One the most organised, well-financed, and state-backed political movements in the post-25 January Revolution political scene, Egypt’s Islamists received a blow to both their project and organisation on 30 June 2013 after thousands took to the streets demanding the removal of then president Mohamed Morsi.
Faced with mass public anger, the Muslim Brotherhood’s president who was backed by almost all of the country’s Islamist factions, with the exception of the Salafist Al-Nour party, including radical and takfiri salafists, was ousted by the military on 3 July 2013. He was ousted by the same military which previously helped the Islamists reach power, pushing them as a more conservative and pragmatic alternative to the “civilian current” that included liberal, leftist, and youth movements.
Ever since July 2013, political Islam in Egypt has suffered one of the deadliest crackdowns, leaving hundreds of its followers dead, thousands in jail or standing trial in civilian and military courts, or on the run in Egypt or outside. In addition, hundreds of Brotherhood NGOs and businesses, and organisational structures in universities or syndicates, as well as political arms were legally closed by the government.
However, despite having suffered the same kind of repression, two years after Morsi’s violent ouster, the solid one-man “supporting legitimacy alliance” is currently scattered and licking its wounds. Daily News Egypt met with Ashraf El-Sherif, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and an expert on political Islam, to understand the mechanisms of these divisions and how they have been translated in the current actions and rhetoric of different Islamist factions, ranging from the Brotherhood, the Salafist movement, and the militant and radical.
Three years after 3 July 2013 and the ouster of Morsi, if we want to draw a map of current Islamist movements in Egypt, how can we approach this and how many categories will there be?
To do this, we might face a methodological problem, as the majority of Islamist movements are being chased by the police, hence we don’t have enough information to do this.
There is not enough flow of ideology and background about the current group, but we can do a primary attempt to categorise the different groups, which can be subjected to criticism and modification.
First, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is divided internally. Not from an ideological point of view, but from an organisational point and due to a personal feud between leaders. The division exists between two groups; however, it has not crystallised into an ideological feud. A large proportion of the group is currently outside Egypt due to the security crackdown, which affected the group’s social and proselytising activities, as well as its mobilisation in universities. All finances are currently being deployed to help families of imprisoned members.
Second, the Salafists divided into a number of groups.
The first is the “proselytising or scientific Salafism”. They returned back to their pre-25 January Revolution position and tactics, to focus only on proselytising and religious sciences. Examples of this are Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Hussein Yacoub. They have become currently irrelevant and lost many supporters inside Islamist circles. Outside the Islamist circles, they have been subjected to criticism from society, which has grown to become an antagonism towards these preachers.
The second is the “politicised Salafism”, which can also be divided into two categories. The first is the Al-Nour party, who participated in the 30 June roadmap with the state against the Brotherhood. Currently, they have two goals: survival amid the crackdown that the Islamists are facing by acting as a counselling opposing and continuing their role in preaching and charity work in mosques and NGOs. Their ability to participate in politics was tested during parliamentary elections, as their results were less than expected and less than the previous elections in 2011. Their performance, however, was not that bad when compared to other entities. They pushed forward a few members in the elections so as not to frighten the state. The reason why they got fewer votes than the previous elections is that the Islamist current gave up on them and withdrew its support from the party accused of selling out the Islamic cause. So it was left with the votes of the members of its religious wing: the Salafist Call group.
The second within this faction is the unorganised Salafism in Cairo and elsewhere. They adopted the cause of the Brotherhood from the start. They are convinced that the Brotherhood is the most organised Islamist movement on the scene, and it is logical to stand with them. They also believe that struggle is a “righteous and just cause”. However, they believe that the fight is not just about Morsi but it is about survival of Islam. They include the Salafist Front, supporters of Fawzy Al-Saed and Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud. All are unorganised.
Third, the jihadists trend, whose existence in Egypt is limited to Sinai, decided not to carry arms, such as the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamyia who decided that military opposing the state is a lost cause. Even for the youth, carrying arms in the classical terms is obsolete. The only existence of this phenomenon is in Sinai, where militants later joined Islamic State.
Fourth, a new trend has been growing which we can call the revolutionary Islamists or the Rabaa Islamists. They include several factions: supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, radical Brotherhood, and Salafist youth. The common factor in all of them is the dismissal of the state, the political system, spreading Islam through the democratic process, and their refusal of the classical rhetoric of the Brotherhood and the Salafists.
They claim to be “truly Islamist”, who care about applying the Islamic project, “true revolutionary” who preach against state institutions such as the army and the judiciary, and “true trans-nationalists” who care about the Islamist cause in Syria and other places. This trend has been there even before 30 June, embodied by Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who then could not have been classified as Brotherhood or Salafist, because the last two refused the full gear of revolutionary action neither they talked about the Sharia Islamic law. This group wanted a revolutionary scenario close to that of the Iranian revolution. I would say that the period between July-November 2011 could be called a “Khomanian period”. After 30 June they attached themselves to the cases of Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square, where they formed a high portion of the protestors there.
After the ouster of Morsi, they participated in the Anti-Coup Alliance protests, and attempted to provide another example where people are political participants not political consumers. The Brotherhood treated the masses as consumers for vote only.
Their tactics in protests are similar to that of the Ultras groups, and they also try to adopt some leftist ideas when it comes to attacking capitalism and preach social justice.
They are growing in numbers but still unorganised and lack an organisational skeleton. A good example of this trend is Hossam Abu Al-Bukhari, as an intellectual and theorist.
