After show of force, Islamists debate role of religion in politics

In an unprecedented showing, tens of thousands of Islamists rallied in Tahrir Square last weekend to affirm their commitment to establish an Islamic state in Egypt.

For the first time since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the epicenter of the revolution swarmed with bearded men in white robes and women covered in black, holding banners reading: “The Quran is our constitution.”

From different corners of the square, the crowd shouted fervently: “The people want to implement God’s Sharia,” tweaking the original revolution chant, “The people want to topple the regime.”

From the top of a stage erected in the heart of the square, Kamal Habib, a former leader of the militant Al-Jihad group, addressed the crowd, comparing the protest to the day the prophet conquered his hometown in Mecca, forcing pagans to subdue to this authority.

In a later interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Habib clarified his statements.

“The conquest here does not imply that we have pagans. That did not even cross my mind,” Habib said. “It is a conquest in the sense that the protest has served as an opportunity for the oppressed to retrieve their dignity.”

“Islamists had faced a lot of injustices in all post-colonial eras. The fact that today they can express themselves in this way is a guarantee that all political groups will be represented in the new order,” added Habib, who is in the middle of recruiting members for his Safety and Development Party.

As soon as Mubarak stepped down, several Islamist factions expressed their support for democratic politics, departing from their traditional ideological stance that either saw violence as the only means for change or preferred to remain aloof from politics and concentrate on proselytizing activities.

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, has proven the exception, being the most politically mature of the various Islamist movements. The 83-year-old organization has embraced democracy and engaged in competitive politics since the 1980s. It had always wanted to establish a political party, but Mubarak’s regime refused to grant the outlawed group any official status. After Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood established the Freedom and Justice Party as its official political arm.

Other less-known and more radical groups have decided to follow suit. In recent months, at least ten Islamist parties have been launched. Some are tied to militant movements, such as Jama'a al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad, which were held responsible for the terrorist attacks of the 1980s and 90s. Despite some nuances, all groups stress Egypt’s Muslim identity and envisage an Islamic order where Sharia would be the basis of law.

A pressing question has arisen: what political goals underlie these Islamist chants and slogans?

“I believe that the slogan ‘The people want to implement God’s Sharia’ goes hand-in-hand with the constitution,” said Essam Derbala, a top leader of Jama’a al-Islamiya. He was referring to Article 2 of Egypt’s old constitution, which stipulated that the principles of Sharia were the primary source of legislation.

But the article should be modified to stress that Islamic commandments – not only principles – would be enforced, Derbala said.

More politically savvy Islamists like the Brotherhood, though, do not toe the same line as their radical counterparts. According to Essam al-Erian, the vice-president of the Freedom and Justice Party, the group supports the current wording of Article 2 and will push for no modifications.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, the debate on the role of Islam in politics has intensified. Most secularists have reached a consensus to leave Article 2 untouched. Yet their interpretation of the term “principles” only invokes universal values such as freedom, justice and equality, ignoring Sharia's strict rulings. For most civil forces, the inclusion of these rulings – such as capital punishment – would pave the way for the reproduction of the Saudi model.

Interpreting 'principles'

“The way secularists interpret the word ‘principles’ empties Sharia of its content,” says Derbala, whose group, Jama'a al-Islamiya launched the Construction and Development Party in June. “This reduction is a way of circumventing the true meaning of implementing God’s law.”

Last weekend’s protest showed deep-seated animosity toward secular forces. At several instances, protesters shouted: “Islamic, Islamic, despite the secularists’ will."

“Whoever opposes the implementation of Sharia is not Muslim,” Adel Afify, a leading founder of the Salafi would-be Asala Party, told Al-Masry Al-Youm in a phone interview Sunday.

Like most Islamists, Afify took pride in last Friday's protests, which he says showed “the weight of the Islamist current” in society. The rally had proven that Islamists could be comparable to “a lion” facing a bunch of “jerboas" who oppose Sharia, said Afify.

Afify thinks all existing laws should be revised to make sure they are compatible with Sharia.

For observers, if these revisions ever take place, they will impact several sectors – particularly the economy. For most Islamists, the existing banking system is based on un-Islamic regulations that dictate a predetermined fixed interest rate. Also, the tourism sector bears many un-Islamic practices, which they think should be banned, including liquor sales, casinos and “nude” beaches.

Ashraf al-Sherif, a political scientist with The American University in Cairo, disagrees, saying that people will not want to replace principles with commandments in the new constitution.

“It will not be passed because there are several forces in society that will oppose it, such as Copts, investors and businessmen,” said Sherif.

In recent weeks, the secular-Islamist divide has deepened over the mechanism of drafting Egypt’s first post-Mubarak constitution.

This weekend's protest came in response to attempts by secular forces to lay out a set of constitutional principles to serve as guidelines for the constituent assembly. Islamists, who are confident about the upcoming parliamentary poll and would then have the upper hand in drafting the constitution, have expressed vehement opposition to these guidelines. They have dismissed them as a secular trick to prevent them from making any reference to Islamic commandments in the new constitution.

Muslim jurists divide Islamic commandments into two categories: al-ahkam al-qateyya, rulings that are unequivocally mentioned in the Quran and the prophet’s sayings and al-ahkam al-dhaneya, which has different interpretations.

The Supreme Constitutional Court has ruled that Egyptian lawmakers should only abide by the first category of commandments. Although this category would include inheritance regulations as well as some forms of capital punishment, the Egyptian penal code never endorsed borrowing penalties.

Many Islamists hold that the scope of Sharia should be widened to include rulings that are open to various interpretations.

“This is very dangerous,” said Sherif. “Al-ahkam al-dhaneya requires a board of religious scholars to decide what interpretation to follow. This will open the door for the creation of a religious state,” said Sherif.

For most Islamists, an Islamic democracy should have such a board to ensure that the parliamentary majority never votes in favor of a decision that violates Islamic rules. In 2007, the Brotherhood’s platform envisaged such an agency. Yet it was met with a storm of outrage from secularists who accused the group of seeking to establish a theocratic system. Eventually, the Brotherhood dropped this clause.

Yet Salafis cannot ignore that principle. Instead of inventing a new board, they want the Islamic institution Al-Azhar to play the role.

“Our frame of reference is Islamic and we already have the institution of Al-Azhar,” said Afify, adding that all debatable matters should be referred to that institution.

In recent months, thousands of Al-Azhar preachers have launched a campaign to liberate it from state control and ensure that the grand imam be elected by fellow scholars rather than appointed by the president. Some Islamist groups, including Afify’s party, have thrown their full backing behind this campaign.

“[Salafis] want Al-Azhar to become independent and then they can infiltrate it,” said Sherif.

Islamists and the military

On several occasions, the military has affirmed that it will not allow the rise of a religious government. Yet in the meantime, secularists have suspected that the military has been favoring Islamists and striking back room deals with them.

The appointment of a Brotherhood lawyer to the committee that amended the old constitution in February and the insistence on entrusting the new parliament, which is suspected to be dominated by Islamists, to draft the constitution have fed into these suspicions.

“The military is between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, it has external commitments. It knows that the West will not accept turning Egypt into a religious state like Iran,” said Sherif, adding that the military also has obligations to investors and Copts, who will refuse a fully religious government.

“On the other hand, the military thinks Islamists are an important power because they are the most organized and the most popular. If it satisfies them and reaches a compromise with them, the political street will turn somewhat calm,” he added.

The military will eventually reach an agreement that will somehow accommodate all parties, expected Sherif. Yet, he added, this compromise has yet to be seen.

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