Introduction to the Muslim 500 2012 Edition: A Survey of Events and Trends - Part II

Introduction to the Muslim 500 2012 Edition: A Survey of Events and Trends - Part I

by S. Abdallah Schleifer


The Election of An Egyptian President

The second shock for the numerous (and many newly formed) secular liberal or socialist parties that did so poorly in the parliamentary elections was the outcome of the Presidential elections. The highest votes in the first round, which included a large field of candidates were the MB/FJP’s Muhammed Morsi and the last Mubarak appointed Prime Minster, Ahmed Shafik.

Again there was a very divided political field consisting of a Nasserist, other leftists, a moderate Islamist expelled by the MB who drew some significant support from those left-wing and liberal intellectuals who had suddenly become aware, after the parliamentary results, how politically unavoidable it was for a candidate to have some sort of prominent Islamic identity, and a very well known former foreign minister under Mubarak whose independent streak, which included showing up at Tahrir during the Uprising, gave him credibility. These last two candidates were considered by pollsters as the leading candidates.

But however relatively unknown Morsi was, as a last minute substitute candidate (he had ranked poorly in the polls that involved individual candidate name recognition not party affiliation), he was the candidate of the sole significant organized political party that took him to the top of the first round and this time around running without Salafi competition.

As for Shafik he was the beneficiary of two underestimated (by nearly everyone) currents. Prior to Mubarak’s fall from power, there were two organized and disciplined parties, not only one, in Egypt. The other was the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which was bound together not by ideology but by patronage.

It was President Mubarak who headed the party, and its top leadership consisted of his son, and those closest to him in governing the country and in the last decade or more, starring in its crony version of Neo-Liberal capitalism. Anyone in the cabinet, with rare exceptions, was a member of the NDP and certainly the appointed governors were all in the party or responsive to it. And it had a cadre throughout the country – major sectors of government employees (and in Egypt, despite extensive privatization, the largest single employer remains the government with its absurdly swollen bureaucracy.)

When Mubarak and his family were ushered off the political stage by the armed forces the party as a structure collapsed, so the NDP could not be mobilized as a party to run in the parliamentary elections. But the cadre and all the vast number of dependent relatives of the cadre remained and deeply concerned about their future. They all went for Shafik.

Equally as significant they were joined by a surprising number of the urban working class who were not members or under the influence of the MB. This large number were exhausted by the prevailing instability, the listless commercial climate, especially tourist-related and thus the growing unemployment (already bad under Mubarak) and relative lawlessness that was particularly virulent in vulnerable neighbourhoods – working class and thus least likely to be patrolled by police in ordinary times and totally abandoned during the year and half when Egypt had no government, and which has only begun to function in the administrative sense, (however sluggishly), since the election of President Morsi.

From the point of view of many working class people the struggle to put food on the table for their families took priority over liberal democracy or the claims of Islamism.

In the second round of the Presidential elections the liberal democratic camp split, students, intellectuals, the upper class and much of the upper middle class, depending on which they feared more, the MB or the “the old regime.” Even Ahmed Shafik declared that “the clock could not be turned back;” he too supported “the Revolution.” One more indication, if everybody supports the revolution, that there was no revolution.

But some of the more militant left and liberal opposition opted out – they would not vote for either candidate.

Morsi benefited in the second round of voting, from endorsements by many of the leaders of Tahrir, but nevertheless Shafik carried Cairo, despite losing to Morsi nationwide, according to the official results which were delayed by a week for investigations, since both sides accused each other of ballot box fraud; which was not the case in the parliamentary elections or even the presidential first round.

Most people, including Al Ahram online and the reputable privately owned newspaper Masri al Youm believed that Morsi had won on the basis of combined unofficially announced results from the thousands of polling stations available within 24 hours, and neither publication could be considered part of the Morsi camp. But to this day Shafik and his camp contest the results, and they argue with a degree of plausibility that the U.S. government with its extraordinary influence upon the armed forces (which at that moment remained the only power in Egypt) prevailed upon the Army to prevail upon the Electoral Commission to find for Morsi. And not just to avoid the bloodshed which could be expected since on the basis of the early unofficial results the MB cadre and many other anti-old regime elements would take to the streets. But the Shafik camp would argue it was more than fear. Official American strategy has been shifting slowly over the past decade, accelerating since Obama’s victory in 2008, to an assumption that only moderate Islamists have a popular following and thus the capacity to decisively crush jihadi currents.

