How far will Egypt’s Islamists go?
May 3, 2006
May 3, 2006
19 Min read time
How far will Egypt’s Islamists go?
The Egyptian city of al Minya clings to a bend in the Nile River about 220 kilometers south of Cairo. It is a tidy place with a population of a half million and several tourist sites, including an ancient Christian monastery and the tombs of some Fatimid-dynasty caliphs who ruled an Islamic empire from Old Cairo a thousand years ago.
Al Minya is also the home district of Mohammad Saad al Catatny, a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhoodand a leader of the country’s political opposition. Not long ago, such a title would have been nearly meaningless. But when Brotherhood members emerged from national elections late last year with a fifth of the parliament’s 454 seats they were suddenly an authentic opposition movement with a qualified mandate to lead. (The group is banned as a political party, so its candidates campaign as independents.) With President Hosni Mubarak’s fifth and likely final term set to expire in 2010, the Brotherhood is now in its most strategically favorable position since the ousting of King Farouk by the Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. Victory in Egypt would complete the Brotherhood’s journey from a fringe group founded in the 1930s and dedicated to recreating the Muslim caliphate to one of the most important and subversive transnational political movements of the last century.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islamist groups have been successful in nearly a dozen parliamentary elections—in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories—as well as in municipal races in Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, and Bahrain. Many of these parties have been Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, among the 70 or so operating worldwide. The triumph in January by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas—a Muslim Brotherhood derivative—was only the most dramatic example of the Islamization of Arab politics at the expense of secular Islam. The process has been evolving since the Nasser era and has been fertilized at least in part by the U.S. government, first through covert support and later, unwittingly, by empowering radical Islam with policies that are widely perceived asanti-Islamic.
Exactly how the Muslim Brotherhood interprets its newly expanded authority is unclear. Few political parties anywhere have advanced so far while preserving for themselves such careful ambiguity on core issues. Would it, for example, impose the kind of Islamic law, or sharia, that forbids women in Saudi Arabia to drive or go out uncovered? Would it tear up Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? Would it reverse the country’s free-market reforms in favor of state intervention?
The Muslim Brotherhood has been attacked as heretical by more militant Islamist groups, such as Al-Gama`a al-Islamiyyah and Islamic Jihad, for its code of nonviolence and its participation in politics, which suggests at least tactical recognition of secular democracy. Brotherhood members say that they recruit most effectively in prison, where they entice Islamists from rival groups with their message of peaceful change.The Brotherhood condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks as anti-Islamic within 24 hours of the bombings—though it is virulently anti-Israel, and senior members have publicly suggested that the Holocaust never happened.
The Brotherhood has said it wants to govern with tolerance in a coalition of freely elected parties. But would a movement that has played its hand so shrewdly for so long, and at such a price to its members in blood and imprisonment—Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the current leader of theBrotherhood, has spent about a third of his life behind bars—willingly share absolute power if it earned it?
For now, at least, it is enough for Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the deeply unpopular Hosni Mubarak. And unless Mubarak invigorates Egyptian politics by allowing secular parties to thrive and compete with the Islamists, that might be enough until the day Mubarak steps down and the Brotherhood takes over.
* * *
I paid a call on minority leader al Catatnyin early February, when the Muslim world was heaving with outrage over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad published in the Danishpaper Jyllands-Posten. The journey from Cairo had taken several hours longer than I had expected, and by the time I arrived in al Minya in the early afternoon, well after my scheduled appointment, the interview had to be postponed to 6 p.m. By then, I was told, Catatny would be back in his office, hearing petitions from constituents.
In the meantime, I was to meet al Catatny’s assistant, Kamal al Fouly, at the faculty club of the local university, a casual cluster of deck chairs and tables overlooking the Nile. Al Fouly arrived and greeted me warmly. It was dusk. We were seated under date palms that billowed gently in the breeze. The riots seemed blessedly far away.
