The problems of Islamist politics in Egypt

The problems of Islamist politics in Egypt

by Abdallah Schleifer


Over the past week there have been attacks of varied intensity, curious in their timing, against what one might describe as the respective citadels of traditional Islam and traditional Christianity here in Egypt. Attacks against institutions that speak to, and on behalf of, the silent majority of Egyptians. I refer to the storming of Sheikh al-Azhar’s office and the reported attack by unidentified gunmen against St. Mark’s Cathedral, which is the Coptic Papal seat. For many critics of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) dominated government, and the critics are growing in number, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is alleged to be the covert force behind both attacks.

The links are most apparent in the first attack which followed the relatively mild food poisoning of about 500 students at al-Azhar University’s secular faculties, For most Egyptians when one says he is an Azhari one thinks of graduates of the traditional religious faculties, but the secular faculties (established by Egypt’s first revolutionary president, Gamal Abdel Nasser with his modernizing vision) are nowhere near al-Azhar Mosque where the religious studies faculties are to be found. The secular facilities are instead in Nasr City, a large, rather upscale and relatively modern (as the name in Arabic suggests) one-time suburb now linked by endless construction to the central city. So, to avoid confusion in this narrative (which unfortunately was not the case for much of the reporting) we shall refer to the students enrolled in the secular faculties as Neo-Azhari students.

Neo-Azharis protest

In contrast to the students at the traditional faculties, many Neo-Azhari students are enrolled in, or are sympathetic to, the MB. In fact the local press has identified the leader of the Neo-Azhari Student Union as an MB member. The day after the food poisoning took place the Neos cut one of the two lanes of the highway running close to their campus and partially blocked the other lane, slowing down traffic sufficiently, so they could politely argue their case with inconvenienced motorists. One of those motorists is a colleague, Dr. Hoda Awad, professor of Mass Communication at Misr International University. While some students were talking with Hoda she noticed that other students had marched off in the opposite direction carrying signs and shouting slogans that not only denounced the President of al-Azhar University (responsible for both campuses) but also Sheikh al-Azhar ,who is effectively the Grand Imam of Egypt and oversees the vast number of institutions associated with traditional “Established” Islam, a phrase that I, at least, do not consider to be a put-down.

The route chosen, when on foot, would have taken them at least 45 minutes to reach Darassa, and the building that houses the office of Sheikh al-Azhar and his staff. They stormed the building, brushing aside the handful of police who provided security. It is difficult to imagine that there was not a large force rushed there by state security since security officers with mobile phones had to be observing the demonstrations raging on the campus and the adjacent highway. But, according to witnesses, there were no security reinforcements at Sheikh al-Azhar’s Derassa offices when the demonstrators arrived to trash the place.

A spokesman for the Brotherhood denies that the MB had anything to do with the demonstration; that these allegations (circulating not just in the local press but as a topic of general conversation) were an attempt to drive a wedge between the government and the al-Azhar institution.

Muslim versus Christian violence

A few days later there was a battle between Muslims and Christians in a village one hour’s drive from central Cairo, the violence resulted in five deaths (four of the dead were Copts) that led to an attack on the Coptic church. This was widely reported by the Cairo press, however with many variations including news that the bodies of the dead Copts would be brought to the Cathedral for Sunday services and then to the cemetery. Since sectarian feelings were high among both the Coptic laity and certainly many Muslims, one would assume that a large riot police force would have been sent to provide serious security at such a tense moment. It wasn’t, and fighting broke out reportedly at first between the overflow of Copts directly outside the Cathedral and neighborhood Muslims. There were also reports that an unidentified gunmen opened fire at the Copts who retreated into the Cathedral, while fire bombs were thrown at the Cathedral and back at the Muslim crowd. Again conflicting reports – the initial statement from the government implicitly blamed the Coptic laity for provoking the troubles by setting cars in the neighborhood on fire; but President Mursi condemned the attack and ordered an investigation, without getting into the question of why there was no massing of police at such an obvious target. Again the talk among critics of the MB is that this absence of security and as some allege, an actual intervention against the Copts by security forces that eventually arrived, was punishment for Coptic Pope Tawadros II having publicly extended his sympathy to Sheikh al-Azhar only days earlier.

