Islamism and Democracy in Egypt: Converging Paths?

By Pieretti, Damien | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Islamism and Democracy in Egypt: Converging Paths?


Pieretti, Damien, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


IN A WORLD WHERE Islamic fundamentalism is increasingly perceived as our generation's Communist empire, it has become increasingly important to resist the temptation to fuse every grassroots-driven Islamist political organization into one evil monolithic category-such as that of, say, Islamofascism. Prior to the removal of Saddam Hussain from power in 2003, U.S. foreign policy, when confronted with widespread nationalism that sometimes, but not always, took the form of Islamist ideology, favored exclusivist authoritarian regimes as the lesser of two evils. This archaic Cold War policy has been discredited by several major backlashes, most notably that of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the time has come to consider the role which indigenous political forces like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood can play in the development of democratic political culture in the Middle East.

When this reporter first decided to meet with a member of the Ikhwan, or "Brotherhood," this past fall, several of my Egyptian friends, who were admittedly upper-class, tried to persuade me to reconsider. "Don't trust them," they'd advise, "they hate Americans."

I was a bit taken aback to hear such reactions, but decided to carry on anyway-and discovered that my subject, Mohammed Farouk Zayat, was anything but dangerous or prejudiced. Dressed in a black suit, shirt and tie, this 26-year-old accountant and graduate of Cairo University was as eager to learn about Western conceptions of Islam as he was willing to answer my questions.

I began by asking, "Should women be forced to wear the headscarf?"

"We do believe that all Muslim women should wear the hijab," he answered, "however, in such matters, as in religion, there can be no compulsion."

The last part of his answer reflected a Sura from the Qur'an that states "there is no compulsion in religion." This same principle was affirmed last summer by the Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa when addressing the question of apostasy in Islam. In an interview with Misr al-Youm, he maintained that conversion to Christianity from Islam did constitute a sin, but that it should forever remain a matter between the individual and God-suggesting that Islam's Azhar establishment promotes a more progressive viewpoint on civil liberties than the Egyptian president. Since, as part of their reforms, one reform, al-Ikhwan would abolish the president's authority to regulate religious institutions, it is unclear which direction their ascendancy to power would pull Azhar on this question involving religious freedom.

I also asked Mohammad whether his organization saw the apparent breakthrough in the 2005 legislative elections, in which the Brotherhood competed and won 80 seats, as a sign of hope for democracy in Egypt. He seemed to think that the electoral victory was cancelled out by other factors on the ground. One of their biggest issues right now seems to be the incarceration of Khairat al-Shater, a long-standing deputy to the Muslim Brotherhood as well as one of its primary benefactors. Men such as al-Shater constitute the cornerstone of the financial networks that enable the Brotherhood to provide the extensive social services that win them such widespread popularity among the Egyptian public, particularly members of the lower classes.

Technically, Egypt is still in a state of emergency, imposed following the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and renewed ever since by his successor, current President Hosni Mubarak. As a result, it remains illegal to organize political associations of over five people-and while opposition parties are not technically illegal, their activities are highly monitored and controlled. Recently, security forces have been persecuting Muslim Brotherhood circles in prominent universities, including Cairo University, Helwan, Mansourra, and Ain Shams. Not only are Islamic associations often curbed at such institutions, but students and faculty have been detained for months on end. …

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