Numbers can say a lot about the status achieved by Islamists on the second anniversary of the 25 January revolution.
The number of Islamist parties, whether registered or not, total about 20. In addition, there are dozens of groups, movements and networks that are still fluid and have no organizational structure. Apparently, the revolution has removed the political and security barriers that hindered Islamists for years, allowing its leaders and youth to enter the political landscape after the Islamist scene was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and radical and jihadi groups on the other.
But besides numbers, which tell much about the fluidity and diversity of the Islamist landscape, there are some core observations that I would like to share on the status of Islamists two years after the revolution.
First, Islamists can be divided into three main blocs. The first bloc is traditional Islamists, which brings together the Muslim Brotherhood, Wasat Party and the Jama’a al-Islamiya. The second bloc encompasses Salafis, including the politicized Salafi current and its preachers and sheikhs.
And finally, the third bloc — which is growing at an alarmingly fast rate — is Salafi jihadis. There may be other groups and currents that represent a mishmash of these three main blocs but their role is not as strong on the general Islamist scene.
Perhaps one of the most important remarks one can make about the scene in general is the Islamists’ tendency to abandon religious activities for politics — their rush toward politicization.
There are several explanations for this. For example, Islamists are keen to engage in all forms of political activity to abort any attempt to establish a regime that opposes their thought. They are also trying to benefit from the extraordinary political openness following the revolution. And they are also trying to introduce religion into the public sphere and infuse their ideology into politics.
Second, the relationship between Islamist parties and currents is characterized by fluidity and change. Even though the relationship often seems to be one of cooperation, it is, more often, competitive and conflictive. If anything, this proves that political interests, rather than ideology, shape the Islamists’ decisions.
Even more, parties that have the same ideological reference points, such as the Salafi parties, are competing among themselves. There are more than 10 parties either in the process of being formed or already licensed that have a Salafi frame of reference. Salafis are not embarrassed by these divisions; some even consider it a sign of their political maturity.
Third, Islamists, with their ideological and theological variations, are keen to be engaged in formal politics, rather than remaining outside the political game, compared to their unorganized liberal and secular counterparts. For instance, Islamist parties have a quantitative, though not necessarily qualitative, edge over other parties when it comes to competition for power and the ability to fill the public sphere.
This is indeed an astonishing paradox. For one thing, Islamists do not have the same experience and political skills as their liberal and secular competitors, who enjoyed some degree of freedom under the former regime.
In addition, Islamists seem keener on accepting the rules of the political game even if their understanding of democracy is structurally defective, since they tend to reduce democracy to a ballot box. Islamists are also able to unite against their opponents, compared with civil groups, which suffer from divisions and rifts.
Fourth, Salafi Dawah sheikhs, who have for long remained aloof from politics, are now engaging in political activity. There is hardly any sheikh who is safe from becoming the subject of political controversy.
The recent divisions within the religious frames of reference for the Salafi current are also remarkable. After the Nour Party split, its ideological frame of reference, the Salafi Dawah, also divided. And it seems further rifts are expected in the coming period.
Fifth, the past two years have shown the disparity between the slogans raised by Islamists and their policies and platforms. This reflects the lack of political experience of Islamists, including those who have engaged in public activity for decades.
Even though the Brotherhood has attained power, it remains incapable of managing the state in a competitive way. And let us brush aside talk about conspiracy against the Brotherhood, which, if it indeed existed, would have been foiled if everyone had felt President Mohamed Morsy and the Brotherhood had a genuine vision for addressing the daily problems of Egyptians.
In fact, the reiteration of the conspiracy discourse only reveals the Brotherhood’s weakness and failure. For many, it seems clear that, rather than having a genuine desire to reform the Hosni Mubarak regime radically and structurally, the Brotherhood and Morsy only want to use the old authoritative structures to entrench their rule.
Sixth, the loose and ambiguous slogans that Islamists rely on, such as their talk about an Islamist project, Islamist state and their favorite motto, “Islam is the solution,” have declined and lost much of their nominal power, in a sign of the decline of their ideology and persuasive capacity. The fact that Islamists are resorting to the idea of implementing Sharia could be seen as an attempt to salvage their image among their base, though the fate of this is unlikely to be any happier.
The current state of heightened mobility for Islamists was not accompanied by a simultaneous intellectual and cultural reinvigoration to keep pace with the developments created by the revolution. The Islamist discourse remains confined to traditional views and fatwas.
Enlightened Islamist icons have also not emerged to renew the Islamist discourse. On the contrary, reformist figures have faded out of the scene in favour of superficial figures who adopt an unfitting discourse on satellite channels that supposedly adopt a Salafi view and disseminate defective ideas in the name of religion.
Seventh, in their political behavior, Islamists have a tendency to hegemonize and dominate — a defect symptomatic of their poor understanding of democracy. The long-standing Brotherhood suffers from this defect as much as the new groups, such as Salafis and former jihadis, even though the Brotherhood has been claiming otherwise for the past two decades.
This tendency governs both their behavior and discourse. For example, concepts of empowerment, succession and domination have replaced participation, pluralism, cooperation and diversity. This shows that Islamists have become powerful, a development that raises concerns over the future of politics in Egypt and the readiness of Islamists to allow a power transfer.
Eighth, the demand for religion still seems to determine the rise and fall of the Islamist current. The religious market seems to be thriving these days, though at the expense of quality. If we use the economic theory of supply and demand to explain the rise and fall of the Islamist current in Egypt, we can comfortably say that even though there is high demand for religion, the supply also seems to be high, which explains why the content presented by Islamist media is often poor.
If this supply continues to increase, one of the likely outcomes is that certain sectors of society will be repel ed by the discourse and perhaps question religion altogether.
Thrusting religion into all areas of life threatens to reduce its appeal. Perhaps this should make us question why religious ideology seems to be flourishing in Egypt at the expense of other ideological and intellectual ideas.
Finally, despite all the talk about Islamization, Brotherhoodization and Salafization, there are structural impediments obstructing Islamists’ attempt to dominate state and society. Indeed, opposition to these attempts seems weak. However, the Islamists’ failure to solve basic economic and social problems will stop the process of Islamization.
In other words, the Islamists’ dream to entrench their rule will not materialize as long as they continue to raise empty slogans, and fail to adopt policies or present platforms, that can solve the problems of an unforgiving public.
Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC.
This article was translated by Dina Zafer.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.