Growing militancy on the part of Egypt’s formerly violent jihadist groups is causing growing alarm, reports suggest, while increasingly strident rhetoric at Muslim Brotherhood rallies (above) is casting doubts on the group’s moderate credentials.
But the country’s Islamists are facing a backlash, not from the ruling military or secular liberals but “from deeply religious, non-Islamist, Muslims,” while even Brotherhood activists believe its “taste for politics is jeopardizing its soul.”
Radical groups are well-poised to exploit discontent with Egypt’s tortured political transition, say analysts.
“The dreams of the revolution are fast disappearing and, in response, extremist groups are emerging,” said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic groups at the UK’s Durham University. “Those extremists follow al-Qaida’s ideology but are not organizationally affiliated with it.”
The militants, believed to be followers of former jihadist groups, lie at the outer edge of the Islamist movement. More mainstream Islamists gained instant empowerment when Mubarak’s regime was toppled by a popular uprising. Led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, these Islamists long ago abandoned violence and supported peaceful change toward an Islamic state. The Brotherhood and the Salafis now combine for more than 70 percent of all seats in parliament, making them the dominant political force in the country.
Talk of increasing radicalism could play into the stormy political situation. El-Anani said media loyal to the military could be drumming up the potential threat to justify a military crackdown that could even sweep up more mainstream groups. Or the warnings could steer some popular support toward presidential candidates seen as more favorable to the military.
But the country’s Islamists are facing increasingly vocal opposition – from Egypt’s most pious Muslims offended by “activists who would corrupt God’s religion for petty political gain,” one observer reports.
“Who are these people that claim to speak on behalf of Islam?”
“Such sentiments distinguishing Islamism from Islam is hardly unique – liberal and non-religious forces within predominantly religious conservative societies in the Muslim world have been making that argument for a while now,” writes Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based analyst.
As the Muslim Brotherhood and newly politicized Salafi groups “seek to increasingly manifest their Islamism on the level of public policy, they will find opposition from an expected quarter: deeply religious, but non-Islamist, Muslims,” he argues.
Opposition to the conflation of politics and piety finds an unlikely champion in Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Brotherhood leader who is contesting the presidential election as an independent.
“The Muslim Brotherhood should not have a political wing…The interference of preaching and politics causes confusion,” Fotouh told the LA Times today.
Talks have intensified within the group to more clearly separate its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, from its religious and community works. Since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has been respected for its Islamic and social programs, such as schools and clinics. The fear among many members is that the Brotherhood’s taste for politics is jeopardizing its soul.
The Islamist group has long experienced tensions between more religious conservative factions committed to dawa – propagating its message and inculcating Islamic values through social, educational and welfare activities, and pragmatists eager to convert the movement’s social and religious legitimacy into political power:
“Our presence in parliament and trade unions has sapped a lot of our energy,” said Ashraf Abu Zeid, a Brotherhood member in Cairo. ‘‘Before the elections, we were present in the street and all our efforts were focused on social work and services. … But all of a sudden politics has taken too much of our strength, numbers and focus.”
The Brotherhood was late coming to the protests that ousted Mubarak, worried that if the revolt failed the group would be persecuted anew. But its grass-roots reach and organisational skills quickly made it the country’s dominant political force. The shift from opposition to the chambers of government, however, has been clumsy and erratic; the Brotherhood has broken promises and appeared politically opportunistic.
“The concurrent blunders of the Brotherhood have exposed its limited political skills,” Anani wrote in the Egypt Independent newspaper.
“Not only have these mistakes distorted the movement’s image but, more importantly, it weakened its position in the game with its contenders.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the recent crackdown on pro-democracy civil society groups indicates that Islamists are trying to gain advantage by aggravating political tensions and promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories, observers suggest.
“It seems that we are dealing with a deliberate policy of escalation on the part of the Islamist parties, in an attempt to put pressure on other political parties and impose an Islamic candidate for the presidency,” writes Asharq analyst Mohammed Sadeq Jaraad.
The Brotherhood is “exploiting the sentiments of the masses and rejecting all things American by consecrating the longstanding concept of the ‘conspiracy theory’; deeming everything that comes from America or the West as a foreign plot,” he contends:
The US is stressing the depth of its long partnership [by] providing support for the democratic transition and assistance to Egyptian civil society and political parties….in contrast to the accusations of some in Egypt that the same civil organizations are trying to destabilize Egypt and prevent the achievement of the revolution’s objectives, receiving illegal funds from abroad aimed at undermining security and stability.
References to Islamists’ traditional historical objective of an Islamic caliphate are anachronistic and rarely voiced, a Washington meeting heard today. Somebody evidently forgot to tell Safwat Higazi.
“We can see how the dream of the Islamic caliphate is being realized, God willing, by Dr. Mohamed Mursi,” Higazi told thousands of Brotherhood supporters at a Cairo soccer stadium (above) as Mursi – the movement’s presidential candidate – and other Brotherhood officials nodded in agreement.
“The capital of the caliphate – the capital of the United States of the Arabs – will be Jerusalem, God willing,” Higazi said. “Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina,” he said, before leading the crowd in chants of “Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.”