Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Politicized Identities, Securitized Politics: Sunni-Shi'a Politics in Egypt

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Politicized Identities, Securitized Politics: Sunni-Shi'a Politics in Egypt

Article excerpt

This article explores Egyptian Salafis' attempts to securitize Shi'ism since the 2011 uprising. Taking into account the sectarian dynamics of the new Middle East, Salafis in Egypt have instrumentally used the specter of Shi'ism in their politico-religious rhetoric to further their political ends. This article examines the rationales behind this discourse by assessing interacting internal and external dynamics amid identity conflicts in the region, which have subsequently affected Egypt.

The political upheavals that swept across the Middle East in 2011 and 2012, the socalled Arab Spring, have not only profoundly shaped and reshaped the domestic politics of Arab states, but also coincided with an ever-increasing Sunni-Shi'a division in the region. The new Middle East, as it is emerging in the 21st century, is now faced with interconnected internal and external security concerns, forming a "regional security complex," which manifests itself through soft power (e.g. sectarian politics) and hard power (proxy wars), such as the complicated case of the Syrian civil war. This regional security complex is increasingly evident through interactions between subnational, national, regional, and international actors. These actors employ dichotomized discourses of demarcation between us versus them in order to mobilize greater popular support for political ends. Thus, along with violent conflicts, sociopolitical groups - sectarian, religious, nationalist, or ideological - are increasingly inclined to depict themselves (us) as protectors of an authentic identity threatened by outsiders framed as the Other (them) within a larger discourse.

Egypt, a key country in the Arab and Islamic world, constitutes no exception to this development. Since the fall of President Husni Mubarak in 2011, the country has experienced not only an opening of the political system but with it a noticeable discursive shift and change in identity politics, moving beyond the Islamist/secularist discourse of the past into a new realm of sectarian politics. The key driving forces behind this rhetorical shift are the newly founded Salafi political parties, which - having been largely apolitical under the presidencies of Anwar al-Sadat and Mubarak1 - have made a forceful entry onto the post-Mubarak political scene. As analyst Jonathan Brown remarked, prior to 2011 Salafis in Egypt "refrained from political participation, considering involvement in politics to be religiously forbidden."2 However, this position changed dramatically with the 2011 uprising, as exemplified by the proliferation of Salafi forces and parties, including most prominently the Nour Party (Hizb al-Nur, literally "Party of the Light"), which argued that participation in the political process was possible without sacrificing its Islamist principles.3 As Sami Zemani and Brecht De Smet explain, "the revolution . . . changed the dynamics of sectarianism" in Egypt, with formerly apolitical groups "such as the Salafis, but also the Copts, the Sufis, and the Shiites [now] forced to participate in the newly opened arena of civil society politics in order to protect their rights and interests."4

Since their appearance on the post-2011 political landscape, the Nour Party and other Salafi political parties have emerged as potent players to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, mobilizing significant segments of Egyptian society behind their program and ideological outlook. For instance, in the first free and fair postMubarak parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2012, the Nour Party and its Islamist allies5 managed to capture no less than 25% of elected seats, thus coming second in the polls after the Brotherhood and its allies, and leaving the secular blocs in a distant third place. Moreover, in the subsequent presidential elections of 2012, the party threw its weight behind Mohamed Morsi in the second round of voting, thus helping the latter secure a narrow victory over his more secular rival Ahmad Shafiq. …

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