July 8, 2013 / 2:57 PM / 7 years ago

Egypt's lesson for political Islam: politics comes first

PARIS (Reuters)- When the Muslim Brotherhood won power it seemed Egypt’s nascent democracy would allow the movement to realize its dream of making Islam the guiding principle in politics.

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi cries during a protest outside Raba El-Adwyia mosque in Cairo July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

The Arab Spring revolts had opened the door to full Islamist participation in politics after decades of oppression or exile.

A year later, Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, has been forced out, illustrating the Islamists’ dilemma as they champion faith while newly empowered citizens look more for effective pluralist governance.

“Islamism has always been more of a sentiment than a coherent political ideology,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “Islamism is by definition not inclusive, but they need to be inclusive now.”

The main political divide elected Islamists face is often not over religion, French Islam expert Olivier Roy said.

“Look at all the veiled women who were protesting against Mursi. They’re not against sharia. They’re against incompetence and nepotism,” he said.


Political Islam arose in Egypt in 1928 when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a revival movement to establish an Islamic state. “Islam is the solution” was its motto.

Banned for decades and opposed by Islamic authorities, it organized networks around the country, especially to provide social welfare services that won it grass-roots respect.

When the 2011 Tahrir Square revolt toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood emerged as the country’s only organized force besides the army.

But the Islamists were not equipped to tackle the daunting economic problems or tame a hostile bureaucracy. While public anger mounted over these issues, Mursi assumed special powers to help impose an Islamist-tinged constitution.

John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, said the Brotherhood’s reaction to criticism betrayed the defensive reflexes of its underground past.

“Good governance requires taking risks and reaching out to people you can’t control, but they couldn’t do that,” he said.

In late June, Mursi protested he had reached out to his critics but they would not work with him. “I took responsibility for a country mired in corruption and was faced with a war to make me fail,” he said.


In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the Islamist-led government is also under pressure as politicians battle over a new constitution, hardline Salafis attack secularists and unemployment and inflation rise.

The governing party Ennahda, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, also built its grass-roots network under the previous dictatorship, winning 42 percent in the 2011 election.

In contrast to Islamists often jailed during Egypt’s dictatorship, party founder Rachid Ghannouchi spent 22 years in exile in Britain where he said he saw how religions could operate in a pluralist political system.

Ennahda formed a government with two secular parties and has not insisted on any mention of sharia in the constitution.

But its weak response to attacks by Salafi extremists on cinemas, concerts and Sufi shrines made critics suspect that it secretly sympathized with them. The party denied the charge.

The assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February sparked a crisis and the government collapsed.

Ennahda formed a second government with the same junior partners but a new prime minister and named independents to head the key ministries of interior, defense, justice and foreign affairs. It also cracked down hard on Salafi radicals.

This has not gone far enough for a small group of Tunisian activists that launched a petition like the one that led to Egypt’s mass protests. It wants a new caretaker government that would curb the Islamists and fix the faltering economy.

“The possibility of an Egyptian scenario is unlikely in Tunisia,” Ali Lareyedh, the new prime minister, responded. “Our approach is characterized by consensus and partnership.”


In the first flush of the Arab Spring, many Arab Islamists looked to Turkey’s AKP as a model that has respected faith and still won three national elections in a row.

But the AKP had more political savvy and a more developed economy to work with. It gave up the goal of an Islamic state over a decade ago and focused on rapid economic growth.

The AKP has not renounced the official secularism imposed by Turkey’s former military rulers. The Muslim Brotherhood rapped Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for defending the secular state during an otherwise triumphant visit to Egypt in 2011.

Erdogan and his allies started in local politics, learning skills that would pay off at the polls. “Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Ennahda had this kind of experience,” Roy said.

Still, the AKP has angered secularists by fostering a more visible Islam, helping build mosques and limiting alcohol sales.

Street protests broke out this year at Istanbul’s Taksim Square and elsewhere over issues ranging from the environment to city planning and an Islamic-inspired morality campaign.

The protesters’ main complaint was what they saw as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism after a decade in power with no effective opposition to rein him in. “That’s not an Islamic issue,” said Istanbul columnist Mustafa Akyol.

Stung but not subdued, Erdogan has dismissed the protesters as “riff-raff” and indulged in some Muslim populism to attack them at a rally in Kayseri in Anatolia’s pious heartland.

“They think their vote is not equal to the votes of Ahmet or Mehmet or the shepherd in Kayseri. They have enjoyed their whiskies on the banks of the Bosphorus,” he said.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fighting an insurgency including the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has called Mursi’s failure “the fall of what is called political Islam.”

It is a setback but not likely the end of Islamists’ decade-long efforts to link the power of religion to politics.

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi cries as he prays during a protest outside Raba El-Adwyia mosque in Cairo July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Roy said the Egyptian Brotherhood and Ennahda might both split into two groups, one keeping their groups’ traditional approach and the other attracting more modern activists.

The coup could also push frustrated Islamists to violence. “The message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims,” Mursi’s National Security Adviser Essam El-Haddad wrote in a farewell Facebook post.

“There will be a greater feeling that Islam is targeted and this could lead to future mergers between some factions within the Brotherhood and Salafi groups that see eye to eye,” said Jordanian analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman in Amman.

Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Tom Perry in Cairo and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; editing by Anna Willard

0 : 0
  • narrow-browser-and-phone
  • medium-browser-and-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser
  • wide-browser-and-larger
  • medium-browser-and-landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser-and-larger
  • above-phone
  • portrait-tablet-and-above
  • above-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet-and-above
  • landscape-tablet-and-medium-wide-browser
  • portrait-tablet-and-below
  • landscape-tablet-and-below