Can the Islamists limit Egypt's revolution?

Issue section: 
(361)

The Islamist mass rally in Cairo on 29 July showed the deepening alliance between some Islamists and the ruling army council. But, argues
Phil Marfleet, the Islamists are an unstable coalition whose ability to contain the revolution is far from established.

The first appearance of Islamists in a mass rally in Tahrir Square in late July brought predictable reactions in European and American media: Islamic activists were "hijacking" the revolution; they would soon overwhelm its secular activists; they would demonstrate that radical change was impossible in a predominantly Muslim society. There was a gleeful tone, as we told you so pundits talked up the Islamist initiative and its impact on secular activists: for Time magazine, it was "a frightening spectacle"; according to the Washington Post, the Tahrir rally was "a stunning show of force that left the liberal pioneers of Egypt's revolution reeling".

For the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think-tank, it was all inevitable: "The Facebook folks who triggered the anti-Mubarak revolution have been replaced by Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood supporters... It is only a matter of time before Egypt turns into an Islamic Republic that is aligned with Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad." On this view, the revolution is coming to an end: Egyptians face a bleak future, "an Islamic regime...where democracy, moderation and pragmatism are non-existent".

These assessments of the 29 July Tahrir rally recycle theories of Arab/Muslim "exceptionalism" - the idea that cultures of the Middle East are not amenable to progressive change and that the region is best left under the control of kings, emirs and other despots who will continue to strike deals with the West. Egypt's revolution, with its mass protests, strikes and demands for democratic reform upset this reactionary creed - so the appearance of Islamists in Tahrir has been greeted with satisfaction by Western policy institutes and much of the media.

Diverse groups

What is the real significance of the events? Who were the Islamists involved, what is their relationship to the revolutionary movement, and how will their presence affect the radical activists who removed Mubarak?

The scale of the 29 July demonstration was significant. Tahrir Square was filled with supporters of Islamist groups bussed in from across the Nile Delta. Their slogans were not those of the revolutionaries of 25 January: rather than demanding social justice, purging of the old regime, jobs and a minimum wage, they chanted "There is no God but God" and "Egypt is Islamic", and called for implementation of shari'a (Islamic law). Speakers praised the generals of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), calling for national unity and speedy elections. Islamist groups expect to win a majority in parliament when a general election takes place, probably in November.

Some secular activists were startled by these developments. Others were not, however, pointing out that Islamist organisations have a long history and a well-established presence in Egypt and that the real surprise was how slow they had been to effect a national mobilisation: following the fall of Mubarak it was six months before they made their mark in public. It was also clear that the 29 July demonstration represented diverse groups with competing agendas: less a monolithic bloc ready to turn Egypt into an "Islamic Republic", the Islamists are an unstable alliance of groups among which some are deeply affected by the wider revolutionary movement.

Marginal forces

Many of those who filled Tahrir in July came from villages and small provincial towns which have been marginal to the revolution; and on a day of national mobilisation by Islamist currents demonstrations outside Cairo were on a modest scale. In industrial cities which have been focal points for action since January - Suez, Mahalla al-Kubra, Shibbin el-Kom, Ismailiyya - Islamist meetings were insignificant. In Alexandria, often seen as an Islamist stronghold, the demonstration of 29 July reached 10,000 - a fraction of the numbers which have repeatedly mobilised in the city since the start of the revolution.

Three Islamist currents participated in the July rally: Salafis, Jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are linked ideologically and by personal and organisational relationships. At the same time, they have distinct political agendas and often compete to win support among Islamic activists.

The demonstration was originally called by Salafi networks, groups of religiously observant Muslims who have until recently focused upon matters of piety and personal conduct. They were joined by the Jihadis, tightly knit and highly political organisations banned under the Mubarak regime which have re-emerged in recent months. The Muslim Brotherhood joined the rally only at the last minute. Although it is a mass organisation with a long history of political engagement, the Brotherhood's leadership vacillated over the demonstration for weeks, deciding to participate only days before the event. Their hesitation reveals much about the instability of the Islamic movement and the effect of the revolution upon its activists.

