This is Not the End of Islamism in Egypt: Beyond the Pro- and Anti-Islamist Divide

We welcome another guest post from Elizabeth Nugent, a PhD student in the department of politics at Princeton University who is currently in Cairo, Egypt conducting pre-dissertation research.


The summer of 2013 is proving to be the breaking point in the bitter political turmoil that has plagued Egypt following the January 2011 protests and ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. On July 3, democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was removed from office in a decision made by the military, which simultaneously stripped Morsi of his powers and appointed the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as acting president, suspended the constitution passed under Morsi’s watch, and installed an interim government charged with holding early presidential elections. While Egypt’s midans cheered this as a solution to the political deadlock that had shut down the country for the better part of a week, Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their supporters were resisting his forced resignation with words, fists, and sticks throughout the night, and being met with widespread arrests.

Some media accounts of recent events have categorized them as the result of conflict between two sides, an Islamist government pitted against a “mostly secular opposition” that “opposed the Islamist agenda of Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.” These descriptions may be applicable to the leading opposition parties within the National Salvation Front coalition, but it is not an accurate portrayal of the opinion of the majority of those reportedly 17.5 million individuals who participated in this weekend’s protests or the Egyptian people more largely. This false dichotomy suggests that these protests and tensions center on issues related to religion and state, and implies a certain misunderstanding of Egyptian political attitudes.

It would be a mistake to read the mobilization against the president and in support of the military as simply anti-Islamist, as a political ideology. These protests and mobilization have been anti-Muslim Brotherhood, as a political entity – albeit an Islamist one – whose political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, has failed its constituents. The Tamarud campaign which first initiated this week’s mobilization focused solely on the political failures of Morsi in terms of substantive domestic and foreign policy issues, outlined in the petition circulated and signed by over 22 million Egyptians, without referencing any issue pertaining to the relationship between religion and state. One, then, would be hard pressed to describe current events in Egypt as a referendum on Islamism – unless one incorrectly equates Islamism, in Egypt or more generally, exclusively with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the FJP’s governing days may be over, it is too soon to declare the end of Islamism.

Islamism can be defined as support for the introduction of Islamic tenets into political life through the implementation of sharia. This admittedly vague definition allows us to classify both parties (those with political platforms promoting sharia) and individuals (those who agree with the concept of implementing sharia) as Islamist.

Recent survey data suggests that the vast majority of Egyptians are Islamists, as they continue to support in high numbers the implementation of sharia and its introduction into their country’s laws. In April 2013, Pew released a report titled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society”, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,798 Egyptians. The data was collected in November and December 2011, and hardly paints a picture of a stark secular-religious divide, or wide scale support for secularism in the definition commonly used. Rather, Egyptians overwhelmingly support the integration of religion and politics.

The survey’s questions pertaining to the political role of sharia are particularly interesting. 74 percent favored making sharia the official law of their country, and this level of support varied little across age, gender, and education groups. Of those who favored making sharia the law of the land, 70 percent wanted sharia to apply to both Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The survey differentiated between and asked about support for a number of policies that might be considered part of Islamic law. There were high levels of support for many of these practices among those Egyptians who supported the implementation of sharia: 94 percent wanted religious judges (instead of civil courts) to decide family and property matters; 70 percent wanted corporal (hadd) punishments for crimes; 81 percent supported stoning as punishment for adultery; and 86 percent supported punishing those who converted from Islam with death. When asked “How closely do your country’s laws follow sharia?”, 39 percent of the sampled Egyptians responded that they did somewhat or very closely, while 56 percent responded that the laws did not follow sharia. More importantly, when asked whether it was positive or negative that the country’s laws did not follow sharia, only 25 percent of individuals said it was a good thing, with 67 percent saying it was a bad thing. Arab barometer data collected in June 2011 also found that 80% of a 1200-person nationally representative sample of Egyptians agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “The government and parliament should enact laws in accordance with Islamic law.”

Admittedly, these data are almost 2 years old, and were collected before Morsi took office. But more recent polls suggest the same strong support for Islamism continues, and the large scale swing in support for Morsi did not occur in tandem with a wide scale swing in support for Islamism. Pew recently released another report (“Egyptians Increasingly Glum”) using survey data collected in March 2013 among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Egyptians. 58 percent supported having Egyptian laws strictly following the Quran, down only 4 percentage points since the center asked the question in 2011. An additional 28 percent supported Egyptian laws following the values and principles of Islam (compared with 27 and 32 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively). While the percentage of those who did not want Egyptian laws to be influenced by the Quran rose from 5 percent in 2011 to 11 percent in 2013, the vast majority of those polled continued to support Islamism.

This public opinion data suggests an interesting distinction we have not yet fully made in analyses of current events in Egypt. Egyptian citizens overwhelmingly support the mixing of religion and politics. They also just protested in historic numbers against an Islamist ruling party. The political questions facing the Egyptian electorate, then, appear to be what form of Islamism, which Islamists, which of the social, economic, and political laws included in sharia to implement, and how – and perhaps most importantly, how to balance all of this with a democratic system reflecting the will of the people (the data similarly reveal high levels of support for democracy among Egyptians).

In post-Mubarak Egypt, where the Brotherhood is no longer the only Islamist game in town, we do ourselves a disservice to think about Egyptian politics as a binary of pro- and anti-Islamist. There are currently a number of Islamist parties for Egyptian voters to consider, including but not limited to the Building and Development party, formed by the once violent Gama`a Islamiyya and which seeks to establish a democracy based on sharia law; the Flag party, founded earlier this year by popular cleric Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail; the Nour Party, a Salafi party that surprised by winning almost a third of contested seats in Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections; the Watan party, which split with Nour over disagreements over the level of political involvement from Salafi clerics. At the very least, Egyptian political currents might currently be divided between three strands: pro-Brotherhood Islamists, anti-Brotherhood Islamists, and secularists. Even better, we might start to think of Islamism as a spectrum – with more and less Islamist individuals and parties, conservative and liberal Islamists and parties – based on developing political ideologies and concrete political platforms.