But what was perceptible from the time of the parliamentary elections spanning 2011 and the beginning to 2012 until the Presidential elections nearly six months later, was the apparent decline of Muslim Brotherhood/FJP support. This was reflected in the number of votes it had taken in the parliamentary elections even though it was competing with a Salafi party, compared to the lesser numbers it took in the first round of the Presidential elections more than five months later, when all of the other candidates besides Morsi and Shafik (and without a Salafi candidate running for president, had a combined total in the first round of 40 per cent of the vote. In part this was because much was expected by the public of a parliament unable at that time to legislate and whose daily televised debates seemed trivial to the public with its high expectations.

So the assumption was that President Morsi and by association, the MB/FJP would continue to lose popularity. But the opposite appears to be true, and in large part that is because many of the most immediate fears among many of Shafik’s constituencies have not come to pass.

The Salafist El Nour Party was offered only one ministry out of 36 – that of environment, which they refused as insufficient and have not entered the government. The Prime Minster, although widely believed to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood, is a technocrat who served as minister of irrigation in the SCAF-approved transitional cabinet. MB members took only five posts – three of which are politically sensitive – the ministries of information, higher education, and manpower but most of the cabinet is made up of technocrats, who are long term state employees, and at least six are former ministers.

The new Minister of the Interior is a senior police officer, and the Minister of Defence was initially the more-or-less self-appointed head of SCAF. There have been no purges of the bureaucracy, nor of the universities. The editors and directors of state-owned media have been changed by the MB-dominated Shura Council (or upper house) which is constitutionally responsible for this oversight, but it is in the nature of state media, which has lost much of its viewer and readership base over the past few years to liberal or Salafi private sector competition, to follow power in any case. That meant throughout the transitional power state media promoted the SCAF rather than the parliament and continued to do even after Morsi was confirmed as President until a series of dramatic events altered the balance.

There are no representatives of the secular parties in the cabinet but Morsi did consult with them upon taking office and it is the secularist leaders who by and large claim it was they who chose not to serve under Morsi so the burden for the failure to form a broad coalition appears to fall on them.

Morsi’s left and liberal secular opponents also severely underestimated President Morsi’s political skills and failed by and large to acknowledge his accomplishments.

For many months after the fall of Mubarak and prior to taking office Morsi and the MB were constantly accused of appeasing SCAF, of not participating in most of the continuing (if slowly diminishing in numbers) Tahrir demonstrations against SCAF; although it was obvious that the MB was focusing the energies of its cadre on mobilizing the public for parliamentary and later presidential elections. Between the first and second round of the presidential vote when SCAF issued decrees granting itself broad legislative and executive powers including the right to veto any article in the new constitution being prepared by a constituent assembly appointed by the MB dominated parliament to draft a new constitution, Morsi still avoided confrontation.

Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court had already disbanded the freely-elected parliament on technical grounds and demanded that it was they who would swear-in Morsi, who yielded on the point but convened the disbanded parliament for only one day for a symbolic swearing in, and then proceeded to the Court for the swearing-in ceremony.

Morsi was aware from the time of Tahrir that factions existed within SCAF – most significant for him, that faction of younger generals in their fifties concerned both by a sense of professionalism as well as ambition about the quality of leadership provided by the significantly older generals running SCAF and in the highest echelon of rank for the duration of Mubarak’s three decades of rule. Morsi’s time came on August 5th when a band of Jihadis operating in the Sinai attacked an Egyptian military post on the border with Israel surprising 16 Egyptian soldiers and killing them in what appears to have been cold blood, and then with captured Army vehicles crashing across the border where they were wiped out by the Israelis.

For SCAF this was a great humiliation; for Morsi it was time to make his move. Defense Minister and head of SCAF Field Marshal Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Anan were summoned to the Presidential palace on August 12th, at the very moment the Official Gazette published a Presidential decree annulling SCAF’s own decree back in June awarding itself extra-constitutional powers and greatly reducing Morsi’s. While the generals waited in one room, Morsi was in another, swearing in a new Defense Mnister General Al-Sisi from the Army command’s younger generation; then Morsi informed Tantawi and Anan that they were dismissed. But in a politically astute gesture, no doubt not appreciated by Tahrir purists who had been fruitlessly demonstrating for Tantawi’s dismissal for months, Morsi appointed them as military advisers to the Presidency and awarded them the Nile Medal of Honor, Egypt’s highest service award.

