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Liberals vs Salafis: The fight to contain the Muslim Brotherhood ?

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Power comes with great responsibilities, especially when Egypt is in such a devastated state. It is easy to criticise and rightfully do so. Critique, which is not constructive, nor aims to contribute to better governmental performance, is just a waste of time.

The ongoing debate on the identity of Egypt and how Islam will play out in the constitution, is still a waste of time. It is not only a waste of time because the vast majority of Egyptians clearly want it, as indicated in the Gallup polls or the ability of Islamists to mobilise.

Ironically, even though two of the greatest organised branches of Islamic politics in Egypt –the Muslims Brotherhood (MB) and Al-Noor Party- were not among the initiators of last Friday’s pro-Shari’a protest in Tahrir, still numbers were big enough to fill the square.

A minority are not giving in to this popular demand and playing devil’s advocate, playing off Shari’a as a post modern invention that’s completely hollow of meaning and has no realistic application in reality.

At times clearly shifting their discourses to appear more Islamic, while rejecting the dominant discourse on Islam, and at the same time not providing their interpretation of what Shari’a would entail in their view.  Among the ways of playing off Shari’a is done by attempting to pit down the “moderate” MB against “extremist” Salafis.

Prior to the revolution the underdog was the “banned” MB, whom Mubarak and other dictators of authoritarian Arab regimes always warned the world of. Overnight this changed; the alternative academic and media discourses that were obscured by dominant media narratives suddenly came to light after the MB was able to root itself in the political arena, as if somehow the MB was somehow being rediscovered.

Salafis are starting to get mixed reactions from the west. It is healthy to create a discussion on the movement rather than just accept the dull uninformed sweeping generalisations of pseudo academia (see Thou Shall Fear Salafis).

Egyptian media run using English language is overwhelmingly anti-Islamist and more so anti-Salafi, which is not the case in Arabic media outlets.  Salafis now are being blamed for wanting to have an amendment in the constitution with a clear support for Shari’a, never mind that Egyptians (including Egyptian women) voted for the MB who promised to fulfil the same demand.

What Egyptian media run in English (which with no doubt is liberal) shows, is a manifestation of an implicit fight over the MB, by Salafis and liberals. Both are trying to claim that the MB is closer to them. As the MB tries to play a political parental-like role attempting to reconcile between different sides, it will be eventually forced to take a stance on the issue.

The MB however has not been as popular with liberals as before, due to its late vigorous attempts to penetrate state institutions and gradually take control of matters, though it still has a long way to effectively do so.  This makes it understandable why Dr Amr Hamzawi’s latest comments in Harvard Arab weekend lectures were very negative towards the MB, despite his earlier much more objective academic works written on Islamists.

Even if the MB wanted to take a less defined stance on Shari’a, liberals are not giving them a chance to do so and have been lately opposing anyway. Furthermore liberals can no longer get away with having two different discourses, one geared towards the west and one geared for local political success. This is because both discourses are exposed in social media as well as in televised talk shows which reveals an overall inconsistency in discourses. More than ever, the MB is having a much harder time associating with liberals.

The political arena indicates that the MB is more likely to be won by Salafis regarding the constitution not just because it is a strong popular demand and the MB obviously being an Islamist group but also because of the incompetence of liberal political maneuvering.

This does not mean that Egypt after the constitution will be an “Islamic state” the next day; rather it is a temporary symbolic gesture that may enable a later gradual implementation. The implementation of Shari’a no doubt will be marginalised by a focus on economic development and defiantly accompanied by clashing visions on how the implementation should take place.

These clashing visions will include how to build institutions that will implement Shari’a and how to adjust current ones for doing so, furthermore the end result of this institutional governance model has still not been drawn. Thus for a long time it will be a work in progress.

About the author

Mustafa Salama

Mustafa Salama

Mustafa Salama is a Political Researcher and a Freelance Journalist. He has an extensive academic background on Islamist movements and Middle East Affairs. Salama holds a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Political Science from the American University in Cairo.

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  • Seif Aref

    Please refer to the election results to show u how the majority DON’T want Islamic law.

  • KS

    Mr. Salama,
    A square supposedly “full” of bearded people, which I might add was void of women, by no means represents the will of the “vast majority” of people, especially in a country of the magnitude and diversity of Egypt. In addition, the Gallup poll that you referred to contends that 50% of surveyed Egyptian men would like sharia to be the only source of law. So your claim here is that the other 50% is the “minority” playing the devil’s advocate?


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