Morsy campaign rediscovers religion’s potency in politics

As the race heats up between the nation’s two leading Islamist presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood is mixing its new-found political rhetoric with the more comfortable — and potentially popular — religious discourse that dominated the group for generations.

Observers believe that the revival of the Brotherhood’s religious discourse reflects the group’s confusion and threatens the tenuous trust it is building with secular Egyptians and the West.

Since he launched his campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsy, affirmed his commitment to the group’s “Nahda” (renaissance) political platform, which seeks to establish democracy, ensure equality and justice and improve the general welfare. But at campaign rallies, Morsy's campaign often strays from these terrestrial aims.

A dual discourse

Besides his constant pledge to implement God’s Sharia, Morsy has been touring the country with backers who portray him as the sole Islamist candidate invoking an overtly religious language. His cheerleaders have tweaked the revolution’s famous slogan, “The people want to bring down the regime” into “The people want God’s Sharia to be implemented.”

In a recent rally, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie compared Morsy to one of the prophet’s most venerated companions and the first rightly-guided caliph. “The Ummah had sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr, and by the same token the Ummah will swear allegiance to Morsy as president of Egypt, God willing,” said Badie, addressing thousands of his group’s supporters in the Delta town of Mahalla on Tuesday.

At the same event, Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy, who has recently appeared with Morsy at more than one rally, addressed the crowd saying that Morsy and his group are capable of implementing Sharia. Then, Hegazy, a member of the Salafi-led Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, dropped a bombshell, adding: “We believe that the dream of reviving the Islamic caliphate will be realized by the hands of Morsy and his brothers and his party. Jerusalem will be the capital of this caliphate.”

At his first rally last month, Morsy himself had reportedly chanted the Muslim Brotherhood’s controversial slogan: “The Quran is our constitution.”

“I feel the dose of religion is very high in the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign,” said Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist with Durham University. “The Brothers are going back to the old game of using religion for mobilization.”

However, Hatem Abdel Azim, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said that his group should not be held responsible for what their backers say. “The party’s official discourse that comes out from its institution is very political and the same with Dr. Morsy’s discourse,” said Abdel Azim.

Credibility at risk

The ongoing Islamist rhetoric marks a departure from the electoral discourse that the group has adopted since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. To prove its commitment to a political, rather than a religious agenda, the group had dropped its famous “Islam is the solution” slogan for the sake of a more secular motto during the last parliamentary elections: “We bring good to Egypt.”

Earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood was hailed by some observers for not using Islam to mobilize voters in favor of the March 2011 constitutional amendments, distinguishing themselves from Salafis who launched a ruthless campaign against opponents, accusing them of seeking to wipe out Sharia.

In the meantime, the Brothers have been striving to project to the West and to the secular intelligentsia the image of a moderate organization whose Islamist policies would not threaten stability in the region or undermine individual liberties. On several occasions, the Brothers affirmed their commitment to Egypt’s international agreements, namely the peace treaty with Israel. This attitude was the outcome of several decades of the group's pragmatism and ideological revision.

The apparent investment in religious rhetoric could be seen as an attempt to attract conservative voters rather than an ideological setback.

A group that promises to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment and achieve “renaissance” cannot antagonize the West and the business elite by pursuing the goal of reviving an Islamic caliphate or turning Egypt into a religious state.

However, this contradiction can still hurt the group.

This inconsistency may raise doubts about their commitment to the “civil” nature of the state, says Anani, author of a book and dozens of articles about the Brotherhood. “This will expose the group further to the civil and liberal elite,” he said, suggesting that such discourse could exacerbate doubts of the secular intelligentsia about the authenticity of the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy and liberal values.

Battling Abouel Fotouh

Anani says that the religious rhetoric aims primarily at enhancing Morsy’s chances in the poll set for 23 and 24 May.

“The focus on religion is meant to make up for Morsy’s weak charisma and to undermine [Abdel Moneim] Abouel Fotouh’s popularity.”

In political circles, Morsy is not seen as one of the Brothers’ savviest or most charismatic politicians. The fact that the group fielded him as a back-up candidate for its influential leader Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified for his unresolved criminal record, had hurt his image. He became the subject of many political jokes that dubbed him “the spare” candidate. 

In the meantime, the 62-year-old engineer faces the fiercest competition for the Islamist vote from Abouel Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was dismissed from the organization last summer.

Despite his relatively liberal outlook, Abouel Fotouh has already earned the support of the Salafi Dawah, the nation’s largest Salafi bloc, and Jama'a al-Islamiya. Meanwhile, his progressive views on democracy have appealed to many liberal and revolutionary forces. The 60-year-old doctor is also expected to attract the votes of many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s young members.

“Abouel Fotouh blew up the Muslim Brotherhood. He put them in a tough position,” says Anani.

An audio recording that purportedly depicts a mid-rank Muslim Brotherhood leader trying to dissuade a group of Muslim sisters from voting for Abouel Fotouh has recently gone viral on cyberspace, attesting to the ferocity of the competition.

In this audio clip, a senior brother from the Delta tells a female crowd: “I swear to God and by the great Quran that we will go back to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s days if Abouel Fotouh comes [to power].”

For the 84-year-old organization, Nasser’s times were the most notorious because he had jailed, tortured and forced into exile thousands of brothers. They widely hold him as averse to Islam.

“I swear to God, you won’t be allowed to wear headscarves or pray,” the brother says in the clip.

In an implicit acknowledgement of the authenticity of the recording, the Muslim Brotherhood posted an apology on its Facebook page on Monday.

This apology does not deny the fact that the Brothers’ official discourse seeks to undermine Abouel Fotouh’s Islamist leanings in the eyes of Egypt’s voters, who entrusted Islamists with nearly 70 percent of the parliamentary seats in the first post-Mubarak legislative elections.

Earlier this week, Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official spokesperson, implied that Abouel Fotouh’s political project is not as committed to the Islamic Sharia as Morsy’s.

“There is a huge difference between the two projects,” Ghozlan told Egypt Independent. “Our project is based on the Islamic Sharia. However, he [Abouel Fotouh] had ruled out that issue of Sharia and called himself a conservative rather than an Islamist candidate.”

Since he launched his presidential campaign last year, Abouel Fotouh has sought to market himself as the missing link between Islamists and secularists and as a national, rather than Islamist, politician who can earn the endorsement of different ideological factions. 

“From day one, I said I will be the candidate representing Islamic Egypt, Al-Azhar, the church, the left and liberals. All these are components of Egypt and whoever wants to become president shall respect these components,” said Abouel Fotouh in an interview earlier this year.

Ali al-Bahnasawy, a media adviser for Abouel Fotouh’s campaign, ruled out that attempts to question Abouel Fotouh’s Islamist credentials could hurt his chances.

“Whoever sees him or listens to him senses his Islamist background and his strong belief that religion shall not be reduced to matters that restrict people’s [liberties],” Bahnasawy told Egypt Independent.

“Now we have numbers proving that Dr. Abouel Fotouh’s discourse is the most preferred among the people,” added Bahnasawy, referring to the results of the latest polls that place Abouel Fotouh far ahead of Morsy.

In July 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council voted to dismiss Abouel Fotouh on grounds of violating the group’s earlier decision not to run for president. Later on, the group changed its mind and decided to field a candidate for the highest executive post.

In fact, Abouel Fotouh’s dismissal was the last episode of steady attempts by the organization’s conservatives to marginalize him for his relatively reformist views on democracy and minorities.

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