On July 8 activist groups and parties in Egypt began a weeks-long sit-in, re-occupying Tahrir Square, seeking justice for those killed in the revolution, and pushing for swifter prosecution of officials from the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak. After showing up for part of the first day, the Muslim Brotherhood and the new Salafi parties were conspicuously absent from the sit-in, adding to the growing rift between secular activists and Egyptian religious conservatives. Activists believe that the Brotherhood has constructed an ad-hoc alliance with the transitional military government, in return for the preservation of the military’s long-standing extra-constitutional prerogatives.
The fears of liberal and secular activists are hardly assuaged by the perceived popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), widely expected to garner a plurality of seats in the coming parliamentary elections. The FJP is the Brotherhood’s newly-legalized political party, which was approved shortly after the revolution. Until now Brotherhood candidates were forced to run for parliament as independents, and they were denied the opportunity to form a political party. The Salafis’ Nour Party is also a new beneficiary of Egypt’s relaxed laws regarding political parties. The late-spring mayhem in Imbaba, the working class area of Cairo in which three churches were burned and 15 people killed in sectarian clashes widely attributed to Salafi provocations did nothing to give Egyptians confidence in the Islamists.
However, one must be careful not to confuse the natural flowering of Egypt’s ideological spectrum with an increase in “fundamentalism.” For years Islamists were not free to organize politically and to compete on equal footing with the regime’s National Democratic Party or the small number of co-opted, legal opposition parties. The Brotherhood for its part remains publicly dedicated to the core principles of democratic governance, and it is important to see their positioning as political rather than theological. By allying themselves with the army and against the permanent revolution of the activists, the Brotherhood is merely assuming the reactionary politics of ordinary conservative parties. Their electoral gains will not necessarily represent an increase in their power, but rather a cashing in of years of grassroots organizing and social welfare provision. Liberal and secular forces are only now beginning the difficult work of duplicating these efforts in provinces across the country. At the same time, the Brotherhood has already fragmented, with leaders leaving the organization and joining other parties like the centrist Wasat Party.
The Salafi movement, while ostensibly peaceful, is dedicated to an especially strict application of Islamic Law that does not recognize the sovereignty of man-made legislation. The Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori would likely categorize the Nour Party and its off-shoots as “anti-system”–in other words a party that wants not just to defeat sitting incumbents but rather to replace the entire democratic system of governance itself with an Islamic state. Such parties, if they deploy discourse that attacks the foundations of democratic governance and the politicians and groups interacting in the political arena, can create systemic crises by delegitimizing the entire government. But since observers do not expect the Nour Party to do especially well in September’s elections, the party will likely be more a nuisance than a genuine threat. In Tunisia, a similar drama is playing itself out with the Islamists’ newly legalized Nahda Party, which only highlights the need for both countries to use integration and compromise rather than blunt repression to deal with political Islam.
The best tonic for demagoguery from the left and the right is an open society in which these ideas are subject to the scrutiny of free debate. For too long the specter of fundamentalism was used by both the Mubarak regime and its apologists in the West to justify rigid authoritarianism and social control. This is not to say that the Islamists and their allies should be taken lightly, but that hysteria about their success will only interfere with efforts to make Egypt a more democratic and inclusive country. For now the real threat to Egyptian democracy is those still in positions of unaccountable power, who control security forces and economic fiefdoms, and whose ongoing lawlessness and corruption was a major catalyst for the revolution. As the activists have taken to saying, “the revolution first.” Everything else, including the construction of alliances to combat extremism and promote pluralism, will follow.
David M. Faris teaches political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago. His work has been published in Arab Media & Society and Middle East Policy, and he is the author of Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, forthcoming from I.B. Tauris and Co.
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author, and may not necessarily reflect those of the publishers of Religion News Blog.