What's Behind Brotherhood's Focus on Islamic Law in Egypt?

Article Summary
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has called for the full adoption of Islamic law into the constitution, which now only calls for taking "principles of Islam" as a reference. Some view the move as an attempt to co-opt more extreme Salafist supporters.

CAIRO — Between Oct. 20 and Oct. 22, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders focused on the issue of implementing Islamic law in Egypt. These discussions have begged the question of whether or not the organization’s goal is to court Islamist voters, given the Brotherhood's competition with the Salafist movement. Indeed, the Salafist movement has been trying to portray itself as the “defender of Islamic law," and has called for protests next month demanding its implementation. On the other hand, the Brotherhood might be simply trying to make up for what opposition members see as a failure on the part of President Mohammed Morsi to fulfill economic and social promises made during his electoral campaign.

Following his ascent as head of the Freedom and Justice Party — the political arm of the Brotherhood — former parliamentary speaker Saad Katatni stressed that the aim of the party was "to achieve good governance that leads to the application of Islamic law." Only hours earlier, prominent Brotherhood leader Mohammed Beltagy mentioned in a statement to journalists, "Egyptian society will not accept anything less than the statutes of Islamic law." Here, he used the same wording that the Salafists have used regarding their desired content of the constitution. In contrast, the current text mentions taking "principles of Islam" as a reference.

Beltagy responded to some recent criticisms of two articles in the new constitution. One of these articles limited women's rights so as not to "violate Islamic law" and the other mentions that principles of Islamic law include jurisprudential statutes and rules. Beltagy said there was "nothing to justify" these criticisms, stating that "civil society forces cannot impose something that society at large does not want."

However, Diaa Rashwan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, challenged the Brotherhood leaders who are calling for the implementation of Islamic law. "They now have legislative authority, so why don't they implement Islamic law and then wait and see the response of the Egyptian people who they represent," he said.

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"President Morsi currently has legislative authority, and the Brotherhood enjoys a majority in the Shura Council (the second chamber). Thus, they should implement the plan they envision regarding Islamic law. The Brotherhood doesn't need to ask for the people's understanding, they should implement what they have proposed. If they don't do this, they need to shut their mouths," he added.

On the other hand, political expert and former MP Amr al-Shobaki said: "The Brotherhood's call to implement Islamic law, which will always have its supporters among Egypt’s various social classes, comes in the context of the Brotherhood’s competition with the Salafist movement, and represents an attempt to court their electoral base given its conflict with civil society forces. [The Brotherhood] is trying to give legitimacy to their political approaches and positions, trying to show they are for the sake of [implementing] Islamic law."

Shobaki added, "The Brotherhood is using Islamic law in the framework of their competition with civil society forces, and to cover up their failures regarding social issues, it is not just an attempt to court the Islamist base during their competition with the Salafists."

In contrast, Gamal Heshmat, a member of the Brotherhood-controlled Shura Council, rejected Shobaki's statements. He said: "If this talk is seen as an attempt to court public opinion, then why does the Brotherhood [not just appeal] to the public? I don't know why people are so sensitive to any statement regarding the implementation of Islamic law."

"Islamic law was codified in the 1980s, it was partially implemented and we want it fully implemented … implementing Islamic law is not about setting limits, it's about a comprehensive societal and economic life, it's a demand of all people and a general goal of society. What matters most is that we don’t violate Islamic law,” said Heshmat.

It seemed that the statements of these Brotherhood leaders have frightened the Salafist movement, which has adopted more extreme rhetoric. Younis Makhion, a member of the Constituent Assembly and a member of the supreme council within the Salafist al-Nour Party, called on Egyptians to "take part in a referendum on the new constitution if the constitution in fact endorses Islamic law, despite the fact that Islamic law should be implemented without a vote."

During a symposium held by the al-Nour Party in Suez, Makhion said that Salafist members of the Constitutional Assembly "disagreed with the secularists regarding a clause in the constitution calling for Islamic law or the principles of Islamic law.”

“I told the secular parties if you are looking for a secular constitution, first find another people to write this constitution for, the Egyptian people want Islamic law," said Makhion.

He added, "We are now at a crossroads, either the rule of Islam or the rule of blasphemy … these liberals and secularists raise their voices, trying to forcibly impose their opinion and use the media to scare people away from Islam."

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Found in: secularists, salafists, muslim brotherhood, muslim, islamic law, freedom and justice party, egyptian muslim brotherhood, egypt, al-nour
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