is such a powerful force put the liberal camp at a distinct disadvantage, as the liberals are often tagged as “anti-Islamist” by their opponents.

Many supporters of political Islam think Egyptian society has deteriorated in recent years because Muslims are not faithful enough to their beliefs. During a visit to al Malek al Saleh, a polling station in central Cairo, most people I came across cast their ballots for Islamist parties. When asked why, some offered a simple reply: “Because we are good Muslims who are true to our religion.” “I choose the Salafi because they apply Shariah,” said one woman in a burqa. The Salafi Nour Party has considerable expertise in exploiting the language of religion. To its supporters, the political birth of Salafi – which used to be preached openly only in mosques – represents a symbolic return to independence, equality and justice. To a time when Egypt was not yet disrupted by outside influence.

A number of my Egyptian friends welcome the Brotherhood with enthusiasm. Despite her love for western movies and pop music, Shaimaa speaks highly of young Egyptians who follow strict Islamic rules: “Some of my best friends are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are all decent guys with a polite manner. And their beliefs are moderate. Tourism will not be harmed by an Islamic majority in parliament, but I think foreigners should have some respect for our tradition.” Showing me her ink-marked finger, Shaimaa told me she voted for the Egyptian Bloc because “there should be a balance of opinions in the People’s Congress”. But for individual candidates, she chose those nominated by the FJP without hesitation.

Shaimaa is troubled by the widespread fear that comes along with the rise of FJP and the way “irresponsible” media handles an Islamic majority in parliament. “The media is not focusing on real issues,” she protested. “Decisions in the FJP are made by economists and technocrats. As a voter I want to get more information about the party’s plan to help economic recovery, rather than stories about banning alcohol and bikinis.”

Alyaa, 21, shares a similar view with Shaimaa: “I won't live a life under such strict Islamic disciplines as the Brotherhood. But I support them in their demand for political power. … The Brotherhood used to be the most organised and experienced opposition party under Mubarak. Its members are faithful to their religious duty and they have done a lot of for charity. That’s why they are so popular with college students.” Alyaa told me about her classmate, who joined the Brotherhood two years ago. “We noticed it at once because he changed his clothes, and tried not to speak to or have eye contact with female classmates. Then one day he suddenly said he loved me! Even though he is a likable companion, I refused him – I don't want to abandon my job and give up my free time.”

Whereas Shaimaa and Alyaa seem satisfied with an Islamic majority in the new parliament, others are more cautious. Some welcome the Brotherhood in the political arena and accept Islam as the state religion, but at the same time uphold the idea of a civil and democratic state.

Ahmad, a 24-year-old journalist of Middle East News Agency, told me the moderate policy of FJP is tolerable but the rise of Salafi makes him frightened. “The Salafi Nour Party propagates an ultra-conservative doctrine and attracts the attention of the poor. But their ideology and practice are too narrow and rigid to meet the demands of today’s society. Egypt is not Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan under Taliban. A religious state will be a disaster for all of us.”

“I have no objection to the Islamists making up a majority,” said Abeer al Maghraby, a 40-year-old engineer working near Tahrir Square, “but I think religion should be based in church and mosque, not in politics. For this reason I choose the Egyptian Bloc.”

Khaled al Sakran, a middle-aged Maadi-based businessman, also voted for the liberals:.“I know some candidates in the liberal camp well so I chose them as MPs,” he told me. “But I would like to see the Brotherhood achieving their political and economic goals. We have not yet seen any positive result from the revolution. Maybe they can make a breakthrough.”

In the first round of elections, I met Hany and Waseem, two Coptic Christians at a polling station. “Despite the fact that the Church encourages Copts to support the Egyptian Bloc,” said Hany, in his 70s, “we voted for the Brotherhood. … We chose them not because they are Islamists, but because the proposal and suggestions they put forward will contribute to our country in the near future.”

Islamist parties are well-organised and religiously popular. They have specialised experience and a clean record in social service such as healthcare, education and economic management. All of these characteristics contribute to their strong showing in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Apart from these facts, a majority of Egyptians believe the rise of Islamists can bring Egypt’s decades of humiliation to an end.

