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Egypt: The Victorious Islamists

Mahamed Omar/epa/Corbis
Coptic Christians calling for protection from sectarian violence during protests in front of the state television building, Cairo, May 13, 2011

It is in part this growing influence of Islamist thinkers over Egypt’s political life—and the army’s apparent collusion with them—that is troubling the Coptic community as well as liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been viewed as the greatest threat to a democratic regime, has increasingly stayed away from any attempts at unified action. It did not participate in the National Conference meeting on May 8—which gathered over one thousand participants from every other party and movement—claiming “work not talk” needed to be done ahead of the elections. It was later revealed that the Brotherhood hosted a joint conference with Salafis that same day; some 50,000 people reportedly showed up.

Then on May 27, when activists called for a “day of rage” and a “second revolution”—in large part in protest against the military’s handling of national affairs—the only groups absent were the Islamists, some of whom released statements calling the participating protesters sinners. The Muslim Brotherhood said that the protest was “against the people of Egypt.” Of the estimated 30,000 protesters who did show up—among them many Copts—one of the most popular chants was “Here are the people of Egypt, where are the Muslim Brotherhood?” Many people there that day said they were coming out for the first time in weeks. “I’m here to prove to the Brotherhood that we can do it without them. This has become about us and them.”

Since the attack on the Imbaba churches on May 7 and 8, the Islamist groups have made gestures toward more inclusive policies. At the opening of the new headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party on May 21—a gaudy multimillion-dollar building in the suburbs of Cairo—Essam el-Erian, the party’s deputy president and longtime spokesperson, boasted that its membership included over nine hundred women and almost one hundred Copts. He was also quick to speak about the appointment of a Christian, Rafiq Habib, to the party’s upper ranks. Many say Habib likes to provoke his father, a conservative Christian preacher. Although these attempts at inclusiveness are a media-savvy move on the part of the Brotherhood, for many, they are too little too late.

The Brotherhood made scathing statements against women and Copts soon after Mubarak’s ouster. Its leaders are now openly calling for an Islamic state, something they had previously denied was among its goals. “They will never change,” the outspoken newspaper editor Abdel Halim Qandil told a friend and me recently. “I don’t trust them. They are deceptive.” In a press report, the political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah described the Brotherhood’s recent appointments of Coptic members as “just for show…like flowers on the Brothers’ jackets.”

Stéphane Lacroix, a scholar of Wahabism and Islamist movements, spent a large part of last year in Egypt researching the Salafi movement, and he has close relations with prominent Islamists. In early June he described intimate meetings and dinners he’d just had with some of the Salafist leaders. “In many ways the Salafi battle has been won,” he said. “Certainly the conservative one has. To people like Abou Elela Mady”—the leader of the al-Wasat party—“it’s a question of which of the conservatives can win more votes.”

Despite disagreements with its younger members, the Muslim Brotherhood seems confident that it will emerge victorious in September’s parliamentary elections. In February it said it would win no more than 20 percent of the seats; it is now—officially—aiming for 50 percent. Essam el-Erian recently told me, “But of course we want a majority or the largest percent we can get.” Through a coalition agreement with other Islamist groups, Lacroix said, this “seems increasingly likely.” With its outreach programs that offer free and subsidized food and services in the poorer neighborhoods, the Brotherhood’s popularity will likely only grow—in particular as inflation rises and prices go up. “They know they are in the strongest position,” Lacroix said. It is not unusual for those who are not keen on an Islamic state modeled on Saudi or Iran to point out that, with 40 percent of the population living beneath the poverty line, the Brotherhood’s previous slogan, “Islam is the answer,” has strong appeal.

At the end of May, in a public library in Imbaba, not far from the Virgin Mary Church, a group of Salafis—who call themselves “Salafyo Costa” after Costa Coffee, which they like to drink—held an open meeting, intended “to begin a dialogue with liberals and help cast aside this idea of us as devils,” as Mohamed Tolba, one of the group’s organizers, told me. He asked the gathered group to mix: “Let’s sit together,” he said, “Salafis next to non-Salafis, come on.” Mohamed, who had recently returned to Egypt after years in Sudan because “of persecution against bearded men that look like me,” said that he wanted to create dialogue and unity, “just like in Tahrir.” Mohamed is funny, lighthearted, and quick to poke fun at the Salafi stereotype. “I know you are scared of us,” he said, addressing the row of women in jeans and exposed hair that had come to listen in. “Tell us your fears, let us answer to them. We know you have Salaphobia, but we won’t bite.”

A lively debate went on for five hours, ending with a recurring question to Mohamed and his colleagues: Are you representative of most of the Salafis out there? The answer was “no,” but since the meeting—which was reported in the local press—Mohamed and his colleagues (their group has a Facebook page with almost five thousand members) have, he says, been receiving phone calls from ultraconservative party leaders and more radical sheikhs. “I don’t want to mention names,” he told me yesterday, “but some sheikhs who said we were crazy, even sinners, now want to work with us. So do the emerging political parties. I’ve received so many requests for collaboration—they see our method is a more effective one.”

After the meeting, one of the Salafist wives approached me, inviting me to a women-only gathering at her house. “You’re so young,” another said, before proceeding to explain how she slowly converted from being uncovered to wearing a full-face veil. “It just takes time,” she said reassuringly. “You get used to it.”

That night, one of the two politically knowledgeable friends with whom I attended the meeting called me. “I’m not convinced,” he told me.

All the men’s wives wore the niqab. They all said that in another context they would wear the short galabiya like the Prophet. They want Egypt governed by the Sharia. I bet they will slowly turn, just like the Brotherhood has, constantly changing its position. Before we know it we’ll be like Saudi Arabia. They shouldn’t be trusted. It’s no coincidence the Saudis gave us such a big loan.

Sitting in the Virgin Mary Church with Father Sarabamon, I told him about the invitation of the Salafi women. He smiled. “They want to convert you,” he told me. “I fear the worst. You know already that they don’t teach Coptic history in schools. It will take time, but I see the direction we are moving in.”

—June 15, 2011

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