Alexandria sees changing landscape of Islamist groups

ALEXANDRIA — Many of the protest scenes that played out over the past weeks are emblematic of substantive changes in the landscape of Islamist movements, particularly in Alexandria, according to observers.

After President Mohamed Morsy’s controversial 22 November constitutional declaration (revoked on 8 December), youth from several revolutionary movements were surprised to find non-Brotherhood, Islamist political groups gathered to support the decisions at Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, which has been at the heart of protests since the outbreak of the 2011 uprising.
The scene confounded reporters who wondered about the demographics of those gathered at Al-Qaed Ibrahim, especially since both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Dawah said they had not organized protests there. The tens of thousands of apparent Islamist protesters amassed in the area raised the question: Which political force has the capability to mobilize a rally of this size?
Alexandria is known to be a Brotherhood stronghold and is also home to some of the group’s most prominent leaders, including Essam al-Haddad and Hussein Ibrahim. It was also in this city that the Salafi movement was established, namely the Alexandria school of the Salafi Dawah in 1979.
But after the revolution, several loosely organized Islamist movements have emerged, influenced by recent developments and new ideas, including Hazemoun, the Third Islamist Current and the Salafi Front. Jama’a al-Islamiya and other jihadi movements have also made a strong comeback to the political scene.
Nageh Ibrahim, Islamist preacher and thinker and one of the founders of Jama’a Islamiya, says there are stark differences between these fledgling Islamist movements and more established ones, chief among which are their fluidity and lack of a strict organizational structure.
They are also characterized by diversity and intellectual variability among members, most of whom prefer to remain independent rather than pledge loyalty to a specific organization, Ibrahim says. The newer movements are not institutionalized and are at times personalized, as in the case of Hazemoun, which was formed during the presidential election in support of its namesake, former Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
While growing exponentially in some areas, the groups do not have an equally strong presence nationwide.
Ibrahim says the Salafi Front has a significant presence in the Delta, particularly in Mansoura, while Hazemoun is strong in Cairo. Meanwhile, Jama’a Islamiya is potent in Upper Egypt while the Third Islamist Current was born in Alexandria.
“The mass protests staged by Islamists are beyond the mobilization capacity of known Islamist groups, and a considerable number of protesters in those rallies came out in defense of the Islamic project rather than a certain Islamist faction,” says Ibrahim.
A reaction to existing trends
Osama al-Shafie, secretary for the Third Current Shura Council in Alexandria, says the movement was born three months after the breakout of the revolution, when a large sector of people began wanting to engage in Islamist political activity, but in a nonpartisan way. They shared an aversion to the Brotherhood’s reformist platform as well as the Salafi Dawah’s conservative nature in dealing with reality, “focusing primarily on superficial changes and formalities, while rejecting the idea of revolting against the ruler.
“The current brings together people who reject both groups, as well as tyranny,” he explains, adding that the current has thousands of members and 15 mosques in Alexandria, and is funded by members.
The flag used by the movement is white with black writing that says “There is no god but Allah and Mohamed is his Prophet,” indicating that it does not fall under a specific organization, with the Shura Council, comprised of five sheikhs, running its affairs.
Mahmoud Hassan, a 30-year-old member, was part of the committee securing one of the recent protests. He joined the Third Current and Hazemoun after sensing that the Salafi movement was not taking a serious enough position to face the social and media systems, or the smearing of their image by the regime and secularists.
He also joined the movement because it is nonpartisan in nature and does not oblige him to adopt certain opinions, unlike mainstream Salafis and the Brotherhood.
Ibrahim asserts this reasoning as the roots for many emerging Islamist movements.
He says the rise of these new powers can be attributed to the fact that the engagement of Islamist movements in politics comes at the expense of their religious credibility, due to the political compromises they have to make. The people have yet to test the new Islamist powers, however, he adds.
A changing ideology
Unlike other Salafi groups, Third Current members refused to be part of the former regime, such as religious institutions, or to be allowed to operate in return for recognizing the legitimacy of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.
And while inspired by post-uprising changes, many of the main ideologies of these new groups have existed since the 1970s and 1980s. Still, some tendencies have changed partly due to the revolution, Shafie says, including the rejection of partisan activity based on the belief that the ruler was a “disbeliever and participating in politics was seen as implicit approval of his reign.”
Other ideas that have evolved include “armed revolt against the ruler and the view that a ruler who is capable of implementing Sharia yet chooses not to is a disbeliever; the immediate implementation of Sharia; and steering clear of well-known Islamist groups to evade a security crackdown,” Shafie explains.
The revolution has made Shafie believe that civil disobedience and popular mobility are generally stronger than weapons, particularly since Egyptians, by nature, reject violence. A more drastic shift is viewing political participation as key to reaching power, and a belief in the mechanisms of democracy, though not in democracy itself.
If Islamists reach power, he says, non-Islamist parties should be banned and forcibly suppressed. If they defy Islamist rule, he adds, armed resistance may be necessary.
“If confrontations with non-Islamists are intellectual in nature, then they should remain so, with pluralism only granted to Islamist parties,” he adds.
He rules out democracy altogether.
“Democracy in itself is prohibited because sovereignty is reserved for God, and countries that call for democracy, such as the US, England and France, are actually imperialist and implement democracy only when it serves their interests,” he says. “Their parliaments have approved the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.”
Sharia and democracy differ — the former wants good for all humanity and seeks to turn the poor from recipients of charity to charity givers. In turn, he says, accepting democracy is a necessary and temporary tactic.
The current’s most important frames of reference are hardliners Sayed Qotb, Abul Ala al-Maudui and Abdel Maguid al-Shazly, the imam of Sunni Islam in Alexandria.
In the protests, chants of the Third Current included, “Sayed Qotb said it in the past, the constitution is the Quran,” and another chant promising to settle the differences with secular crowds with arms.
Grand ambitions
Shafie says they are seeking to establish a global Islamic caliphate through the creation of a federation, union or any other political form, taking into consideration each country’s particular nuances in implementing Sharia. He described the Taliban as an Islamic movement plagued by ignorance.
According to the charter written by Sheikh Khamees Khairallah, the goal of the Third Current is to create an Islamist trend among Egyptians and other liberated nations, for all moderate Sunni Muslims.
The current does not believe in the legitimacy of existing regimes and has a vision for building a civil nation that is not ruled by the military, which develops its power to the fullest, with Islam as the religion, identity and law of that state.
The goal is two-fold: “reviving Egyptians’ creed, revitalizing the system of values and Egypt’s Islamic social unity … [and] exploiting the agricultural, economic and technological capacities in the country on a scientific basis.”
Some experts are wary that the new groups and the re-emergence of Salafi jihadis may lead to the use of violence in Alexandria, which has not experienced violence by Islamist movements in a long time.
Ibrahim purports that the extreme polarization in society has caused takfirism, the practice of labeling others as apostates, to grow, while secularists also make accusations of treason — all of which are signs that alienation is increasing.
For him, while the Brotherhood has more grasp on its members, as does the Salafi Dawah, more fluid movements are dangerous because younger members cannot be restrained.
Asked about the future of these movements, Ibrahim says that after five years, the political scene will be dominated by one or two of them, while smaller ones will be squeezed out of the scene. Which ones will emerge as the strongest players remains to be seen.
This piece was translated from Arabic by Dina Zafer.
This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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