Barely two months later Morsi would again award two Nile Medals of Honor , this time, as posthumous awards to the late President Anwar Sadat and his brilliant Chief of Staff Saad El-Shazli (who had planned and directed Egyptian armed forces as they smashed across the Suez Canal and overran the Bar Lev Line in the first hours of the October 1973 War, and successfully resisted Israeli counter-attacks for more than a week.) It was still another public signal that this time righted the balance: a rebuke to both Mubarak and his former top ranking officers in SCAF during Mubarak’s rule, for while Sadat and El-Shazli had quarrelled over Sadat’s disastrous intervention in the conduct of the October War, it was Mubarak who sent El-Shazli to prison and eradicated from Egyptian military history and all state media accounts, General El-Shazli’s role in the October War. Morsi also ordered, not long after the high-command shake-up, that all civilians held in military prisons for political reasons be released.

Officially the armed forces have returned to the barracks but political realism also prevails – senior officers still have a share determining the issues that most directly effects them as members of a body approximating (but going beyond the authority) of the American National Security Council. Headed by Morsi and including key cabinet members, nevertheless the military services predominate, and it is the council which has the power to declare war and review the military budget.

At the same time Morsi scored a series of diplomatic victories.

Saudi Arabia had provided financial and moral support to both President Mubarak and the Egyptian Salafis. Saudi rulers have been uneasy for some time about the Muslim Brotherhood and in particular the political activism of MB branches in Arabia and some of the other Gulf countries, so Saudi support for the Salafis continued after the fall of Mubarak. But in a gesture for reconciliation Morsi’s first trip abroad as President was to visit King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

However his most dramatic voyage was one in which he first defied America and Israel by travelling to Teheran for the Non-Aligned Conference, only to stay long enough to confront his host Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by declaring Egypt’s support for the Syrian Uprising. In one bold stroke he had re-established a leading position for Egypt in regional affairs and demonstrated independence from both the pro-Assad Iranian camp and the Israeli-American camp.

Of course Morsi and the Brotherhood have been criticized for accommodating large administrative segments of the old regime, but the trade off has been a significant return of the police to the streets and a reduction in criminal activity – not just street crime, but also the smuggling of subsidized diesel fuel and petrol to Libya and a crack down on officials implicated in the smuggling, which had led to disruptive supplies of fuel and periodic electricity blackout – these major problems were starting to subside towards the end of 2012.

And in part because of the improved security environment, significant Qatari direct funding to offset the deficit, as well as Qatari and Saudi investments and the new government’s negotiations for a very low-interest carry over loan and willingness to maintain the pro-privatization policies of the previous regime (but promising that this time around there will be transparency) Egypt’s wealthy are beginning to bring their capital back and the purchase of Egyptian government bonds by Egyptian investors had resumed since the Fall of 2012.

But even a transparent Neo-Liberalism instead of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era, and the Prime Minister’s announcement that a modest progressive income tax system will soon come into effect, as well as a very modest limited capital gains tax, does not deal with the immediate crisis of scandalous low public sector pay scales (young doctors who have neither the money to open private clinics or the wasta (influence) to secure jobs in private hospitals at decent pay, are working in a broken public health program for just under $100 a month. It is unimaginable what nurses and orderlies are receiving and its incites a literally deadly cynicism and corruption within public health facilities. So in the closing months of 2012 there has been a wide-scale wave of strikes and highway blockades, nor is there any sign as yet of serious labour-intensive public works projects that would immediately generate employment and reduce the social discontent that was already expressing itself in the first round of the presidential elections. That is why a relatively obscure Nasserist, but on record for human rights and who combined his criticism of Islamism with public appearances at prayer in mosques, came in a close third drawing strong working class support and ahead of far better known candidates.