On Tuesday, as reported in Al Arabiya, Pope Tawados spoke out against the president, saying that Mursi had promised to do everything to protect the Cathedral “but in reality he did not.” He referred to the attack as “breaching all red lines” and said that he was tired of just words and committees and no real action.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s underlying problem

There are a few underlying problems. The MB is itself the victim of nearly 60 years (with perhaps a four year honeymoon during the time of the late President Sadat) of government sponsored media attacks branding them as terrorists, as fascists out to force the headscarf on all women, and close down the bars, impose a theocracy etc. At the same time there has been a brooding anti-Coptic sentiment among the Muslim masses over the past few decades. This is in part because many Salafi Sheikhs - speaking from mosque pulpits and an ever increasing number of privately financed Salafi television stations - have attacked as “heretics,” “apostates” or “enemies of Islam” a slew of miscreants, including Sufis, Shiites but above all the Copts. In a country wracked by increasing poverty, even during the last decade of high GNP under Mubarak, increasingly concentrated in a small sector of the population, this sort of ranting is explosive stuff. It is a formula, if one looks back at Germany reeling from inflation in the 1920s and then depression in the 1930s, that led to unspeakable consequences. And in the atmosphere of instability, rising unemployment, impoverishment in both countryside and cities, sectarian tensions were further fueled as the number of attacks against churches and Coptic villagers dramatically escalated. In a strange alliance that characterized the politically impoverished last years of Mubarak’s rule, there appears to have been a discreet role by sectors of the government encouraging the Salafists, who started to surface in noticeable numbers with the conspicuous shaved mustache and full beard and galabiyas cut above the ankle.

But finally there is the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Its historic origin –formed in 1928 - born after the formal colonial conquest of Egypt in the late 19th century, and which defined its anti-colonialism as a defense of Islam. It also defined itself as the opposition to what it took to be the anti-Islamic life –style of Egypt’s Westernizing elite.

But one could poetically say that the MB was born the day after Napoleon’s troops defeated the Egyptian Mamluk Army not far from the Pyramids. A defeat that shocked the Muslim world and would in time foster a movement borne of defeat; not of the broad, generous Muslim perspective when the Muslims were, or could at least still think of themselves as masters of the universe. In line with modern thought members of the Muslim Brotherhood declared in due time that Islam was “not just a religion, but an ideology” – thus “Islamism” was seen as an ideology much the same as Socialism, Fascism, or Republicanism (the militant secularist revolutionary moment in French political history, not the American right wing party) are seen as ideologies.

Uncomfortable with traditional Islam

As such, the MB would inevitably be at least uncomfortable if not openly critical of the institutions associated and still operative in Egyptian society which espouse traditional, pre-colonial Islam. The Sufi tariqas, the tomb-shrines revered in what is called “Popular Islam;” tombs of the Prophet’s family and the Sufi Saints; pious traditional Muslims who mentioned God and faith often. “Islam,” referred to as something one did – a verb –x, runs against the ideological grain of the MB.

Above all, an “Islamic State” the very phrase which resonates with the abstract emotion of 19th century European ultra- nationalist and socialist partisans. A phrase unknown to pre-colonial Muslim dynasties or Mamluk rule; a phrase not to be found in the Charter of Medina in which Pagan, Jewish as well as Muslim tribes acknowledged the personal political authority of the Prophet Muhammad. For the Sufi-perfumed traditional Egyptian Muslim then and even now ( to a degree unimaginable in both secularist and MB circles) the primary concern for a Muslim in this world was to achieve, through the Remembrance of God in prayer and meditation, a living sense of His presence – not to establish an Islamic Republic.

Learning from the European experience?

But why the difference between the current situation in Tunisia, where their free parliamentary elections majority party was also Islamist and immediately formed a coalition government with two secular parties ( installing a secular Socialist as president), and here. On the eve of taking office President Mursi promised the various political forces now in opposition that he would form a coalition government, but he did not. I asked Saad-ad-Din Ibrahim (whom I seem to quote a lot ) why? Saad said when he visited Tunisia after their Arab Spring moment, he asked Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Enahada (the Tunisian Islamist party), the same question: What was the difference?  Ghannouchi replied “About 20 years,” alluding to his years in exile – in England where he would sit in a café and meet Tunisian and other Arab exiles of all political persuasions, and where he could observe the actual functioning of the rule of law, unfettered freedom of speech, respectful rule and respectful opposition, and he learned much from the experience.


Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”


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