Islamists did not play a leading role in the waves of struggles that preceded the outbreak of the revolution in January this year. Starting in 2000 a series of increasingly effective campaigns challenged the regime: movements in solidarity with the Palestinians, against the invasion of Iraq, for democratic change, and for workers' rights and improved conditions. They were led overwhelmingly by secular activists.

Despite the success of these movements in opening new space for protests, Islamists rarely appeared in public. The Jihadis had been suppressed and their imprisoned leaders induced to recant, telling followers that they had abandoned efforts to contest the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood engaged fitfully with the anti-war and democracy movements, and participated in election campaigns (as an illegal organisation they stood "independent" candidates). But as public protests grew the Brothers retreated and in 2010, after bitter internal disputes, the leadership declared that it would adopt an even lower profile. One assessment in the Egyptian press concluded "The Muslim Brotherhood's entire political enterprise is in crisis."

It was in these circumstances that a new Salafism began to grow. Pious Muslims concerned primarily with study of the Qur'an, with ritual and with personal emulation of the Prophet, had long congregated around particular imams, mosques and Islamic foundations. They were boosted by Saudi support and encouraged by the Mubarak regime, which gave them free rein. In 2006 state authorities began to issue licences for television stations which broadcast prayers, readings from the Qur'an and sermons by salafi preachers. The common themes were conservative ("puritanical") interpretations of key Islamic texts and an absence of political agendas - tacit support for the state. By 2009 there were 12 such TV stations. Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany comments that they were "a kind of Christmas present for the dictators [who could] rule with both the army and the religion".

Egypt's revolution has drawn its power from mass action in the streets and workplaces. Leadership has been provided mainly by secular activists some of whom played key roles in the protests of the last decade. Coalitions of revolutionary youth have celebrated Muslim-Christian unity and explicitly rejected religious interventions. Islamists have not been present as a distinct current.

When the movement began in January, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to back protests. Only when the scale of events and the involvement of Brotherhood members became clear did its leaders adopt a position of equivocal support. As the revolution has progressed, hundreds of thousands of its members and supporters have engaged in demonstrations and workplace actions, causing increasing tension within the organisation. A large group of youth activists recently split to form the Egyptian Current Party - created, they say, "to express the spirit of the revolution". Several key figures in the Brotherhood have been expelled after establishing new groups. Moneim Abou El-Fotouh, a historic leader of the Brotherhood, has been expelled for declaring his candidacy in the forthcoming presidential elections.

The Brotherhood's difficulties surfaced again in the run-up to the 29 July Tahrir rally. This was initiated by the Salafis, who have established a number of new parties, most importantly Al-Nour, marking a sharp turn from "quietism" to active political engagement - in effect the Salafis are moving into the Brotherhood's traditional political space. So too with the Jihadis: in March, SCAF ordered the release of cousins Aboud and Tarek El-Zomor, both jailed in 1984 for involvement in the assassination of President Sadat. Another key Jihadi group, the Gama'at Islamiyya, has also reappeared, mounting several small demonstrations in central Cairo.

SCAF under pressure

The Tahrir rally brought these competing currents together: evidence of the Islamist presence but also of its problems and contradictions. The Islamists have been slow to engage with the revolution. In general mass movements are not congenial to their visions of change and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has struggled to understand the movement. The street activists and worker militants who have led the uprising are not being replaced by "fundamentalists" bent on an Islamic Republic; indeed, the pace of industrial struggle has again increased and the public trial of Mubarak has given a huge boost to those who initiated the revolution in January.

The Islamist rally will have been a comfort to the generals. They are under enormous pressure and will be relieved to hear friendly slogans in the streets. As the election approaches, SCAF is likely to offer the Islamists more space, hoping that they can act as a counterweight to radical forces and secure a large presence in parliament. But the Islamists are not a reliable ally, especially for generals who have spent a lifetime assaulting the Brotherhood and the Jihadis. Their problems are still acute: the revolution of the streets and the workplaces continues.

Phil Marfleet is co-editor of Egypt: The Moment of Change, published by Zed Books.