President Morsi has additional problems to confront. Salafi extremism which led to destructive attacks against churches and Sufi shrines in 2011 has morphed this past year into more personal vigilante attacks on members of the general Egyptian population. Most notoriously a young man walking with his fiancé in Suez City, was stabbed to death when he challenged two Salafis who had surrounded the couple and demanded proof that they were married. The government has denounced this attack and the killers in this particular incident were arrested and brought to trial but the sentence of 15 years imprisonment seems light for an act of murder. Mundane quarrels between a Christian and a Muslim are transformed into acts of collective punishment by Salafi activists who intervene and destroy Christian-owned shops and homes in villages. A Salafi sheikh who burned a copy of the Bible during the demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was arrested and charged with blasphemy. There has been on-going Salafi denunciations of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, His Eminence Dr. Ali Goma’a as well as the Sheikh Al-Azhar University His Eminence Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb – both of whom are known to be Sufis. Sheikh Al-Azhar is more vulnerable since there has been on-going agitation against him among both Azhari students and young Azhari graduate Imams who are reportedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and are calling for “reform.” This has deepened fears that the MB is seeking to take over the Sunni theological center and citadel of Traditional Islam.

Atheism, Tahrir and the Facebook Generation

Less visible but a growing problem for the middle-aged and educated classes is the spread of an open, articulated atheism among their children – be they teenage or young adult – members of what one might certainly call the Facebook Generation. Within the Arab world this is not exclusively an Egyptian problem, but it is particularly problematic in Egypt. It is in part the other side of the Islamist and Salafi coin, for without the spiritual resources that traditional Islamic culture provided, many of the educated young who find political Islam spiritually shallow and the increasing vigilante violence of Salafi currents in Libya, Mali, and Pakistan as well as in Egypt deeply disturbing, are choosing atheism as the other side of the coin.

Moez Masoud is one of the generation of contemporary-sounding and contemporary-looking young television preachers who have emerged as public figures in the region over the past decade, and whose message has been categorised in some insightful journalism, as “sweet orthodoxy”. An Honourable Mention in the Muslim 500, he has intellectually engaged more than any of the other “new preachers” with his young audience about highly personal issues that would be understandably appalling to traditional ulema, but are being voiced by young Egyptians who have been shaped by a strong secular global youth culture yet remain believers and have called out for help. He believes that there is more to this emerging new phenomenon than just a reaction to puritanical and/or political Islam. He alludes to the implicit atheist content of much of the popular culture that is part of globalization (satellite TV and the Internet) and in the sudden flurry of explicitly atheist writing by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, whose books were best sellers in the West. Their work has reached the educated English-speaking Egyptian youth and feeds into the romance of rebellion, where according to Moez (who kept a cautious but supportive presence in Tahrir during all of the critical 18 days in 2011) “ there is an impulse to do away with all that is perceived to be outdated and useless.” This past year Moez reached out to the large audience he has for his nightly Ramadan program “A Journey to Certitude” which appeared on the influential post-Tahrir Egyptian satellite channel CBC and is posted on YouTube.

The problem transcends the immediate ones facing President Morsi, but it is bound to increasingly resonate in Egypt.

In Palestine the situation continues to deteriorate. Settlements continue to expand in the West Bank be it on Palestinian land which is privately owned, or on so-called “state land” as if a military occupation’s seizure of land previously held by the Jordanian governing authority, could ever be legal. And research undertaken by the Israel newspaper Haaretz this year establishes that as many as a quarter of a million Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who have studied abroad for more than seven years have been deprived by the Israeli Occupation military authorities of their residency rights in Palestine.

But it is in Arab Jerusalem where conditions have been particularly difficult and 78 percent of the Palestinians in Arab Jerusalem now live below the poverty line. Of course this is in large part the direct result of Israeli occupation policies implemented since the 1967 War including most recently the extension of the Wall and security check points reducing commercial traffic between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Of course the pressure upon the Palestinians in Arab Jerusalem to give up, abandon the city and seek refuge elsewhere are tremendous, and this temptation is further heightened by the significant amounts of money being offered to Palestinians by Israeli settler groups, to abandon their homes, particularly in what is known as “the Muslim Quarter” in the Old City, so that Israeli settlers, generally militant religious-Zionists, can move into these properties.

