Political Islam at a crossroads in Egypt

Islamic parties are likely to win big in elections Monday, but their unity has splintered, leading to questions over whether Egypt will emerge as a democratic inspiration or slip back into autocracy.

November 25, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood march in Cairo ahead of parliamentary elections this month.
Members of the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood march… (Mohamed Abd el Ghany / Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — The call to prayer quiets in the minaret as Mohammad Abbas, a street protester turned candidate for parliament, steps out of a decrepit elevator and hurries to his office. He's still learning the art of politics but he can spin a sound bite better than most of his elders. Ask away:

Facebook activists?

"They sit in air-conditioned rooms but don't touch real Egyptians."

Young Islamists?

"Not yet strong enough to influence change."

The Muslim Brotherhood?

His eyes narrow, the banter hushes.

Abbas joined the Brotherhood, the Arab world's largest Islamic movement, when he was in college. But the group that brought the 27-year-old closer to God and honed his social conscience booted Abbas out in July when he made clear that his ambitions for a new Egypt were much different from those of his mentors.

The Brotherhood's moderate Freedom and Justice Party and its more conservative Islamic allies are likely to win big in parliamentary elections Monday; no other organizations are as disciplined or as connected to the masses. But the Brotherhood's unity, which buttressed it for decades against bans and repression by Hosni Mubarak's police state, is splintering as both young and established voices break away.

With about 6,000 candidates running for 498 seats, the elections are a crucial test for the Arab world's most populous nation. The outcome, along with a presidential election scheduled for next year, will reveal whether Egypt emerges as a democratic inspiration in a region clamoring for change or slips back into a military-dominated autocracy where only the faces and illicit bank accounts have changed.

Abbas, who has shaved his beard in a symbolic break with the Brotherhood, joined with about 20 other former members to found the Current Party, a coalition of activists trying to keep alive the spirit that emboldened Egyptians during the uprising that overthrew Mubarak in February. It's a vision of Egypt that is more tolerant and secular than the political ideology of the Brotherhood, which has turned mosques into campaign stops and is expected to seek a hardening of religious lines in daily life.

Drawing heavily from the educated and the middle class, the Brotherhood appears at once coy and inept at revealing what its brand of political Islam exactly is. Secularists allege the group is masking a more radical agenda than its Freedom and Justice Party promotes. The organization's members often contradict themselves and at times operate with an opaque aloofness that comes from years of not caring about projecting media-friendly images.

The Brotherhood believes that this is its moment. And the chants of "Islam is the light, the Koran is the constitution" at a demonstration days ago in Tahrir Square left little doubt the organization wants Egypt's new constitution and its identity indelibly stamped with sharia, or Islamic law.

Breakaway members such as Abbas are taking a "religiously unacceptable" path, says Zeinab Mohamed Kamel, a female member of the Brotherhood involved in preaching programs.

"It is the duty of every Muslim to vote for a group or a party that will make sure sharia law prevails," she says. "It is forbidden to separate religion from politics."

The Brotherhood is expected to win as much as 30% of the seats in parliament, but its political zeal has drawn criticism. The organization has so far not endorsed the protests in Tahrir Square, fearing that the chaos could derail Monday's elections, and the strategy appears to have miscalculated public sentiment. Protesters blame the group for cooperating with Egypt's military rulers to advance its ambitions at the expense of a new rebellion against the generals — a movement that Abbas has joined.

As a new political Islam emerges from the "Arab Spring," religious parties, including some that receive funding and support from Wahabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, are on the rise against secular voices. But the struggle is also an insular one between ultraconservative and moderate Islamists who have been at odds for generations over how deeply religion should permeate civil society.

"Political Islam faces a big challenge right now," says Mohamed Shahawi, campaign manager for Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood when he defied the group by announcing his candidacy for president. "It's like the decompression sickness that happens to deep-sea divers when they're lifted too quickly to the surface."

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