I offered al Fouly tea, which he politely declined. It was the fasting day of Ashura, he explained, when Muslims as well as Jews celebrate the day Moses led the Israelites from Egypt. Sunni Muslims have celebrated the event by fasting ever since the Prophet Mohammed, persecuted by the religious establishment in Mecca, fled to the neighboring city of Medina in the seventh century and adopted the Jewish ritual of fasting for his followers.
“The Prophet, may peace be upon him,” said al Fouly, “arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting, and he declared, ‘Let their joy be our joy.’”
Al Fouly, tall and erect in a taupe suit, is the Muslim Brotherhood’s appealing public face. He is poised, with a quiet charisma that does not discriminate between the sexes. (Unlike many Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood members I have met, including Akef, greet women easily with ahandshake.) In the late 1970s he attended classes at the University of Illinois, where he received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in education studies. The time he spent in America, he says, “were the best six years of my life,” and it was there, in the patch work suburban grids of Champaign, where he joined the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It was not out of outrage,” said al Fouly. “I was simply impressed with the people I met there. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when anger over U.S. foreign policy was nothing like it is now.”
Al Fouly acknowledged that the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in the parliamentary vote was as much an expression of discontent with Mubarak as it was an endorsement of Islamism. He also emphasized what political analysts in Egypt agree on: that the Brotherhood’s strong showing could have been even stronger.
“We wanted to send a message,” al Fouly said. “The movement did not contest more seats to make clear that we don’t want to take over. If we had aimed for a majority, we could have done here what Hamas did in Palestine.”
This was no idle boast. The Muslim Brotherhood has proved its appeal to voters of all ages, areas of residence, income levels, even religions. A majorBrotherhood stronghold is impoverished Aysut, just south of al Minyaand heavily Christian; and in the race to represent the affluent Cairene district of Kasr El Nile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate won with 1,800 votes—a considerable plurality given the state’s voter intimidation.
The bedrock of Muslim Brotherhood support is its intense civic-mindedness, which contrasts with the ineptitude and corruption of the secular regime. Though inspired by the Islamic code’s reverence for alms-giving and charitable works, the Muslim Brotherhood has developed an instinct for ward heeling that would have impressed the most resourceful of 19th-century American political machines. When disaster strikes, the Brotherhood deploys ambulances from hospitals owned by Brotherhood members. It funds health care for the elderly and finds public-sector jobs for the children of remote villages. During the holy months of Ramadan it distributes food to the needy.
In Zaqaziq, between Cairo and Alexandria, the cardiologist and Muslim Brotherhood member Dr. Abu Hashem Abdullah tends to patients who cannot afford health care provided by the state. Dr. Abdullah, a professor at the local university’s medical school, spends up to eight hours a day at the clinic when he isn’t lecturing. He also works with a group that helps orphans and occasionally visits a smaller clinic in a village just outside the city.
Most of Dr. Abdullah’s patients are elderly women, almost all of them veiled. “The government is struggling against the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says during a break.“They’ve arrested our most prominent members, some of them doctors and engineers. And we struggle back.”
Unlike members of the ruling National Democratic Party, who rarely attend legislative sessions, Muslim Brotherhood legislators are known to spend long hours on the parliament floor and in chamber. “These are fair, honest, and predictable men,” the Egyptian dissident Saad Ibrahimonce told me of Brotherhood parliamentarians. “They do their homework.”
And, crucially, they are not blemished by the mark of collusion with America. Even al Fouly, unusually equipped to appreciate America’s virtues, deeply resents what he regards as joint Israeli-American meddling in Arab and Muslim affairs. The appearance, if not the fact, of a Bush-Likud axis, U.S. designs on Iraqi oil wealth, and the American Pentecostal movement’s hostility toward Islam gives the Muslim Brotherhood credibility and the moral high ground. During the cartoon crisis, for example, the Brotherhood publicly distanced itself from the more radical elements, accusing some Arab leaders of playing a “dirty game . . . to distort the image of the Islamic movement—to get the people to say that they are not peaceful, not democratic, against free speech.”
