The Islamic Political Landscape

In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, many have wondered about the strength of the Islamist movement, and whether or not it would come to power in free elections. A more vital question concerns whether or not it would cede power in subsequent elections, should the population so desire. Yet the diversity within the Islamist movement is often not appreciated. In recent days various groups with Islamic identities illustrate this reality.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The most recognizable organization, at least to Western political awareness, is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in the 1920s, this grandfather of the Islamic movement has had a distinct evolution. Both a social organization to call Muslims to God and provide for the needs of the poor, as well as a political institution dedicated to creating a state based on God’s law, the Brotherhood early on violently confronted the state and assassinated public figures. Yet for decades now it has renounced violence, yet still found itself at odds with an autocratic state, resulting in an official ban. As such, Brotherhood activity tended toward a policy of preservation, which caused the once dynamic organization to gentrify and become reactionary in contemporary politics. This helps explain their reticence to join the revolution, as well as their decision to negotiate with the Mubarak regime during its final days in power.

These decisions, however, caused great internal division within the Muslim Brotherhood. Younger members enrolled in the revolutionary struggle, and are credited with a lead role in the defense of Tahrir during the Battle of the Camel, when pro-Mubarak thugs sought to displace the protesters from the square. These younger members have now organized a reformation conference, which has been denounced by senior leadership. The youth claim they are not trying to break rank, but to revitalize the Brotherhood. They argue for greater leadership inclusion of Muslim Sisters, and express divergent views on whether or not the Brotherhood should found a formal political party. Senior leadership has established the Freedom and Justice Party, which is widely viewed as a simple political extension of the Brotherhood. Yet some youths argued that politics must be kept separate so the Brotherhood can focus on its social mission. If a party emerges, it must represent Islamist thought, to be sure, but must include a minimum quota for Christian members as well. One liberal Islamist, Abdel Munim Abdel Futuh, has already violated senior leadership’s dictate that all Brotherhood members must support the Freedom and Justice Party, by announcing the launch of an independent party, Nahdat Masr (Egypt’s Renaissance). Yet perhaps the dominant theme of the youth conference was a call for greater internal democratization. They accuse the group of mirroring the autocracy of the state, even as they rallied against it.

Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya

Internal democracy, however, is exactly the proclamation of a long suppressed Islamic movement, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. During the 1970s when the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence, al-Jama’a vowed to continue the jihad against the state, and suffered accordingly. They and other extremist groups were pursued ruthlessly by the state security apparatus, and effectively disarmed by the 1990s. Though made marginal, its leadership, led by Akram Zuhdi, also maneuvered into a non-violent posture.

Following the revolution, however, al-Jama’a reentered the political scene, seeking to be part of the emerging system. A key preliminary step is the revitalization of its internal organization. General assembly elections have begun, starting at the local level and proceeding until full governorate positions are chosen by members across the country. Leadership has announced these elections will be fully supervised by Egyptian civil society organizations, which has not been true of the Brotherhood, nor of the Egyptian state. Yet leadership will not consist of Akram Zuhdi, who has resigned from his role following cantankerous internal debates about the direction of the group. He states that he wishes to return to the function of calling people to God; does this signal a reversal of al-Jama’a’s orientation? Perhaps the democratic trend is assuaging, but what of the departure of a dovish leading figure?

The Salafis

If a democratic spirit is emerging in the two Islamic groups mentioned above, it is actively opposed by a third association, the Salafi movement. Similar to and influenced by Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, the Salafi call is to imitation of Muhammad and his contemporaries in their cultural and political outlook. Politically, this means submission to the ruling powers, and unlike the Brotherhood, Salafis cooperated with the Mubarak regime, even if they would recognize aspects of his governance as un-Islamic. In turn, their preachers were allowed to operate certain mosques, and freedom was given to demonstrate against certain policies of the Coptic Church.

During the recent referendum on constitutional amendments, Salafi preachers urged a ‘yes’ vote, corresponding to the perceived will of the military. Yet they argued their position not on reasoned political grounds, but on the fact that it was God’s will, which should not be opposed. Recently, they have been distributing flyers stating that democracy itself is a perversion of God’s law, taken instead from non-Muslim sources. It is the Islamic scriptural sources, they say, which constitute political authority, and not the will of the people. As such, they oppose a civil state, whereas many Muslim Brotherhood members support it, variously defined. Yet perhaps paradoxically, certain Salafi leading figures have announced their intention to form a political party and advocate for their position. If some fear a reversal of democracy, their apprehensions may have legitimacy here.

The Sufis

In contrast to the above groups, the Sufi movement has historically maintained an inclusive focus. Generally seen to prefer a spiritual over a literal interpretation of religion, Sufis rarely reject other Muslims as apostate, and often have welcoming perspectives on the legitimacy of Christian faith as well. Fittingly, Sufi leader Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem has called for an initiative to unite these various and divergent streams of the Islamic movement. Though Sufis tend to reject the mixing of religion and politics, Azayem believes they share the commitment of the Brotherhood and the Salafis to call believers to God. He also believes politics has a role in society, and as such has founded his own party, called Tahrir (Liberation).

The Church

Though The Coptic Orthodox Church represents Christian interests, there is interplay with the Islamic movements, though initiative sometimes comes from the outside. The Muslim Brotherhood, especially, is aware of the fear that should they gain power, they will return Copts to a dhimmi-like second class status. As such, sincerely or not (most Coptic Christians believe their assertions to be insincere), many proclaim their desire for a civil state in which Copts would be equal citizens. A major debate within Brotherhood circles currently is whether or not a Copt should be allowed to be president, not whether or not he or she should be allowed a vote.

Within their effort to assuage these fears, the Brotherhood has stated it will conduct official dialogue with the youth of the Orthodox Church. Though Pope Shenouda has denied negotiations have taken place, Brotherhood members state this only represents a misunderstanding, and that discussions will indeed take place. Meanwhile, Pope Shenouda has officially welcomed dialogue with the Azhar, the chief institution of Sunni Islam, but also with the Salafis. The church argues forcibly for a civil state, yet it finds itself intertwined in the politics of Islamist groups as well.


Egypt has now entered the difficult period of post-revolutionary politics. The future is not yet clear, though outlines are emerging in preparation for legislative elections, likely held in September. Islamic groups do not represent all Muslims, nor are they monolithic. Their share in a democratic future is certain, their victory is not. The cooperation, or lack of, which emerges between Islamist, secular, and to a lesser but influential degree, Christian orientations may play a deciding role in the outcome. May God guide all to mutual respect, understanding, and love, even as each legitimately, and hopefully genuinely, pursues its vision of God’s will.

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