Sunday, February 27, 2011

Religion and politics in the Middle East: the case of Egypt

It certainly is easy enough to believe that people in the Middle East, especially Muslims, are unusually religious, and that there political and social ideas are completely dominated by religious values. Up until January, the previous 30 years might seem to have taught that lesson. Well, now we have had another lesson. Religious organizations and religious values did not drive the Egyptian revolution (outcome still uncertain). Here is a good article from a source I have not used before, Religioscope, that discusses the complexities of the issue. In Egypt at least, the various prominent religious voices spoke out again and again against disorder and the protest movement. One result is that those religious leaders, Christian as well as Muslim, have lost a lot of standing in the eyes of the younger population of Egypt. We can also guess that the civic and nationalistic values proclaimed by the protesters have gained prestige, and not just in Egypt.

Here are some excerpts:
The Salafist movement condemned the protests; the Muslim Brothers first retreated, then got sucked in by the dynamism of the dispute, then tried to open up a negotiation process which the demonstrators, bolder in their demands, didn't want. Though that was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections: the voice of the street isn't necessarily the will of the people. The Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached. Among these, various parts of the Salafist movement condemned the demonstrators very clearly from the time of the first appeals.

The official religious institutions, both Muslim (al-Azhar and Dar al-Fatwa) and Christian (the Coptic Church), had ties of allegiance to the regime, and were even further from grasping the new revolutionary spirit.

The grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, first supported the regime, then with some difficulty changed course, talking of the demands of the uprising in words that were less aligned to the regime, but extremely late. At the height of the dispute, in early February, the sheikh of al-Azhar called for calm and condemned the deaths of Egyptians – but without saying clearly that the deaths had been part of the confrontation between a regime which had resorted to violence through its usual outlets (the civilian police, the party-state) and young thugs from the poor parts of town. Pope Shenouda, for his part, called on the Christian population throughout the uprising not to join the protests.

The political dependence of the leadership of the clerical institutions – both Christian (the Coptic Church) and Muslim (al-Azhar) – was very badly received by the people, and risked jeopardising their relations with their bases over the long term. This was seen in the anger of young Copts in Tahrir Square at the position taken by Pope Shenouda; the resignation of al-Azhar's vice-spokesman, Mohamed Rifai al-Tahtawi (who then joined the demonstrators on the streets); and the number of al-Azhar preachers and imams who joined the protest movement, wearing their official clothes. The huge numbers who abandoned the official mosques on the Fridays to join the demonstrators showed the crisis of communication between religious establishment and people. Fatwas calling for calm went disregarded. On the Coptic side, many joined the protests, too. Their praying side by side with Muslims in the streets showed a double rejection: a rejection of the regime, but also of the Church's political support for a regime which many Copts feel has done nothing for them; they complain it has been responsible both for growing Islamisation and separation of identities along confessional lines....

The Salafist nebula of groups found itself deeply at odds with the dynamic of the street. From the start, and up to now, its position has been unequivocal: the protest movement must be boycotted because protest means chaos. Better to choose the iniquity of the regime than the void which opposing it might open up (the Salafists base themselves on a fatwa by the medieval Islamic thinker Ibn Taimiyya, affirming that 70 years of iniquitous rule are worth more that one day without rule).

The influential Salafist sheikhs in Egypt, especially those who have established strong positions of influence through the religious satellite television channels (al-Nas, al-Rahma etc), have, however, slightly scaled down their overall objection. As the movement grew, they stopped opposing it and tried to contain it, making do with reminders of the importance of protecting public goods and underlining the need to oppose thugs and gangs.
The Muslim Brothers' position evolved under pressure from the street (and not the reverse).

At the start, with the first demonstration on 25 January, the Brothers joined in but only in a symbolic way, sending some very restrained groups from their youth movement. Then, with the “Day of Rage” on 28 January, the Brothers concentrated their efforts on Cairo and mobilized about 100,000 people, according to one of their cadres.

As events unfolded (continued confrontation, massive repression, deaths, resignation of the police, the regime's strategy of chaos), positions radicalized. Mubarak blamed the Brothers for the disturbances. The Brothers in turn, through their supreme guide, Mohamed Badi'a, accused Mubarak of “state terrorism” (the Brothers, according to one of its officials, had suffered nearly 40 deaths). There was a feeling of no return among the Brothers, aware that they would be the main victims of the restoration of order if the protest movement did not succeed. “Our only card is the mobilization in Tahrir Square,” said a Brotherhood cadre who was present in the square. “It has become our life insurance against the swing of the pendulum which awaits us if the regime gets back on its feet.”

The Brothers in Tahrir Square, truly mobilized and strongly influenced by the other groups who started the protest movement, continued to call for Mubarak's departure ahead of any negotiation. But on 5 February, their leadership began talks with then vice president Omar Suleiman, former head of Egyptian intelligence. According to a close observer, the Brotherhood's leadership thought it could not pass up such a chance of winning some sort of recognition, even a legitimate presence. This exasperated the young Brothers out on the streets.
The Muslim Brothers did not lead the revolution; and they definitely do not appear as the guardians of its “spirit”. Though its concept may be floating, between Tunis and Cairo we are clearly seeing a revolutionary spirit take shape which could hardly be further from the political culture of the Brothers: it is not programmatic; it does not prefer one ideology over another but demands a transparent framework for political competition; it is anti-authoritarianism; it is democratic and not religious; it functions in a loose logic of networks, spirit of Facebook, transparency (the reverse of a pyramid structure, of secrecy and submission). It bypasses the existing political players in their entirety, including the Muslim Brothers, but recruits among the young of these parties and pushes them beyond their training (the Facebook experience has given birth to a movement, modest but real, of self-criticism and demobilisation of young people who have rejoined a network of existing mobilisations). Revealing, as so much else at Tahrir Square, was the enthusiasm of one young militant working for an Islamist site who rejoiced because the first demos had been led by secular Christians in disagreement with their own Church.
Through all this, the dynamic of opposition is showing the exhaustion of the authoritarian models of the regimes in place, but also the exhaustion of the traditional forms of opposition to them. What is happening in Egypt is not just the contesting of a regime, but the calling into question of a political culture.
Image:  Perhaps, "the old guys don't speak for us?"

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:44 am

    Interesting perspective. Later, when the dust settles, everybody will claim to have been on the winning side.

    Hope folks are taking names NOW.