“We are tired of the double standards,” said al Fouly. “When Muslims say ridiculous things about the Holocaust, everyone condemns them. But it’s not okay for us to be offended when someone insults our religion. At the same time, the Americans push for democracy but then don’t recognize our success. No wonder secular Islam has declined in favor of moderate Islamic parties.”
* * *
Sayyid Qutb, unlike al Fouly, loathed the United States. He was typical of young Muslims who had turned against the imperialist West, in particular Britain and France, for partitioning the Levantine Middle East and creating the state of Israel. By 1948, Qutb’s writings had made him a target of the government, and his friends persuaded him to lie low for a time in the Devil’s own lair—America—where he took graduate courses in Colorado. There he recoiled at what he regarded as America’s vulgar commercialism and intellectual vacuity. He returned to Egypt convinced that only Islam as it was embraced in the time of the Prophet could protect the Muslim world from the West’s coarse, creeping modernity.
The bedrock of Muslim Brotherhood support is its intense civic-mindedness, which contrasts with the ineptitude and corruption of the secular regime.
Qutb would become the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual architect. His message, that Arab nationalism was a foreign-imposed and secular heresy before the Muslim world’s true sovereign, Allah, conflated the struggle against Western imperialism and its proxy emirs with the Prophet’sattack on the idolatrous Meccan elites. It defined Islamist doctrine—“the Koran is our constitution”—and set up its struggle with secularism, both at home and abroad.
Qutb’s books In the Shadow of the Koran and Signposts on the Road, written in the1960s, have continued to inspire generations of Islamists long after Qutb was hanged in 1966 by Nasser, the human embodiment of Arab nationalism. “It is hard to under estimate the impact that he had on Islamists around the world,” writes the terrorism expert Peter Bergen in his book, The Osama bin Laden I Know. “Not only did Qutb profoundly influence the Islamist movement . . . he provided the handbook for jihadist movements across the Muslim world.”
It is noteworthy that Nasser, who despite his one-man rule was known as a conciliator, drew the line when it came to Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. A pious but westernized Muslim, Nasser opposed the Islamists long before the West recognized their potential to subvert Middle Eastern regimes. Indeed, Britain and the United States at various times colluded with the Brotherhood to destabilize Nasser,the former because of his preemptive and ultimately triumphant response to the Suez Crisis in 1956, the latter because he wasthought to be soft on communism. In fact, Nasser was strongly anti-communist and entered the Soviet orbit only after Washington left him no other options.
In Nasser, The Last Arab, Said Aburish details how both Washington and London, unable to tolerate anon-aligned popular Arab leader, engaged in “open support for Islamic groups . . . [including] the creation of anti-Nasser Islamic cells in eastern Saudi Arabia, near the oil fields.” (The samefields, it is worth mentioning, were attacked by Islamic militants in February.) When Nasser refused to make peace with Israel on what here garded as unjust terms, the United States pressured Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to offer sanctuary to the Muslim Brotherhood and fund their offices.
“Modern Islamic fundamentalism,” writes Aburish, “began with [Saudi] King Faisal,with solid American support. It was created to fight the enemies of Allah, at the time Nasser and the Soviet Union; but as we have seen, this movement has turned into a monster of its own.” The communist threat to the Middle East, Aburish writes, was “mostly imaginary.”
To be fair, the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s. But by fatally misreading Soviet intentions inthe Middle East and undercutting Nasser, the West destroyed apro-West Arab leader who was secular, uncorrupted, and strong enough to contain the rising tide of Islamism without resorting to civil war—in short, everything the current crop of Arab leaders is not.
