Thursday, April 12, 2012

Grassroots democracy in Egypt's villages


Why do Egyptian villagers vote for the people they do? How do they choose, in particular, between the Muslim Brotherhood (the oldest and best organized Islamist party) and the Salafists (who have a reputation as fundamentalists and extremists)?

Yasmine Moataz Ahmed at the Egypt Independent web site has a detailed answer.  Highly recommended.  Some excerpts:
Despite the common perception that Salafis are strict followers of Sharia compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, many of my research participants often talked about Salafis as religiously less strict than the Ikhwan. From the work of Ikwani leaders in the village, the villagers have noticed the strict hierarchy that informs the work of the Brotherhood members on the ground. In other words, the villagers understood the Brotherhood’s adherence to the dictates of the Guidance Bureau, or the Murshid, as an orthodoxy that made the Brotherhood stricter than the Salafis. They often said to me: “How come Ikhwan grassroot leaders all agree on the same things?” An incident that they often referred to is the insistence of Muslim Brotherhood members to force people to pray outside of a mosque, not build by the Brotherhood, during the Eid al-Fitr prayer last September.

Salafis, on the other hand, are seen as religiously flexible. “Aren’t we all Salafis?” many Nour supporters often repeated to me. For them, Salafis represent a religious understanding that seeks to closely follow the times of the Prophet and his followers — the Prophet was married to a Coptic woman, his neighbors were Jews, he dealt with each situation on a case-by-case basis, hence the perception that Salafis are, believe it or not, lenient. This was reflected on the ground; Salafis, at least in the village where I worked, appear to be more laid-back compared to the Ikhwan, and hence, more sensitive and open to the local context.Class was also a factor that often worked against the Brotherhood’s candidates. Due to being the most educated cluster, Ikhwani leaders are strongly present in professional occupations in village-level bureaucracies; they are the teachers, the lawyers, the engineers, and more importantly the personnel of the most funded NGO: Al-Jam’eya al-Shar’eya. Ikhwan leaders often use their positions, particularly in the NGO, to promote the Freedom and Justice party through coercing the poorest of the village into long-term charity and debt relations; they fund kidney dialysis operations, pay monthly stipends for orphan children, and distribute money and goods for ad-hoc lists that they prepare once they get orders from their leaders in Cairo.

Although these services seem necessary in the absence of a state-service provider, many rural dwellers (even ones who receive support from the NGO) see this relationship of indebtedness to the NGO as unhealthy. This informs why many villagers are weary of voting for the Ikhwan’s party. “We need a government that recognizes our rights as citizens, not as recipients of aid! We need people that would help us get our stolen rights. If the Muslim Brotherhood come to power, they will be both the mediators and the government.”
As Ahmed says, these are not gullible people. They have their own issues.

Image:  an Egyptian village, copyrighted by Historylink101.com & found at Egyptian Picture Gallery.

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