So what, then, does June 30 and its aftermath tell us about support for Islamism in Egypt? It doesn’t tell us that Islamism, as a political ideology, is any less popular in post-Mubarak Egypt than it was before 2011. It does, however, demonstrate that Egyptian political actors are continuing to negotiate the relationship between their religion and their politics. It reveals that Islamist parties will be treated just like every other kind of party. Despite the religious nature of some or all of their political platforms, goals, and rhetoric, they will not be above demands for accountability from the Egyptian electorate. When Islamists fail in office, they will be threatened to be voted out. When they fail in a manner that a critical mass of citizens deems unacceptable, they will be protested against – and in large numbers. Further, it emphasizes the importance of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the people to future Islamist political contenders, which can be done through establishing, maintaining and abiding by the rule of law as well as through working with opposition parties across the political spectrum.

As we continue move forward with contested politics in Egypt, I suggest that we think beyond the pro- and anti-Islamist divide, and more carefully consider the complicated and nuanced issues defining Egyptian politics during the current difficult impasse.


6 Responses to This is Not the End of Islamism in Egypt: Beyond the Pro- and Anti-Islamist Divide

  1. jonathan July 4, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    I disagree in part with the statement that “Islamist parties will be treated just like every other kind of party … they will not be above demands for accountability from the Egyptian electorate.”

    The army has not been Islamized. A closer example may be Turkey, where the military retroactively justified their intervention – a coup in the early 60’s – as defending the ideals of Ataturk.

    So for example, would people have gathered in mass protest if the army had been Islamized? Or if the army had declared a policy of non-intervention? I doubt it.

    If elections were held again – today, a year from now – the MB and the Salafists would still win That raises many real questions about the army’s long-term intent, assuming it knows.

  2. Mike Rappeport July 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    The problem with Ms. Nugent’s generally perceptive post is the same problem that haunts all political science today, and that is the confounding of two deeply opposed concepts: a minority rights/majority government society and the standard majoritarian-authoritarian version of “Democracy”. The inherent problem of all (or almost all – see Turkey today) Islamic approaches to government (as differentiated from governmental approaches championed by people who happen to be Moslems) is that Islam (as is true of all religions) is at its core a belief that we know the truth. As experience teaches, for many (most) of those who know the truth, to do anything else but force everyone to obey that truth, is seen as being in essential revolt against God, and God’s explicitly given directions (in this case the Koran, but in other cases the Torah, the New Testament, the Pope speaking ex cathedra, and indeed in close analogy the dicta of Karl Marx). It is ironic that we should be talking about this on July Fourth, because the United States Constitution is the primary example of a minority rights/majority government society. The key to understanding our system is not the Articles of the Constitution, but the add-ons that so strongly restricted the rights of the majority to control (oppress) the rights of minorities. We call those add-ons the Bill of Rights. But a better title (both in the sense of more descriptive, and in the sense of its educational value) would be to call it the Bill of Minority Protections. It is by that standard that we should compare societies, not by a standard which makes Russia a “democracy’” because Putin won a majority of the votes in a “fair election”. Since which minority rights should be protected in what circumstances is only arguable, not once and for all answerable, (as a minor example – see eminent domain), I recognize the distinction raises a huge problem for those who want to be scientists. Nonetheless, if political science is to describe reality, it needs to separate these two concepts, and it needs to do so whenever and wherever it gets a chance.

  3. Scott Monje July 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Is the notion that the religious party “knows the truth” and–is thus opposed to compromise with those who don’t know the truth–undermined by the fact that there are multiple, contending Islamist parties? Will this give the religiously inclined voter peaceful options, voting for another Islamist party? (My first thought was that Islamists would interpret the coup as the refusal of the system to permit them to come to power through elections and would thus opt for violence, but perhaps that is not the case if they see it as opposition to only one technically incompetent Islamist party.) Or, on the other hand, will the competing Islamist parties and their followers–each knowing the truth–refuse to deal with one another, like the Stalinists and the Trotskyites during the Spanish Civil War?

    • Mike Rappeport July 5, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

      No, you are confusing the mindset people like myself and I would guess yourself (We see a spectrum of belief so we can position some groups as closer together) with the either/or mindset of the true believer. Unfortunately, we already know the answer to your question. “will the competing Islamist parties and their followers–each knowing the truth–refuse to deal with one another.” Think Sunni and Shi’a. IFrom our perspective, both are Moslem beliefs and closer to each other than either is to say Christians, but they see each other as apostates (which both their versions of Sharia sees as a sin punishable by death) while Christians are just unenlightened just need to pay a relatively small extra tax. Or if you want non-Moslem examples think Catholic and Protestant (from Luther to early 20th century Ireland), or English Puritans and Anglicans.

  4. longwalkdownlyndale July 5, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    This is great. I especially like the idea of a spectrum of Islamism, similar if you’d like the historic spectrum of political parties and movements that traced their lineage back to strands of Marxist thought. You could argue the British Labour Party of the 1950’s and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union shared a common ancestry, and in a very limited sense that is true. But it is completely unhelpful for trying to figure out the politics of that era.

  5. Brett Champion July 7, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    If those surveys were truly national in scope, then they actually understate the extent to which Egypt’s Muslims support Islamism since almost 10% of Egyptians are Christian. I would be surprised greatly if any Egyptian Christians supported the institution of shariah rule in Egypt.