The Sufis' Choice: Egypt's Political Wild Card

By Deasy, Kristin | World Affairs, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Sufis' Choice: Egypt's Political Wild Card

Deasy, Kristin, World Affairs

CAIRO--"Soft drink or whiskey." Sufi Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abu al-Azayem asked shrewdly, grinning from behind his Koran-laden desk.

It wasn't exactly what you'd expect from a grand imam in Egypt, and I'm still not quite sure if Azayem was serious, but the offer captures the inscrutable nature of Islam's mystic Sufi tradition. A practice claimed by fifteen million of the country's roughly eighty million citizens, Sufism has become the "default setting" for Muslim life in Egypt, in the words of a recent Carnegie Endowment report. And now, as both the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamist Salafi movement gain in power, Egypt's traditionally apolitical Sufis are mobilizing. Two pro-Sufi political parties have turned up on the scene, and Sufi sheikhs recently broke with tradition by openly endorsing political candidates running in the nation's presidential election. During the campaign season, candidates made a point of dropping in on major Sufi shrines and attending Sufi gatherings during their campaigns in a bid for the "Sufi vote," which is becoming synonymous with Egypt's "swing vote."

With his slick gray suit and wry remarks, Sheikh Azayem's appearance explains why some see Sufism as the miraculous harbinger of moderate Islam, the long-awaited wonder drug of the Muslim world. But this hugely diverse spiritual movement is not so easily pegged. It's a deeply individualist Islamic-inspired belief system composed of nearly eighty different schools of thought, or tariqas, in Egypt alone, each with its own distinct beliefs, rituals, traditions, and favored saints.

Azayem heads the prominent Azmiya Sufi order, which has one million followers, the same number claimed by the fundamentalist Salafi movement that played so dominant a role in the recent national elections. The Azmiya order is rumored to have close ties to Iran and has been accused of proselytizing for the Shiite faith in predominantly Sunni Egypt. (Sufism is not, as is often thought, a third branch of Islam. It is a spiritual tariqa, or "way," that allows adherents to be both Sufi and Sunni, or Sufi and Shia, or even--some claim--Sufi and Christian.) Historically one of Egypt's more politically aware tariqas, the Azmiya order was an outspoken critic of former President Hosni Mubarak's regime before the Arab Spring.

Several months ago, Sheikh Azayem threw his weight behind a new political party called Al-Tahrir al-Masry, or the Liberation of Egypt Party, whose reformist Islamist platform boasts a strong Sufi orientation. "We were afraid for the future of Sufism," he explains. "It was very possible for the laws that protect us to be wiped out and there wouldn't anything to protect us from extreme ideologies." Such an event could be traumatic for Egypt, where a third of the country's adult male population is said to be Sufi.

"Sufis are trying to be more involved in politics," Al-Tahrir al-Masry party leader Ibrahim Zahran explained over the phone recently. Zahran, who is not Sufi himself, is organizing political awareness sessions for young Sufis around the country. He said half of Al-Tahrir al-Masry's more than forty thousand members are Sufi, adding that they are working to gain the loyalty of eight other Sufi orders. "What Sufis need to do," he said, "is unite."

Azayem's endorsement of Al-Tahrir al-Masry was an important moment for a movement that has long kept to the political sidelines. Sufism does not have a particularly strong history of political activity in Egypt--unlike its adherents in, say, neighboring Sudan, where a major Sufi cleric led an armed insurrection against the country's Egyptian rulers in the nineteenth century. Egyptian Sufis' predilection for passivity is due in part to their emphasis on values like obedience, which has made them quick to acquiesce to authoritarian rule.

All that appears to be changing. Azayem recently launched a new ecumenical coalition called the Egyptian League for Rebuilding Egypt because, he said, "I was afraid for the Sufi way of life and for that of the Christians, our brothers. …

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