Archive: May, 2012
One of the more fascinating aspects of the new Egyptian politics is the rise of the ultraconservative salafists, who want to restore Islam to the purity they believe existed in the first three generations of Islam.
To Egyptians’ great surprise, the Salafist Nour party won 25 per cent of the seats in parliamentary elections. Previously opposed to taking part in elections, the salafists figured out that in the new Egypt, the ballot was the way to power, and plunged right in. Their vote tallies benefited from a large social network linked to salafi preachers and mosques, and also from voter perceptions that salafists would be more honest than the normal corrupt pols because they were pious.
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party won 46 per cent of the vote, the salafists are very open, easy to access, and eager to meet liberals and moderates, and Westerners, too, perhaps in hope of converting them to the right path. For now, at least, they seem ready to form alliances in parliament, where they have behaved quite pragmatically so far (a far cry from the fire-breathing rhetoric spewed by radical salafi preachers on satellite TV channels funded by Qataris and Saudis, or the violent salafis who convulsed Egypt in the 1990s).
One of my most interesting experiences on this trip has been to talk to a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who quit the organization in protest – in the midst of the Tahrir Square upheaval. We spoke in his living room in a suburban Cairo apartment complex.
Mohammed Habib, a grandfatherly, white-bearded geology professor was, from 2004-09 the first deputy to the secretive organization’s Supreme Guide; like many Brothers he spent over six years in prison while the organization was banned under the Mubarak regime.
During past decades the Brotherhood often existed as an underground movement, passing from a violent phase to a strategy of peaceful pursuit of an Islamic state. Yet, in a strange paradox, the Brotherhood had constant contacts, and intense relationships, with the Egyptian military and intelligence agencies, who sometimes saw it as a useful counterweight to other political movements.
Women have been big losers so far in the Egyptian revolution. Thousands of brave woman – from educated professionals to veiled housewives - turned out in Tahrir Square. But only a handful were included amongst the council revolutionary youth leaders. To add insult to injury, male leaders of new political parties, including liberals, placed women so low on party lists in parliamentary elections that they won only 2 per cent of the seats.
“Women are now being marginalized not just by the SCAF ( the transitional military council ruling Egypt) or by the Muslim Brotherhood, but by the patriarchal mindset of our society,” says Dalia Ziada, a dynamic young social activist and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center, which promotes dialogue and democracy.
“Men don’t believe women are an essential part of democracy,” she says. “But there will be no Arab Spring without women.” When she ran for parliament on the ticket of a liberal party called Al Adl, or Justice, its leaders insisted a woman could not head the list in her district. “It doesn’t make sense,” she says, “to marginalize 50 per cent of the population and claim to have a democracy.” Too true.
Egypt is conducting the most historic election the Arab world has seen, much more important than the purple thumb ballot that got so much attention in 2005 in Iraq.
The presidential race pits a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, against two secular candidates, Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, who had links to the old regime and one moderate Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has broken with the Brotherhood because he felt they were too rigid and insufficiently pluralist.
In my first day here, talking with human rights activists and liberal journalists like Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of Al Ahram Online, I heard a deep despair that Egypt may be sliding towards a conservative Islamist future in which the Muslim Brotherhood controls the presidency, the parliament, and through them the education system and interior ministry – home of the dreaded police. In the background, is the Egyptian military, which has been the paramount power in the past, but whose legitimacy is diminishing.