Ibrahim, a mid-aged man I met in Tahrir Square, told me why people want the Islamists. “We live in constant fears for the future,” he mentioned, “We have the fear that secularists and liberals, if elected, will betray us once again. During the reign of Mubarak, people trusted the liberals, and yet it turned out they only safeguarded the interests of the privileged while neglecting the real needs of the masses. The Islamists, by contrast, aim to serve the poor. They are Muslims who advocate social justice and a fair distribution of wealth. … In terms of foreign policy, the secularists are backed by the west. Our government, under their influence, has long been a puppet set up by Americans. People vote for the Islamists because they will say no to the US and Israel.”

Ibrahim, a business man running his own farm, is not a member of Islamist parties, nor does he belong to Egypt’s poor and silent majority. But his views are prevalent among Egyptians, regardless of their social and economic background. Many of them expressed shock and anger at the “liberals” who ruined the economy and developed closer ties with the US at the expense of Egypt’s national interests. They were deeply anxious about Egypt falling behind other Muslim countries in terms of regional influence.

“During the Arab Spring,” said one college student, “Turkey played an increasing role in the Muslim world. And a nuclear Iran will exert enormous influence in the Middle East. But Egypt’s standing among its neighbours declines sharply. It’s a shame that we are now begging money from the US and some Gulf countries.” Shaimaa commented: “Americans are trouble-makers in the Arab world. They support dictators in the region in exchange for foreign policy support. Moreover, they have brought such negative impacts on our culture. Why should we have the Americans to teach us about liberty and democracy?”

Alyaa and Abdullah, both in their 20s, told me what happened in early February 2011, when people gathered on Tahrir Square urging Mubarak to leave. “We were waiting anxiously for the president to declare his stepping down on TV,” Alyaa began, “when suddenly there came the voice of Hillary Clinton, addressing all Egyptians. It was so ridiculous that we couldn't help bursting out in laughter.” “We developed our own form of democracy long ago,” Abdullah added, “according to the Quran. Egyptians have the right to decide what they want. The Americans should not meddle in our affairs.”

His answer was no surprise. Abdullah is student of Al-Azhar University, a chief centre of Islamic learning in the world and the birthplace of both the Brotherhood and Salafi movement. “But that’s exactly what the liberals are concerned about,” I replied, “They worry democratisation in Egypt will lead to a theocratic democracy, or a kind of democracy without constitutional liberalism.”

Abdullah was straightforward: “It could happen. In fact I don't trust the leaders of the Brotherhood, because they are using Islam as a shield to pursue their personal interests. But if Islam doesn’t work well in Egypt, we’ll find another solution. In the end people will make the right choice, although it’s a trial and error process. … We want freedom, democracy and rule of law, but not the one imposed by Americans. Backed by the US, the liberals used to do whatever they wanted. They served Israeli interests by selling natural gas at a very low price and imposing blockades on the Gaza strip.”

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel has been attacked for more than ten times. In the past two months, I was often told by Egyptian youths that “there is no Israel, only an occupied Palestine”. I can’t help but feel sad about ultra-Islamists. For centuries, Islam has helped Muslims to cultivate equality and tolerance, but now some Islamists are taking pride in violating the most sacred notions of their religion. 

The rise of Islamist parties seems inevitable. They may be more eager to safeguard Islamic traditions and take a hard line with Israel, but at least they can pursue their interests through democratic channels and institutions. Banning these groups from political power and imprisoning their members will only help to push Islamists to violence.

It is also depressing to see several hundred demonstrators – neither peaceful nor liberal – battling with military police near Tahrir Square since the 16th December. Activists have been calling the military council to step down, trying to occupy parliament and set cabinet offices on fire. Security forces launched a brutal counter-attack on protesters and left over ten people dead. Most of the Islamist parties asked both sides to refrain from violence. But many secularists and liberals escalated the situation, accusing the Brotherhood of betraying Egypt’s revolution.

The Islamists have won the hearts of the majority of Egyptians over decades, by providing them with social services outside the corrupt political system. If the liberals want to build up support, they need to figure out what the masses really care about. Just hundreds of metres from Tahrir Square, Egyptians are worried about food, jobs, business and social welfare. Some are increasingly impatient at a marked deterioration of security. Others are outraged when activists offer them money and drugs for fighting against the military. The liberals have contributed enormously to Egypt’s democratic revolution. They should not mistakenly ignore its people’s demands for peace, stability and security.

Wang Dingnan is a Chinese student of international relations in Cairo. His earlier dispatch for the Anthill from Tahrir Square can be read here