The Stark Choice Facing Egyptian Islamists

Article Summary
Having won the majority of parliamentary seats, Egypt’s Islamists have two options: Either they abandon the revolution in favor of their extremist ideology, or embrace pluralism and be forever remembered as the builders of a democratic Egypt, writes Aala’ al-Aswani.

Professor Tarek al-Bishri is an honorable judge and a great historian. We have learned much of modern Egyptian history through his valuable books. He belongs - intellectually at least - to the political Islamist current. Professor al-Bishri of course knows that whenever a revolution topples a regime the constitution created by the defunct regime automatically becomes obsolete, and that the revolutionary forces write a new constitution that matches their goals. Professor al-Bishri knows this well. However, we were surprised that after the Egyptian revolution and the removal of Mubarak, Professor al-Bishri chose to obey the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and embraced as the chairman of its committee. [The SCAF committee] was formed to introduce limited amendments to the 1971 constitution - this contradicted his [prior] insistence on drafting a [completely] new constitution. The SCAF held a referendum on the amendments introduced by al-Bishri’s committee, then ignored the referendum’s outcome, announcing a temporary constitution of 63 articles without consulting the Egyptian people. The cooperation between Professor al-Bishri and the SCAF deprived Egypt of a new constitution that could have put us on the right track instead of in this dark tunnel which we are still trying to get out of one year later.

The question is this: How could a man with the intellect, integrity and nationalism of Professor al-Bishri's disrupt the path of the revolution in such a manner? The answer is that Professor al-Bishri wanted to use the committee to ensure the political supremacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he claims allegiance. It was in the Muslim Brotherhood's interest to ally with the SCAF and conform to its will. Professor al-Bishri wanted to promote the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests because he believed that they also represented Egypt's interests.

Here's another scene: Soldiers and police officers commit horrible abuses against protesters in three massacres: Maspero, the Mohamad Mahmoud [museum], and the ministerial cabinet massacres. Protesters have been killed by live ammunition. Some have lost their eyesight. Girls and women were dragged and humiliated. The tragedy reached its peak with [the now famous] scene showing the police stomping with their boots on a shirtless girl lying on the ground. The entire world condemned the brutality. But a famous Islamic sheikh and two other Salafist sheikhs appeared on a religious TV channel and made fun of the matter. They had trouble containing their laughter. When Dr. El-Baradei issued a statement denouncing the brutality against the female protesters, the sheikh/telecaster sarcastically said: "He is a believer! Look how they (liberals) became religious all of a sudden!"

When the newspapers reported that a veiled girl was dragged and stomped upon by soldiers, the sheikh/telecaster responded, "do we know who put the veil on this one? Perhaps she was a mole who wanted to foment strife between the Salafists and the army."

The idea is clear and significant. The sheikh/telecaster causes a stir whenever the police bars a woman from wearing the veil in a Western country (in accordance with the law) but doesn't mind seeing a veiled Egyptian woman humiliated because she does not belong to his group, and claims he does not know who put the veil on her. The sheikh/telecaster cannot accept the existence of virtue outside of his own group. In his view, it doesn't make sense for someone to have a conscience and condemn indecent assaults unless [the victim] is religious, and he cannot be religious unless he is Muslim, and he cannot be Muslim unless he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists. The sheikh/telecaster does not mind injustices or assaults as long as the victim is not a member of his group. Everything that furthers the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists is religiously acceptable. The sheikh/telecaster considers everything that hinders their reaching power to be trivial, even murder or indecent assaults.

Here's a third scene: In a spontaneous reaction to the indecent assaults on the daughters of Egypt by the police and the army, women and girls marched under the banner of "the free [people] of Egypt" to condemn the assault on their peers. At that point, the Muslim Brotherhood official responsible for women's affairs, Dr. Manal Abu Al-Hassan, accused the female protesters of being financed from abroad and having a foreign agenda (the same charges Mubarak threw at his opponents) and that the protesters in the tents are drowning in impurity.

She follows the same logic: Dr. Manal does not care about women being dragged and assaulted, because if they do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. She has no shame accusing tens of thousands of protesters of treason and impurity simply because the protests could delay the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Several months ago, I wrote an article saying that the general principles of good governance set by Islam are also democratic principles: Freedom, justice, and equality. But I also stressed that Islam did not specify a particular system of government. After the article was published, I received dozens of hateful messages. A religious channel devoted an entire episode to insult me and question my religion and nationalism (I am still amazed at how those who claim to be religious can use obscenities). Last month the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee issued an official report agreeing with my opinion. It said that Islam has never specified a particular system of government. The opinion of the Fatwa Committee caused no objections and no insults against the sheikhs of Al-Azhar. Therefore, some of those who belong to political Islam think that [the validity of a message depends on the messenger].

