Africa, Politics

Battle for the soul of Egypt’s revolution

By Simon Allison 2 August 2011

Another month, another million-man march in Tahrir Square. But this one was different. For some of Egypt’s Islamists, the fall of Mubarak was supposed to usher in a new nation united under Sharia law, not democracy. They’re not happy with the direction in which Egypt’s going, so they’re exercising their right to protest - and by Allah there are a lot of them. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s been nearly six months since Hosni Mubarak resigned, forced out by the millions of people who’d had enough of his brutal and oppressive regime. Of all the remarkable things about the revolution, perhaps the most surprising was the way in which it united Egypt’s disparate, feuding opposition. In February this year, Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, was home to young, leftie liberals, country bumpkin farmers, respected academics and professionals and significantly Islamists of all stripes. The square was yesterday cleared of the last vestiges of the revolution, with the army unceremoniously kicking out the die-hards and their tents from the centre of the square – a move agreed on by all the major political groupings. But Tahrir Square’s impact on Egypt’s politics is irreversible, and proof of how far just a little bit of unity can go.

For once, everyone was on the same page and, for once, they got what they wanted – Mubarak out. Coincidence? Definitely not. But unity’s a fragile thing, especially when everyone had their own vision of what the government should look like in the post-Mubarak world.

Opposition to Mubarak had traditionally been divided between the Islamist groups who saw Mubarak as morally bankrupt and wanted Egypt to veer towards the theocratic model of Saudi Arabia or Iran, and the secular democrats who saw Mubarak as abusive and corrupt and wanted a real democracy, as opposed to the democratic façade established by the regime.

Things came to a head on Friday, with one of the largest rallies in Tahrir Square since the revolution. The rally was originally planned by Islamist groups to protest the secular ideas being bandied about by the liberals, elements of which have never left Tahrir Square and certainly didn’t intend to vacate their spots to allow a march in favour of Sharia law. Amid fears of violence, a compromise was reached. Both groups would demonstrate in the square, keeping to topics on which they agreed, such as justice for martyrs and swifter trials of regime officials. More controversial issues – Sharia law, the separation of religion and state – would be avoided.

A neat sidestep of the issue, but ultimately ineffective. In a huge show of strength, Egypt’s Islamist groups brought hundreds of thousands – some estimate as much as a million – people to Tahrir Square and there was no doubt about what they wanted. “Islamic, Islamic, neither secular nor liberal” ran one popular chant (it flows easier in Arabic). Other revolutionary chants were changed to refer to Muslims rather than Egyptians – an unmistakeable snub to Egypt’s sizeable Christian population. Some secularists who tried to attend the rally were asked to leave, although violence was not used.

But as Steve Negus wrote on Egypt’s popular “Arabist” blog, one can hardly blame the Islamists for using the opportunity to get their views across. “They’re already worried that the established political forces, none of which have got to where they are through elections, are going to shape the constitution behind their backs. They finally get a chance to organise an Islamist show of force to insist they be listened to, but then it’s decided that they can’t actually be Islamist at it.”

The issue is further complicated by the fact that Egypt’s Islamists are hardly a homogenous group. Within the Islamist movement, there is much debate over to what extent “Islamicisation” of the state should be imposed and how to achieve their goals. There are three main strands. The oldest and most popular is the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamic group with massive grassroots support in Egypt, which wants a democratic Egypt while imposing Islamic Sharia law. The Brotherhood denounced the overtly Islamic chanting in Tahrir on Friday, saying protestors should have honoured the agreement.

The most peripheral strand, and the most spectacular, is the Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for a number of terror attacks in Egypt prior to Mubarak’s downfall as well as the place where new al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri came of age. Their extremist positions hold little popular resonance and tend to worry US counter-terrorism agents more than average Egyptian citizens.

Then there’s the Salafists, who fall somewhere in between, and are the biggest threat to a nascent Egyptian democracy. They were the loudest at last week’s demonstration. Salafism is the school of Sunni Islam (sometimes known as Wahabbism) practised in Saudi Arabia. It is particularly conservative, envisaging modern government and society modelled on the sixth century institutions of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. Salafism has spread swiftly across the Islamic world, thanks less to its inherent appeal and more to the backing of lot and lots of Saudi oil money, which is used to build mosques and fund schools which preach the doctrine. The Salafists in Egypt – and, judging by Friday’s rally, there are a lot more of them than anyone expected – are dismissive of constitutions, especially ones which don’t defer to Islamic law, and will likely refuse to operate in a constitutional, democratic political dispensation.

Although the group is powerful, it remains largely a grassroots movement without astute political leadership. And given that almost every other political group in Egypt disagrees vehemently with the Salafist position, from the military generals in control of the country to the secular democrats camping in Tahrir Square, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be able to force their theocratic ideals though. But what they did show, in huge numbers, is that they have the potential to be disruptive and cause serious trouble – something the new Egypt really can’t afford. DM


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Photo: Protesters take part in a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 29, 2011. Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied on Friday in a bid to show Islamists and liberal groups were united in wanting change, but the overwhelmingly Islamic tone of chants and banners exposed differences between the two sides. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

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