Islamic Political Movements

Egypt Table of Contents

Islamic political activism has a lengthy history in Egypt. Several Islamic political groups started soon after World War I ended. The most well-known Islamic political organization is the Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan al Muslimun, also known as the Brotherhood), founded in 1928 by Hasan al Banna. After World War II, the Muslim Brotherhood acquired a reputation as a radical group prepared to use violence to achieve its religious goals. The group was implicated in several assassinations, including the murder of one prime minister. The Brotherhood had contacts with the Free Officers before the 1952 Revolution and supported most of their initial policies. The Brotherhood, however, soon came into conflict with Nasser. The government accused the Brotherhood of complicity in an alleged 1954 plot to assassinate the president and imprisoned many of the group's leaders. In the 1970s, Anwar as Sadat amnestied the leaders and permitted them to resume some of their activities. But by that time, the Brotherhood was divided into at least three factions. The more militant faction was committed to a policy of political opposition to the government. A second faction advocated peaceful withdrawal from society and the creation, to the extent possible, of a separate, parallel society based upon Islamic values and law. The dominant moderate group advocated cooperation with the regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood's reemergence as a political force coincided with the proliferation of Islamic groups. Some of these groups espoused the violent overthrow of the government while others espoused living a devout life of rigorous observance of religious practices. It is impossible to list all the Islamic groups that emerged in the late 1970s because many of them had diffuse structures and some of the more militant groups were underground. Egypt's defeat and loss of territory in the June 1967 War was the main cause for the growth of religiously inspired political activism. Muslims tended to view the humiliating experience as the culmination of 150 years of foreign intrusion and an affront to their vision of a true Islamic community. Islamic tradition rejected the idea of non-Muslims dominating Muslim society. Such a state of affairs discredited Muslim rulers who permitted it to persist. It was, therefore, incumbent on believers to end the domination and restore the true supremacy of Islam. As part of their Sunni creed, the most radical activists adopted jihad (holy war--the Shia sixth pillar of faith) and committed themselves to battling unbelievers and impious Muslims. During the 1970s and 1980s, Islamists perpetrated a number of violent acts, including the assassination of Sadat in October 1981.

Disruptive social changes and Sadat's relative tolerance toward political parties contributed to the rapid growth of Islamic groups in the 1970s. On university campuses, for example, Sadat initially viewed the rise of Islamic associations (Jamaat al Islamiyah) as a counterbalance to leftist influence among students. The Jamaat al Islamiyah spread quite rapidly on campuses and won up to one-third of all student union elections. These victories provided a platform from which the associations campaigned for Islamic dress, the veiling of women, and the segregation of classes by gender. Secular university administrators opposed these goals. In 1979 Sadat sought to diminish the influence of the associations through a law that transferred most of the authority of the student unions to professors and administrators. During the 1980s, however, Islamists gradually penetrated college faculties. At Asyut University, which was the scene of some of the most intense clashes between Islamists and their opponents (including security forces, secularists, and Copts), the president and other top administrators--who were Islamists--supported Jamaat al Islamiyah demands to end mixed-sex classes and to reduce total female enrollment.

As of 1989, the Islamists sought to make Egypt a community of the faithful based on their vision of an Islamic social order. They rejected conventional, secularist social analyses of Egypt's socioeconomic problems. They maintained, for example, that the causes of poverty were not overpopulation or high defense expenditures but the populace's spiritual failures--laxness, secularism, and corruption. The solution was a return to the simplicity, hard work, and self-reliance of earlier Muslim life. The Islamists created their own alternative network of social and economic institutions through which members could work, study, and receive medical treatment in an Islamic environment.

Islamists rejected Marxism and Western capitalism. Indeed, they viewed atheistic communism, Jewish Zionism, and Western "Crusader-minded" Christianity as their main enemies, which were responsible for the decadence that led to foreign domination and defeat by Zionists. They were intolerant of people who did not share their worldview. Islamists tended to be hostile toward the orthodox ulama, especially the scholars at Al Azhar who frequently criticized the Islamists' extreme religious interpretations. Islamists believed that the established social and political order had tainted the ulama, who had come to represent stumbling blocks to the new Islamic order. In addition, Islamists condemned the orthodox as "pulpit parrots" committed to a formalist practice of Islam but not to its spirit.

The social origins of Islamists changed after the 1952 Revolution. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood had appealed primarily to urban civil servants and white- and blue-collar workers. After the early 1970s, the Islamic revival attracted followers from a broad spectrum of social classes. Most activists were university students or recent graduates; they included rural-urban migrants and urban middle-class youth whose fathers were middle-level government employees or professionals. Their fields of study--medicine, engineering, military science, and pharmacy--were among the most highly competitive and prestigious disciplines in the university system. The rank-and- file members of Islamist groups have come from the middle class, the lower-middle class, and the urban working class.

Various Islamist groups espoused different means for achieving their political agenda. All Islamists, however, were concerned with Islam's role in the complex and changing society of Egypt in the late twentieth century. A common focus of their political efforts has been to incorporate the sharia into the country's legal code. In deference to their increasing influence, the Ministry of Justice in 1977 published a draft law making apostasy by a Muslim a capital offense and proposing traditional Islamic punishments for crimes, such as stoning for adultery and amputation of a hand for theft. In 1980 Egypt supported a referendum that proposed a constitutional amendment to make the sharia "the sole source of law." The influence of the Islamists temporarily waned in the aftermath of Sadat's assassination in 1981, but the election of nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood to the People's Assembly in 1984 revived Islamists' prospects. In 1985 the People's Assembly voted to initiate a procedure for the gradual application of the sharia, beginning with an indefinite education period to prepare the population for the legal changes; the next step would be to amend all existing laws to exclude any provisions that conflict with the sharia. Moves to reform the legal code received support from many Muslims who wanted to purify society and reject Western legal codes forced on Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress