Islamism in North Africa II: Egypt's Opportunity
Islamism in North Africa II: Egypt's Opportunity
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Egypt and Gaza: Cairo Talks, Sinai Fears
Egypt and Gaza: Cairo Talks, Sinai Fears
Briefing / Middle East & North Africa 7 minutes

Islamism in North Africa II: Egypt's Opportunity

Important changes in the outlook of Egyptian Islamic activism in recent years have opened up possibilities for progressive political development, but these have gone unexploited because of the conservatism of the Egyptian government's policies.

I. Overview

This is the second of a series of ICG briefings addressing the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the North African states where this activism has been able to develop most fully -- Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. The first provides general background. Each subsequent paper examines with respect to one of the three states the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist[fn]In the usage adopted by ICG, ‘Islamism’ is Islam in political rather than religious mode: ‘Islamist movements’ are those with Islamic ideological references pursuing primarily political objectives, and ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamic political’ are essentially synonymous. ‘Islamic’ is a more general expression: usually referring to Islam in religious rather than political mode but capable, depending on the context, of embracing both (e,g, references in the text to ‘Islamic activism’).Hide Footnote  movements and organisations, their relations with the state and with each other, and especially the way in which they have evolved in recent years. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamic activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism, and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular.

Important changes in the outlook of Egyptian Islamic activism in recent years have opened up possibilities for progressive political development, but these have gone unexploited because of the conservatism of the Egyptian government’s policies. The absence of serious violence since late 1997 strongly suggests that the strategy of armed struggle (jihad) against the state has not only failed but has effectively been abandoned. At the same time, the ideology of non-violent Islamic activism has evolved and now emphatically embraces democratic principles and elements of a modernist outlook. However, unless the Egyptian government changes its approach, opens up the political field and undertakes serious political reform, the frustration which many Egyptians feel could lead to a recrudescence of violent activism at some stage. The government risks realising too late that it has squandered a vital opportunity and wasted the fruits of its own earlier successes on the security front.

Between 1974 and 1997, Egypt witnessed intermittent violence conducted by radical Islamic groups animated principally by the desperate vision of Sayyid Qutb.[fn]For a discussion of Qutb’s thought, see ICG Middle East Briefing, Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History, 20 April 2004.Hide Footnote  Between 1992 and 1997, the violence was particularly intense, with altogether over a thousand killed. Following the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor in Upper Egypt in November 1997, however, the armed movements declared a cease-fire, which has held ever since. In the meantime, the Society of the Muslim Brothers has been allowed to pursue its activities and has recovered much of the position it held, before its banning in 1954, as a social movement combining religious, charitable, educational and publishing activities with a substantial political presence. However, while it is tolerated by the state, it formally remains illegal, enjoying neither the status of a legal political party nor that of a legal association. In recent years, a new grouping, consisting in part of former Brothers but also of personalities with no links to the Society, has sought to constitute a moderate reformist party (the Wasat or Centre party) on a new basis, but has also been refused legal status by the government. If armed jihad has led to a dead end, non-violent Islamic activism appears in an impasse.

Nonetheless, Islamic activism in Egypt has been undergoing an important process of change and has begun to emancipate itself from the main perspectives which had oriented it since 1970 if not earlier, that of Hassan Al-Banna on the one hand and Sayyid Qutb on the other. The ascendancy of these outlooks, expressing a conservative or even reactionary anti-Westernism, followed the eclipse of the earlier positive, if selective and critical, orientation to Western thought which had characterised the original, “Islamic modernist”, thrust of the Salafiyya movement under the leadership of Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh prior to World War I.[fn]For a discussion of Al-Afghani, Abduh and the Islamic modernism movement, see ICG Briefing, Islamism in North Africa, I: The Legacies of History. 20 April 2004.Hide Footnote  In certain respects, the changes which have been occurring in recent years represent a recovery of the “Islamic modernist” outlook.

This evolution of Egyptian Islamism is not unequivocal and some scepticism is in order. In rejecting Qutb’s outlook, the Muslim Brothers -- the largest movement in Egypt today -- initially reverted to Al-Banna’s less radical perspective, and they have since followed a non-violent and gradualist strategy. In subsequently incorporating the idea of democracy into their discourse, the Brothers departed from Al-Banna’s views, but this has not been fully acknowledged, still less accompanied by an explicit repudiation of the illiberal and anti-democratic strand of Al-Banna’s thought. For this reason it is liable to be interpreted as a pragmatic and temporary adaptation to democracy rather than a wholehearted conversion to it. And in conserving its purpose as a missionary movement -- da‘wa -- the Brothers have remained vulnerable to the government’s charge that theirs is a religious organisation, which it would be inappropriate to legalise as a political party.