* * *
Like his American counterpart, President Hosni Mubarak is long on tactics and short on strategy. Like most Arab leaders, he has remained in power through a calibrated mix of coercion and patronage. Absent any dramatic policy shifts, he will be remembered primarily as a survivor who did enough things right to preserve his grip on power and to subdue potential challengers. Until two years ago, when Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and his new government introduced a bold, if long-delayed, program of economic reform, Mubarak showed little interest in elevating the living standards ofhis people. Egypt’s per-capita income has remained more or less static for a generation, even as the rate of population growth has mushroomed. Certainly, he has done nothing to liberalize the political environment; citizens who register political parties oragitate for political reform are routinely detained and harassed. His perfunctory reelection campaigns garnered the standard autocrat’s plurality of 98 percent.
When confronted with a serious Islamist challenge in the 1990s, Mubarak imposed emergency security laws and waged a decade-long dirty war that consumed a great many innocent lives. After 9/11, he understood the value of givingthe Islamists enough room to operate and then spotlighting them, according to Saad Ibrahim, “as a ghoul that focuses the West” away from his human-rights record. With President Bush calling for democratization and the activist Ayman Nour and his secular opposition party drawing attention to his brutality, Mubarak amended the Egyptian constitution to allow for snap elections he knew he would win. (Nour is now serving a five-year jail sentence on a forgery conviction. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls this a“setback” on Egypt’s road to democracy.)
The only surprise was the Muslim Brotherhood’s dramatic gains. The group won 63 percent of the seats it contested, compared with the NDP’s 27 percent. Brotherhood members were conspicuous members of the crowds who fought with riot police in street clashes that left 11 people dead and scores injured.
“Real voters were absent,” Ihab Sallam, a human-rights activist and election monitor, told me.“There were only voters who were bought and those from the religious stream, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood did so well. Ihad monitors in tears after they got caught in the middle of a battle between police and religious voters.”
At each pollingplace, said Sallam, the Brotherhood posted one person inside to guardthe ballot box and four guards outside to escort it to collection stations. “They are small but well organized,” he said. “They made a strategic decision to enhance their authority [by winning alimited number of seats] without risking a back lash from thegovernment. If they had wanted more, they would have gotten more.”
I asked Sallam how the Brotherhood might one day govern.
“It’s hard to say. They change all the time. You can be sitting with them, smoking shisha [a water pipe], and they seem very moderate, very reasonable. That’s how they’re so effective at recruiting. But they do not have a liberal vision for dealing with others. In 2004, they released a document that seemed to suggest they believe in human rights, but if you read it carefully, it projects anus-versus-them world, with ‘them’ below ‘us.’”
The bestway to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength, according to Sallam, is to introduce more parties to the political marketplace.“Within the next four years, the government must do the honorable thing and allow for other streams,” he said. “Then, the Muslim Brotherhood’s problem will not be the government but other, secular parties.”
Sallam drained his coffee. “But that will bedifficult for the regime.”
* * *
Could Egypt really go Islamist? The Mubarak government is not ruling it out. In February, it delayed municipal elections by two years, a move Muslim Brotherhood members said was clearly aimed at them. Under Mubarak’s new election laws, independent candidates can only run for president if they hold a local council seat, and Brotherhood candidates were widely predicted to dominate municipal polls.
The regime cannot indefinitely postpone local elections (to its credit, the Bush administration has criticized the delay), and so long as the political field is limited to two viable players—the regime and the Brotherhood—there is little doubt about the outcome. In putting off the municipal vote, the government may have had in mind the looming political battle over price controls, which the Nazif government hasvowed to dismantle. The issue of subsidies has been the third rail of Egyptian politics for 30 years; Anwar Sadat took them on in 1977 and triggered riots throughout the country. Any similar backlash will certainly redound to the Brotherhood’s favor.
Nearly a quarter of Egyptians live below the poverty line. The government’s aggressive economic restructuring over the last two years has done little to reduce the country’s jobless rate, which most economists say is well above the official estimate of 10 percent. Graduates of Egypt’s top universities are lucky to find work in the country’sbloated civil service, the employer of last resort. An entry-levelgovernment job pays an annual wage of about 2,400 Egyptian pounds, or $421.