Fifth, the usual charity Salafist organizations, such as Ansar Al-Sunna and Al-Jamiaa Al-Sharyia, which since the beginning of the revolution in 2011 have not played a role in the political scene. They are continuing their activities.
After 30 June, there was an Islamist unity around Morsi and the Brotherhood, with the exception of Al-Nour Party. What do you think happened that altered that Karbala like alliance that was united after the deadly violence of Rabaa Al-Adaweya?
The two factors that broke the unity were the political failure of the anti-regime legitimacy demanding an alliance, and the anger of the youth over the Brotherhood’s sterile strategies. Three years have passed without a positive result. The leadership of the Brotherhood has proved to be a failure and without a certain strategy. That is why the revisions inside different Islamist groups started, because the Brotherhood mobilisation is not going anywhere and does not have a clear horizon. So the withdrawals started. The Wasat party withdrew from the Brotherhood alliance. Al-Jamaa Al-Islamyia witnessed divisions.
In the recent period we have been hearing about possible revision within the Brotherhood similar to that of the 1990s. Possible leaders of these revisions were Mahmoud Ezzat, the prominent Brotherhood leader, and Al-Jamaa Al-Islamyia’s Aboud Al-Zoumr. Are these individuals able to undergo these revisions?
Here there are two points. Are they able? Do they want to? The answer is no to both cases.
At first, they don’t want to. The Brotherhood often says that they made some mistakes. However, they never acknowledged the radical problems in their method and their Islamist programme. They only acknowledge problems with application not the methods, and push forward the rhetoric of the conspiracy, whether it is from the state, the supporters of the former regime, or the counter revolution. Hence they think that they need perseverance not revisions, arguing that the current catastrophe they are witnessing is part of their history, which they will overcome.
Secondly, they cannot due to the lack of organisation in the base of supporters and members. Their classic way of structure is not present; however, the old guard still has a say in the financing of the group. The youth are the ones leading the mobilisation and they have been questioning the legitimacy, plus there is a civil war that is ongoing between different factions.
Also, the personal skills of the leaders, such as Mahmoud Ezzat, in the scene are weak. They are old people who lack ideological skills to offer and implement revisions. They are not theorists, but organisational leaders.
If they make any revisions, they will be tactical, and will be related to survival.
Currently there are divisions inside the Brotherhood between its different factions in Turkey, Qatar, London, as well as between the leaders and followers in Egypt. Do you think this is the most powerful blow to the group since its formation?
The group faced three types of losses: organisational, political, and losses to their vision.
On an organisational level, they have lost several of their financing and human resources. However, these can be restored. They also lost a lot of background when it comes to their ideology and their project. It is almost impossible to fix it
From a political point of view, they proved that applying the Islamic project through democracy has failed, especially through the ambivalent way. Similarly, the bloody conflict with the state has reached a red line that is very difficult to fix.
Ambivalence here means intentionally giving an answer to a question, which can be understood by two ways. For example, democracy has been used by them, but they never gave a theoretical and tactical explanation of the concept.
New forms have to emerge if they want to express themselves as political actors. This is the biggest loss, which is the ideological loss or the loss of the [Islamic] project, and it is impossible to make right. The solution for this is either to completely withdraw politics and settle for the social and missionary (Da’wah-related) work, or to come up with a completely different political project.
Up until now, the Islamist current doesn’t seem to be able or willing to do so. Much of this comes from people who adhere to the old ideas, such as Mahmoud Ezzat and others. Specifically those who believe that the old mechanisms were correct and minor mistakes happened, and that conditions were against the project and what is needed is to amend the minor mistakes and wait for conditions to become better. There are also angry ones who are mad at the old ideas but they provide no alternatives.
You’ve talked before about what you described as a “cold peace” between the Salafists and the government, yet a battle between them is materialised in the battle to control mosques and Da’wah. Do you think the government will opt to seek an alternative to the Brotherhood in the Salafists, especially to fill their role in the social work?
After 30 June, Al-Nour party bet that the state would need the Islamist current on its side for two reasons: to dismiss the accusation of hostility against Islam, because the brotherhood or the legitimacy current was drawing this line that there is a war against Islam not the brotherhood. The second reason is that Al-Nour party was convinced the state will seek reconciliation with the assemblage of the Islamist current because it is large, maybe the largest in Egypt, and it will not continue a state of war against it. Perhaps the state will need a moderate Islamist party who can do the moderation and reconciliation. Al-Nour party believed they could perform that role.
The development of events proved this bet both wrong and right. The state was tolerant with the existence of Al-Nour party, it did not oppress it. Some people said that once the state is finished with the Brotherhood they would turn against Al-Nour but this did not happen. The state still sees the party has a role to play.
However, this is not the role Al-Nour party wanted. The idea that the party would inherit the Brotherhood role as the representative of political Islam and enter a partnership with the state … this will not happen.
The state doesn’t want to repeat what Mubarak did with the Brotherhood. To let the Islamist current expand in spaces that are independent from the state and to have powers that allow it to politically challenge the state.
The state only wants small roles for Al-Nour party from the position of sidekick. The state believes it can fill the void of the social work through its affiliate charity organisations or through the state institutions such as the military and the intelligence service agency that currently publicly does charity.
And for the Da’wah role, the state also believes it can handle this through its institutions of Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments. And if it couldn’t do it, the whole matter will be adjourned as the state isn’t willing to make vital calls at the moment and it makes itself content with pronouncing that it is the representative of Egyptian Islam through its institutions and that it fills the charity and Da’wah void.