The same charge cannot seriously be levelled, however, at the Wasat Party launched in 1996 by a number of former Muslim Brothers in concert with activists from other political and ideological backgrounds. In defining its reference to Islam in terms of Islamic civilisation rather that the Islamic faith, its founders broke with a key aspect of the Muslim Brothers’ tradition, renewed with the outlook of the earlier Islamic modernist thinkers, and established the doctrinal basis for a non-sectarian party of democratic reform. The refusal of the authorities to legalise the party has denied even the most liberal and forward-looking current in Egyptian Islamic activism a party-political outlet.

This refusal suggests that the government is intent on preserving the political dominance of the National Democratic Party in the formal political sphere, at the expense of any serious prospect of a real change in power. This scenario offers little or no scope for the effective and orderly representation of opposition viewpoints, and will prevent the progressive -- modernist and democratic -- trends within Egyptian Islamism from bearing political fruit.

The current calm on the security front is unlikely to endure indefinitely. The distress many Egyptians feel inevitably will seek expression. Because Egypt both refuses to legalise Islamic parties and significantly circumscribes the operations of secular parties, there is still no effective constitutional and peaceful outlet for the country’s Islamists or its alienated youth. The government’s strategy of immobility is liable to generate frustration and could stimulate the revival of regressive, even violent, tendencies within the Islamist movement.

The government should embark on a new strategy as soon as possible. While the concern to preserve political stability is legitimate and mandates a prudent approach to political reform, the government should recognise that delay itself is imprudent. It should also recognise that the measures to reform or at least rejuvenate the ruling National Democratic Party,[fn]For a discussion of these measures, see ICG Briefing, The Challenge of Political Reform: Egypt after the Iraq war, 30 September 2003.Hide Footnote  while valid and welcome, are insufficient. Without the stimulus of political competition from credible and legal rivals, its revitalisation is unlikely to go far and will be insufficient to provide effective representation for society’s diverse interests and viewpoints. The reform priority should therefore be to revise the law on political parties to enable existing legal parties to recover an effective social presence and to permit the emergence of new parties capable of offering constitutional channels for the representation of Islamic currents of opinion on a non-sectarian basis.

The situation of the Muslim Brothers also should be clarified. The government’s strongest argument for refusing them legal status as a political party is a pragmatic one. The Society’s social presence dwarfs that of all potential political rivals, including the ruling NDP; if legalised, there is a real possibility of it overwhelming the political scene, a prospect that understandably also worries many ordinary Egyptians. In this respect, the disproportionate role of the Muslim Brothers in Egyptian society resembles that of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the run-up to the fateful 1991 elections and the tragic events that ensued. But this situation is partly of the government’s own making: by hampering legal opposition parties and refusing to legalise new ones, it has facilitated the Society’s virtual monopoly in this sphere. Were other parties allowed to develop their social presence in rivalry with the Brothers unhindered by government harassment, legalisation of the Brothers as a political party would carry far less risk. In the meantime, the government should accept that its longstanding refusal to accord them any legal status is inconsistent with and inimical to the rule of law, and it should act to bring the Society within the framework of law by recognising it as either an association or a confederation of individual associations.

Western policymakers need to tread carefully. They should certainly not endorse the regime’s complacent inaction. But, equally, they should not presume to dictate the specific content or the pace of reform, let alone substitute themselves as the main actors of the reform process. In particular, they should recognise the counter-productive nature of applying heavy public pressure or attempting to by-pass the Egyptian government. Such approaches would risk aggravating the regime’s legitimacy deficit and would thus subvert its ability to adopt bold reform measures, while allowing conservatives to engage in hollow nationalist posturing as a cloak for their resistance to change and simultaneously tarring genuine reformers as collaborators with foreign intervention. U.S. efforts have, undoubtedly, put the spotlight on the question of political reform, galvanising a debate that had languished too long. But, so long as the U.S. is viewed as either insufficiently engaged or excessively biased in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its credibility and efforts to promote reform will be undermined. Securing an equitable resolution of that conflict and acting to reduce tensions in the Middle East as a whole would be the most effective way for the West, and the U.S. in particular, to facilitate genuine and sustainable political reform in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Cairo/Brussels, 20 April 2004

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.