Egypt’s secular half, along with a sizeable Christian minority, is bracing itself for an Islamist parliament, the first in the country’s history. While many are stunned and terrified at the prospect, some still pin their hopes, paradoxically, on the very institution that’s largely to blame for the country’s democratic deficit – the army. They think only the soldiers can thwart, or at least to slow down, the Islamist steamroller.
No one knows for sure how that potential stand-off might evolve, if it were to happen at all. Optimists rule out a descent into bloodbath (as happened in Algeria in 1990 when the military cancelled parliamentary elections the Islamists were poised to win). Others predict a Pakistani scenario (the emergence of an Islamist-inclined officer likeZia-ul-Haq, acceptable to both the army and the Islamists) or, just as bad, a repeat of Egypt’s recent past when the military fabricated a pretext to suspend all politics in 1954.
By mid-January, when the final election results are known, we should have a better idea. So, far the Islamists have won two-thirds of the seats in the first and second phases of the vote – gains they are expected to consolidate in the third stage. Speculation and fears aside, the Islamist landslide should not have come as a surprise to close readers of Egyptian recent history.
Ever since the 1952 military coup that overthrew the monarchy, the political winds blowing over Egypt have not been a Mediterranean breeze as in bygone eras, but hot sirocco gales from the Arabian peninsula.
Egypt’s forced marriage with the west came to a dramatic and bloody end with the onslaught of Britain, France and Israel in the Suez war of 1956. The liberal values inscribed in the Egyptian political system, and borrowed wholesale from the west, gave way to totalitarianism, dressed up as strident nationalism with a dash of socialism and Islam, in Colonel Nasser’s ideological hotchpotch.
More to the point, Nasser, who was once a member of the Muslim Brothers, was clearly no Kemal Ataturk, the staunchily secular officer who founded modern Turkey. Much of the re-Islamisation of Egypt began during his rule. He subsequently fell out with the Brotherhood and threw its leaders in jail, but this rupture was political rather than ideological.
Consider the following: where did Nasser go to rally the masses during the Suez war in 1956? Not to the public square, but to the pulpit of al-Azhar mosque. In a passionate speech, quoting copiously from the Qur’an, he reminded the worshippers that fighting was an Islamic (not primarily nationalist) duty. It was this fusion of nationalism and Islamism that characterised Nasser and contributed to his popularity.
Even when he later lurched to the left and introduced his brand of “Arab socialism”, his ideologues drew upon Islamic history to bestow religious legitimacy on an ideology known for its denigration of religion as the opium of the poor.
During Nasser’s reign, the influence of al-Azhar on society, and by extension that of religion, greatly increased. From a purely clerical school, it grew into a major university with branches all over the country. It was also allowed to expand into primary and secondary education by building an extensive network of schools across the country, none of which is open for Egyptian Copts, even though they help finance them by paying taxes into the state coffers.
Al-Azhar may be moderate by the puritanical standards of the Saudi religious establishment, but it is certainly no liberal institution that calls for the separation of “church” and “state”.
Or take another example, little known outside Egypt: the Qur’an channel, the region’s first exclusively religious radio station. It was launched in Cairo in 1963 at the height of Nasser’s power and popularity. Broadcasting a mix of Quranic recitation and preaching, it is inseparable from the Muslim Brothers’ famous slogan, “Islam is the solution”.
Why should a supposedly secular state pay for such a channel? The answer is simple: it has never been secular. Listening to or watching religious programmes on state TV or radio in Egypt, it is hard sometimes to see the difference between the Muslim Brothers and the Egyptian state.
Nasser’s successors may have differed from him in many ways, but they never seriously challenged the role of religion in public life. Sadat exploited Islam to undermine the influence of his leftist rivals; Mubarak encouraged the apolitical Salafis to undermine the Muslim Brothers’ activism. Today, the Salafis’ political arm – the Nour party – is set to become the second biggest after the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament.
The main difference between Egypt’s military rulers and their Islamist rivals is that the latter have been more consistent and better at using religion to further their political ambition.
But all is not so gloomy for the secular half – after all, the election turnout suggests that nearly 50% of voters stayed at home. No less importantly, the revolution has brought to the fore a new and dynamic player: the rebellious young – Egypt’s youth bulge – without whom the revolution might never have happened.
Empowered by education and modern technology, they have repeatedly proven that they can turn the tables against the gerontocracy that has ruled Egypt for so long. It’s a wider trend. The young among the Islamists too are locked into conflict with their sclerotic leadership.
It was the youth who led the charge against the ruling military council recently, exposed the soldiers’ brutality and forced major concessions. They are stepping up their campaign, taking their protests away from central Cairo to the suburbs.
Egypt may still be caught between the rock of the military and the hard place of the Islamists, but much will also depend on the energetic young. How they organise and what they do will play a key role in shaping the future of Egypt in decades to come. They represent more than half of Egypt’s 80 million people. One should never underestimate their ability to surprise.
(The Guardian Jan2 2012 : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jan/02/egypt-nasser-islamist)