* * *
Which takes us back to al Minya. When I arrived at al Catatny’s office for our 6 p.m. appointment, a dozen aggrieved residents were already lined up outside his door, many with thick files tucked under their arms to document their plight.
Al Catatny arrived and, after a cursory nod to his constituents, disappeared into his chambers. After a few minutes the door swung open and his attendants waved mein.
From a modest wooden desk, al Catatny rose to greet me in a pinstripe suit and open-collared shirt. He was warm and animated, despite having been up since dawn. The high walls of his office were white and bare, and the furniture was cheap and mismatched. In the waxwork world of Egyptian politics, al Catatny and his camp seemed refreshingly rebellious. The old order had been swept aside by something spontaneous and unpredictable, and even al Catatny seemed unsure where it would all lead.
“Years ago, the climate precluded opposition,” he said. “On the one hand there was repression, on the other corruption, and that created room for us to grab people’s attention.”
I asked al Catatny about the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform. His reply was studied, but not stale. The Brotherhood, he declared, is for civic society with an Islamic “reference.” It is moderate and tolerant, not extremist and exclusionary. It supports privatization and free-market reforms, though it opposes the corruption that is so often associated with them. “We accept the game of democracy and we seek to cooperate with others in peace,” he said.
With whom? Conciliation with the regime is unlikely, and there is no secular opposition with which to ally.
Al Catatny smiled. “As official parties, there is not much there—it is true. But opposition groups will increase in the coming years. They’ll regroup. The people are fed up. The government says six million are unemployed; sometimes its says nine million and sometimes 12 million. These people without jobs are time bombs. This cannot continue.”
On my way out, I spoke with some of the people waiting for patronage. Nadia Abdullah was hoping al Catatny could find a less demanding job for her asthma-stricken husband, who earns the equivalent of $8.75 a week as a day laborer; Taha Mohammad, an engineer, wanted al Catatny to raise in parliament the matter of a water-treatment plant that was upgraded at a cost to the city of 20 million Egyptian pounds ($3.5 million). Only half the money was spent, said Mohammad, and the rest was pocketed by the contractor; Faruk Nassef Harun wanted al Catatny to ensure that his daughter was given a job at the Egyptian tax agency, where his wife works and which sets aside entry-level jobs for the children of tenured employees.
Harun had introduced himself to me. He is a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, and he wanted me to know how much he appreciates the Brotherhood. “They serve Christians and Muslims equally,” he said. “They even have an office for ecumenical affairs.”
* * *
Assuming its fidelity to the word of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy is to cinch control over Egyptian politics and establish sharia through constitutional fiat. The most populous and geopolitically vital Arab nation would then go the way of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan to become an orthodox Islamic regime, perhaps to be joined one day by Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and possibly Syria and several of the lesser Gulf states.
Or not. It is just as likely that Brotherhood members really believe their big-tent talk of coalition-building and interfaith harmony. They may also know that hammering Arab states together into a borderless fiefdom is just as absurd and impractical as it was when Nasser and the Syrians tried it in 1958.
More important, however, is what the people in al Catatny’s chambers believe. If they think the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political group in Egypt with the commitment and resources to address their needs, then they will buoy the Brotherhood to power regardless of its intentions. If, on the other hand, there is a political awakening to match the Islamic one, with a proliferation of secular parties competing for voter loyalty, then the Brotherhood will have to reveal itself as either a center-right political party with an Islamist character or an Islamist movement with a regional agenda.
These are two different things. The former would appeal to the moderate sensibilities of most Egyptians. To follow this path would be to swap orthodoxy for legitimacy, an exchange familiar to all radicals who have traveled from the tributaries of politics to its main currents. The latter would alienate all but a small host of Egyptian radicals. To embrace it would be to strangle political Islam in its crib, as just another failed conceit of Arab self-government.
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May 03, 2006
19 Min read time