3 April 2011
The various Islamist movements in Egypt
That the 20th and the 21st century political scenes in many parts of the world should be dominated by Islamist movements which attempt to emulate 7th century politics has been an issue which raises not a few eyebrows.
Some scholars explain the emergence and appeal of Islamist movements as a reaction to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire—the historical extension of the Islamic caliphate—after WWI. Others explain it as a result of a sense of alienation felt by Muslims in the swiftly changing modern times, and the prevalence of social and cultural Western norms which are frequently seen as opposed to core Islamic values.
In the specific case of Egypt, many consider the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War to be behind the strong emergence of Islamist groups, to substitute for the then bitter frustration of Egyptians.
The Muslim Brothers
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was founded in the Suez Canal town of Ismailiya in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a school teacher, as a movement geared towards religious services and direly-needed charity work. Branches set up throughout the country ran a mosque, a school and a sporting club.
By the 1930s the MB had gained considerable ground with the grassroots, and moved into political activity. Banna created a paramilitary wing, the Special Apparatus, whose operatives engaged in a campaign of bombings and assassinations. In the 1940s its thought spread into Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. When the 1948 war in Palestine began, the MB participated against Israel with a number of militias from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Once the war was over, the then Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi dissolved the MB. A few months later, in late 1948, he was assassinated presumably by a member of the group and, before the year ended, Banna himself was shot dead by an unknown gunman believed to have been a member of the security forces.
When the revolution which overthrew the monarchy erupted in Egypt in 1952, a majority of the Free Officers which led the coup d’état were members of the MB. In 1954, however, a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was blamed on the MB, and thousands of their members were caught and thrown in prison. But the group continued to grow underground. An important shift in their ideology was spearheaded by Sayed Qutb who advocated the use of jihad (struggle) against jahiliya (literally, ignorant; a term used to brand pre-Islamic societies in the Arabian Peninsula) societies, both Western and so-called Islamic ones, which he argued were in need of radical transformation. His writings inspired the founders of many radical Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Sayed Qutb was executed in 1966 and is today regarded by the group as a martyr.
Once Anwar al-Sadat came to power in 1970, he reinstated the MB and allowed them free operation, hoping they would counter the influence of his archenemies, the leftists. The MB presence on the Egyptian scene gave rise to other Islamist groups. Following the October 1973 War and the subsequent peace accord with Israel in 1979, Sadat himself was shot dead by Islamists in October 1981.
During the 1980s the MB attempted to rejoin the political mainstream, at times forming alliances with other political parties, and becoming a major opposition force in Egypt. In 2005, the group achieved its best election result, with independent candidates allied to it winning 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament.
The government subsequently launched a crackdown on the MB, detaining hundreds of members, and instituted a number of legal reforms to counter their resurgence. The Constitution was rewritten to stipulate that “political activity or political parties shall not be based on any religious background or foundation”; independent candidates were banned from running for president; and anti-terrorism legislation that gave the security forces sweeping powers to detain suspects and restrict public gatherings, was introduced.
Leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) also worked hard to reduce the likelihood of further opposition gains in the November 2010 parliamentary elections. Their efforts backfired, however; the failure of MB candidates to win a single seat was accompanied by allegations of widespread fraud. The suppression of the opposition was among the main triggers of the 25 January 2011 Revolution.
What about Copts?
Since its foundation, the MB has aimed at reforming the nation through applying Islamic teachings and jurisdiction.
A draft political platform published by the group in 2007 called for a council of religious scholars to be set up to approve all laws passed by Egypt’s civilian institutions. The platform also stated that Christians or women could not become president or prime minister.
Moderates within the MB disagreed with the manifesto at the time, saying they wanted only an Islamic frame of reference for legislation, while conservatives wished to capitalise on Article 2 of the Constitution: “Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of the Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation”.
It is clear, however, that the MB are deeply committed to increasing the role of Islam in Egyptian public life. With this in mind, Copts are treated as dhimmis, as dictated by the Qur’an, but it is claimed there is no prejudice against them. As such, Copts are the non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim State; they neither have the same duties nor enjoy the same rights as Muslims. They are not allowed to join military service since there loyalty to Islamic wars is in doubt, so they have to pay the jizya tax instead.
The group does not recognise Israel.
“Salafi” is a term used to describe fundamentalist Islamic thought, its literal meaning being “like those who preceded us”; and Salafis are the members of a group of Muslims who try to live as the Prophet Mohamed and his followers lived. Owing to their ultra-conservative views—especially concerning women, non-Muslims, and social issues—they are generally seen as the more radical, zealous, conservative, and doctrinally rigid of Islamist movements.
The Egyptian Salafi group emerged in the 1970s, the brainchild of a number of Islamist university student leaders. It began in several Egyptian universities simultaneously, but the real weight was in the Alexandria University student movement. Competition with the MB over followers swelled the Salafi ranks who for several years called themselves the Salafi School until they changed their name to the Salafi Daawa (Call), a name which they retain till the present day.