But part of the problem is the Arab boycott of pilgrimage to the Noble Sanctuary (Al Haram Al Sharif) which contains within its walls both Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and other sites as well, all perfumed by the baraka – the spiritual grace – that traces back to the presence of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and many of the other Prophets cited in the Qur’an. Arab Jerusalem has been a pilgrimage city for centuries and like any pilgrimage city, the living economy is sustained by the pilgrims who stay in Palestinian hotels and hostels, eat in Palestinian restaurants and buy souvenirs from the Holy City from Palestinian shopkeepers to take home for friends and family. To boycott the pilgrimage is to be an accomplice to the slow but on-going Israeli economic strangulation and ethnic cleansing of Arab Jerusalem and to abandon the Haram Al-Sharif.

That is why the one hopeful event this past year in Palestine was the pilgrimage undertaken by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Goma’a and H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, Chief Religious Advisor to Jordan’s King Abdullah II in response to the call by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas at a meeting of the Arab League for Muslims to make pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa Mosque; a call echoed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, His Eminence Sheikh Muhammed Ahmad Husein, who issued a fatwa approving the pilgrimage.

Along with the pilgrimage, Egypt’s Mufti and H.R.H. Prince Ghazi inaugurated the King Abdullah II Awqaf in Jerusalem which will not only fund a university chair for Al-Ghazali studies in association with Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University but will also provide scholarships for Palestinians to study at Al-Quds University. This is not the useless words of a useless boycott; this is real support for the Palestinian people trying to hold on in the Holy City.

Finally we would note that there has been some criticism of the over-representation of Muslims from the West or living in the West in The Muslim 500, specifically from the point of view that they are not that influential in the Muslim world. We would note that the full title of this annual edition is The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims, and also note that it is not defined as influential “solely in the Muslim World” but as now implied and originally stated (2009 first edition) “in the world.”

We all increasingly inhabit, breathe the very air, of an increasingly globalized society and a reflection of this is the sad fact that the lingua franca or second language by which the educated Muslims from one end of the Islamic world to the other, as well as the educated Muslims living in the West increasingly communicate with each other is English and not classical Arabic. The impact of Muslim scholars and intellectuals living in the West, many of them converts, and writing in English (or in many cases, as scholars lecturing live or talking via television in fluent Arabic), has been, and increasingly will be, of great significance among the educated elite in the Muslim world: that impact in its own way is as important as the impact of traditional religious scholars in the Muslim world (in some cases increasingly besieged) or political and cultural leaders.

We should also note that 2012 was the 5th Anniversary of the launching of the “A Common Word” interfaith initiative (see pages 115, 175 and http://www.ACommonWord.com), which affirms is the love of God and love of the neighbour.) One of the most powerful highlights of that on-going initiative took place in December 2009 when 24 Muslim scholars and intellectuals drawn from and representing the original 128 signers of “A Common World” met in the Vatican at the First Catholic-Muslim Forum”  with 24 outstanding Catholic prelates, theologians and academics. Eight papers were read during two and a half days of closed sessions, and became the basis of the dialogue. Summaries were then passed on to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who received and addressed all of the delegates on the third day.

The papers delivered by the Muslim delegation were outstanding and deeply impressed the Catholic delegation. One was presented by an Iranian scholar who has lived in America for nearly 35 years and as a young man studied at MIT and Harvard (Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr); the other three by a British scholar and convert (Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad aka T.J. Winter) and two American converts Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Dr Ingrid Mattson). The majority of the Muslim delegation resided in the East but interestingly the head of the delegation was His Eminence Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a European Muslim. On the third day the combined delegations were received by H.H. Pope Benedict who embraced the concept of “A Common Word” ( initially the Vatican was cool to the very concept and in his remarks to the Forum he invoked the name of “God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” the English version of the Quran’s Arabic invocation. On other occasions including a subsequent and important visit to Jordan, Pope Benedict reaffirmed his support.

This ability of Western Muslims to communicate most effectively with Christians and Jews in the West is of critical importance at a time when extremists, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, continue their efforts to provoke the now proverbial “Clash of Civilizations.” The role of Muslim scholars, intellectuals, and cultural figures residing in the West and influencing both the West and the Muslims of the world to overcome these provocations and to seek to live in peace based on a mutual respect that is anchored in “A Common World”, is, we suggest, of critical importance.

—S. Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Center for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University in Cairo

This Introduction to the 2012 edition of The Muslim 500 was published by Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center on November 25th.  Prof.Abdallah Schleifer will be updating with blogs in the imminent future.


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