This phenomenon is real and unfortunate: Many Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist members have double standards. They often ignore facts and take unjust positions either out of hatred of those who disagree with them, or out of their desperate eagerness to gain power. Some have called this “opportunism,” but I think the term is not sufficient. The problem starts with how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists view themselves. They do not see themselves as just another national faction that offers one distinct political vision [to the public]. They believe that they alone are right and that everybody else is wrong. They believe that they are the only true representatives of Islam and that everybody who opposes them is [Islam’s] enemy. They believe that they are the only ones who are struggling for the supremacy of the word of God and that therefore their battles are not political battles; they are part of a religious war pitting good against evil. In times of war, Islamic [ideology] permits deception and the use of all kinds of tricks to help Muslims defeat the enemies of Islam. This concept of superiority and aggression explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has always violated the national consensus and allied with despotic rulers against the will of the people. Why have they allied with Isma'il Sidqi [Prime Minister of Egypt in the 1930s], a persecutor of the people? And why did they support King Farouq and shouted to him "God is with the King"? And why have they supported Abdel Nasser as he was killing the democratic experiment and deciding which political parties to abolish and which to keep legal? And why did the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood say in 2005 that he supported Hosni Mubarak and wished to meet him? The issue here is not just about opportunism - it is a natural result of doing politics under religious banners. Those who belong to political Islam will never shy away from forming an alliance with any power, no matter how oppressive or unjust, if it enables them to establish what they believe is God's rule.

To be fair, we should emphasize that this behavior does not apply to all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements. There are high-ranking members in these currents who stand for justice everywhere, and bravely defend it regardless of their political interests or the consequences. For example, Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (the best nationalist personality to emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood in decades) and the two sheikhs Hazem Abu Isma'il and Wajdi Ghoneim (even though I disagree with some of their hard-line positions). But these three people are independent; they are not part of the decision-making process and only represent themselves.

Political Islam makes you practice politics under religious banners and this leaves you with two options: (1) You feel obligated by your proper understanding of religion to commit to the truth and defend the rights of the oppressed even if they have different opinions or religions than you; or (2), it makes you abuse the rights of those who differ with you and only allows you to view them as a atheists, degenerates and traitors.

This is the choice facing the supporters of political Islam in Egypt. After winning a parliamentary majority and reaching power, they are passing through the most difficult test in their history. The scene in Egypt needs no explanation. The SCAF, which was appointed by Hosni Mubarak, has for a whole year done everything it could to preserve his's regime and manufacture crises to pressure the Egyptians into despising the revolution. The SCAF wanted to abort the revolution, distort its image, and transform it into a mere coup where the ruler is replaced but the regime stays. But things have not worked out the way the SCAF wanted. On the revolution's first anniversary, millions of Egyptians demonstrated to affirm that they are still loyal to a revolution they payed for with their blood and whose goals they are still determined to achieve. Therefore, the position that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists will take in parliament will be critical and decisive. They have to make a choice.

Their first choice is to hold on to their fanatic and ossified belief that they alone represent true Islam and everyone else has gone astray. They can replace the goals of the revolution with a moral program - as has occurred in Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. And rather than build a state based on justice, they can start banning films and concerts, and punish women who wear pants and bathing suits. In that intellectual vacuum they will be forced to form alliances and make deals with the SCAF, abandoningthe revolution's goals. And this will result in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists losing their legitimacy and credibility.

Their second choice is to develop their vision in a way that allows them to respect those who differ with them. They can realize that what they are proposing is merely a particular interpretation of religion, and not religion itself. They can accept that those who disagree with them are not necessarily conspiring against Islam or hate it. If they do these things they would have adopted the goals of the revolution and will [have the necessary support] to achieve them no matter the level of the SCAF’s displeasure.

This choice will determine whether or not the revolution will achieve its goals. It will determine if history will write that the supporters of political Islam were the founders of the modern Egyptian Democratic state. I hope that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists make the right choice so that Egypt gets the future it deserves.

Democracy is the solution.

Found in: al-bishri, salafists, scaf, political opportunism, muslim morality, muslim brotherhood, muslim, manal abu al-hassan, image of islamist parties, egyptian revolution, egyptian constitution, democratic transition

Alaa al-Aswany is an Egyptian writer and a prominent member of the Egyptian Movement for Change, Kefaya. Al-Aswany currently writes a weekly column for Al-Masry Al-Youm and his political articles have been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and Le Monde. His 2002 novel, The Yacoubian Building, has been translated into 27 languages and was nominated by US Newsday in 2006 as the most important translated novel in the United States.


Cookies help us deliver our services. By using them you accept our use of cookies. Learn more... X