Contrary to the MB, the Salafis have no cohesive pyramidical hierarchy, but are divided into groups which follow different sheikhs who are, however, closely cooperative among themselves. Prominent among these Sheikhs are Sheikh Muhammad Hassaan and Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yacoub, both of whom have been recently assuming public roles.
The Salafis hold ideological views that are widely different than those of the MB. They do not see their role as political; they reject party and parliamentary work. They also reject jihad (holy war) except in cases when they see that the ruler of the country does not govern with Allah’s law. Once this happens, they declare such rule as sinful and invalid, and warn the rulers that they would have to go back to a righteous rule or face jihad. Muslims are then asked to take sides, either the side of sin or righteousness.
Salafi movements have spread worldwide. In Egypt, they have a very strong following and are almost the only Islamic movement that can compete with the MB.
The Jamaa Islamiya
The Jamaa Islamiya, literally the Islamic Group, began in Egyptian universities in the early 1970s as a cultural and social movement aiming to revive Islamic teachings at a time when the scene was dominated by Marxist and Nasserist thought. They developed a hierarchy which was based on membership in a shura (consultative) council in every college, headed by a leader called the amir (prince), and culminating in a universities shura council headed by the head amir.
After Sadat gave free reign to the Islamists in the 1970s, the Jamaa expanded significantly in the universities, and gained a strong following. In Upper Egypt they held sway over the student scene, terrorising Copts, women students, and moderate Muslims. This led them to adopt political stances opposed to Sadat’s policy which they saw as non-Islamic; most prominent was the Jamaa opposition to peace with Israel, and their demand to implement Islamic sharia (jurisdiction) in Egypt.
Sadat finally cracked down on them in 1979. That year, however, the Jamaa leaders met and adopted the principle of jihad. They chose the notorious Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman to head the jihad movement. Abdel Rahman was involved with the Afhghani jihad and in 1993 was convicted of seditious conspiracy in the US and is currently serving a prison sentence there. The Jamaa executed several assassinations of men whom they saw as behaving or ruling against the principles of Islam, the most prominent among whom was Sadat himself in 1981 and the liberal writer Farag Fouda in 1992. They were also behind several terrorist attacks in Egypt, many of which targeted tourists.
In the late 1990s, however, and following a severe crackdown on them, the Jamaa leaders publicly renounced violence.
Declaring the community infidel
On a historical note, the Jamaa has its roots in the Takfir wal Hijra group which was founded in prison, the brainchild of the MB members imprisoned by Nasser in a wave of arrests in 1965. Its name indicates its members declare the entire community infidel, as was the pre-Islamic jahiliya community, and migrate away from this infidelity, to live a life of pure Islamic principles. Many of them gave up their worldly jobs and possessions and went to live in the caves of Upper Egypt’s mountains, in an attempt to ‘migrate’. Their leaders worked to supply financing for the group from outside Egypt, and to spread the group’s thought. The government cracked down on them repeatedly.
The group adopted a strict Islamic methodology in dealing with ‘sinners’—a denomination under which is included scientists, artists, rulers, and anyone who deserts the group—resorting to violence and assassinations, and applying Islamic hudoud. They conducted a series of crimes, among which was the 1977 abduction and murder of the liberal Sheikh Hussein al-Dahabi. Hundreds of the members of the group were arrested and five were sentenced to death among whom was their notorious leader Shukry Mustafa.
According to Abdel-Rehim Ali, the expert on political Islam, “Faith and religion have always been pivotal where Egyptians are concerned, and this since ancient times. Lately, Islamic movements, especially Salafis, have surfaced alarmingly on the Egyptian political scene.
“But Mixing religion with politics makes for an explosive formula,” Mr Ali says. “It has been behind situations such as in Afghanistan, Yemen and Lebanon.
“Islamists do not believe in democracy; for them it is only a means to reach power. In their books, they describe democracy as a western spell or heresy. They only exploit this western product in case of supreme emergency, since ‘necessity knows no law’. But when the ‘necessity’ subsides, meaning when the Islamists reach power, the western product is no longer needed and may be cast away.”
When Sheikh Muhammad Hassan last month publicly announced that: “Basing on Islamic sharia and an Islamic fatwa, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has decided to rebuild the [burned and partly demolished] church in Etfeeh”, Mr Ali says, this was the epitome of the alliance of politics and religion. In a civic State, he insists, decisions cannot be based on religion, because religion is concerned with very different perspectives. The move by Hassaan and the SCAF, according to Mr Ali, was a dangerous precedent in which the religious leaders decreed and the politicians executed.
“If Egypt is ever to become a religious State,” Mr Ali says, “We can look forward to flagrant gender and religious discrimination.”