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Islamists in Egypt seek change through politics

It may have been a secular revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, but religious groups — some with violent pasts — have been building grass-roots networks for years. Now ultraconservative and moderate groups feel their time has arrived.

April 03, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya join demonstrations in Beirut against then-President Hosni Mubarak in early February.
Members of the Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya join demonstrations in Beirut… (Sharif Karim, Reuters )

Reporting from Alexandria, Egypt — Nageh Ibrahim once spoke of slaying infidels and creating an Islamic state that would stretch from the Nile Delta to the vast deserts of Egypt's south. Today he lives in a high-rise with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and has the soothing voice of a man who could lead a 12-step program on rejecting radicalism.

Ibrahim's group, Gamaa al Islamiya, plotted notorious attacks, including the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and the massacre at an ancient Luxor temple that killed 62 people, mostly tourists, in 1997. He spent 24 years in jail reading the Koran and tempering the rage of his youth.

"We were young and we took extreme measures. But now we're old men and our time in prison has made us wiser," he said. "Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy have lost their glamour. Look at what has happened. The young saw that violence didn't bring change to Egypt, a peaceful revolution did."

Ibrahim is one of an increasing number of ultraconservative and moderate Islamists seeking a political voice in a new Egypt. Since the downfall in February of President Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept religion far from the center of power, the Islamist message is unshackled. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, expects a strong showing in September's parliamentary elections.

The secular reformers and twentysomething urbanites at the vanguard of the Jan. 25 revolution have found themselves eclipsed. They lack experience and grass-roots networks to compete with the Brotherhood and other religious groups that have quietly stoked their passions for this moment. In a sense, Mubarak's obsession with both co-opting and crushing Islamists instilled in them the discipline and organization that now propels their political agendas.

Egypt has long been the touchstone of the Arab world. The protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ended with Mubarak retiring to his villa on the Red Sea riveted the Middle East. That drama suggests that Egypt's post-revolutionary era — its emerging blend of politics and Islam — will have tremendous influence on what evolves in coming generations across the region.

The political Islam popular in Egypt strikes more the tone of the moderate Muslim party running Turkey than the fundamentalist theocracies presiding over Saudi Arabia and Iran. Political parties based solely on religion are still illegal here, but the military council ruling the country has astounded many by permitting Islam a wider role. Analysts suggest this tolerance is calculated so that in coming months the army can hand over the nation to an elected parliament after assurances from the Brotherhood that it will not run a candidate for president.

Egypt is not the only nation where Islamic messages are whispering alongside the clamor of revolt. In Yemen, religious radicals are seeking to exploit anti-government protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against Al Qaeda. In Syria, conservative Sunni Muslims more antagonistic toward Israel than President Bashar Assad could fill the vacuum if his government is toppled.

The Muslim Brotherhood's calls for a relatively mainstream Islamic government appeals to its majority of educated and professional members. In Egypt's first taste of true democracy, the Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Salafist organizations, however, told followers that it was their religious duty to vote to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments that benefited Islamists by speeding up elections.

One of Egypt's leading ultraconservative sheiks, Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, influenced by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi strain of Islam, was quoted as saying after the referendum had passed: "That's it. The country is ours."

Such sentiment shows that in a span of weeks, age-old religion, not the enthusiasm and slogans of the Facebook generation, is likely to be a crucial factor in choosing a new Egyptian government. This swift change has surprised even the Brotherhood, which avoided references to Islam during an uprising that was not inspired by religion.

Emerging secularist parties may yet find support from those fearful that bearded men and the Islamic tenets of radical elements within the Brotherhood are hijacking the revolution. The military council's decision to hold parliamentary elections in September instead of May will give nonreligious parties more time to win voters. But liberals and secularists have not regained the momentum they enjoyed in the early days of the revolt, even as extremist gangs recently attacked a cafe that sells alcohol and cut off the ear of a man accused of renting a flat to "indecent women."

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