Egypt: On Sufis and ‘Political Dervishes’

by editor | 31st August 2011 9:47 am

Post Views: 3

Egyptians are committed in ensuring a strong foundation for democratic reconstruction.
Larbi Sadiki
Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators protest demanding political reform in Cairo [AP]

Egypt’s political landscape can be likened to tectonic plates: constantly shifting.
The aftershocks of the country’s political tsunami continue to be felt in the alignments, re-alignments and coalition building unfolding day by day.
The latest to enter the foray are the Sufis – at the invitation of the country’s fragile liberal forces struggling to make an impact against the more solidified religious forces.
How is the grab for power and short-term gain corrupting the quest for genuine and substantive long-term institution building?
Religious Egypt

There is no escape from religion in Egypt – in this regard post-revolution is more like pre-revolution. Copts and Muslims are equally spiritual and take the religious experience very seriously. It is difficult to imagine Egypt without the Nile. Likewise, it is impossible to imagine Egypt without religion and religiosity.
In theory, liberal and secular recipes might have some value in them as templates of political correctness and modernising veneer. In practice, they are not enabling enough, at least not as yet, for forces and voices espousing them to bite into the body politic.
Stay tuned for the coming battles over what kind of constitution, namely the status of Islamic law in legislation, the country should develop after the November parliamentary elections – if not postponed again.

The battle lines are already drawn between the liberal and secular forces on one side and the Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood [MB] and the Salafists) on the other. What complicates matters is the sympathy by the Prime Minister’s office and the Military Council for such tenets, and the – Freedom & Justice  Party (MB-FJP) does not wish to sabotage the excellent relations they have thus far maintained with the Military Council.

The Immutable and Mutable in Egypt

Largely, historical pedigree and institutionalisation will provide the political pivots around which politics is organised, informed and shaped in the Arab World’s leading state.

One is the army which is a professional institution par excellence and is a major stakeholder in the state. Even under Mubarak it has remained autonomous, which like in Tunisia explains its non-use of force against the civilian population. It will remain a mover and shaker of politics, however.

The Wafd’s historical role and aura, especially under Saad Zaghloul, and its role in recruitment during state-formation and de-colonisation provides it with a political repertoire for rebuilding itself into a key political party. Today’s Wafd is riddled with problems, with internecine fighting dimming its previous shine.

Like the Wafd, the Muslim Brotherhood, now licensed and empowered through having a political arm is a formidable force, versed into the politics of Egypt from the time of the monarchy till present. Its wealth, cadres, resourcefulness, global ties, networks amongst Egypt’s religious and non-religious elites, grassroots struggles and welfarism, and popular following endows it with unmatched weight in the current political topography in Egypt.

Closeness and affinity with the Azhar, which is not in any way institutional is a bonus, but they do not always see eye to eye on numerous matters of national importance. In the post-revolution period, the Azhar will inevitably become more embroiled in politics, and it already is. Short of fielding candidates to parliament, its say in politics will be of import to all.

The above three forces are chief political pivots.

The Sufi brotherhoods are ubiquitous in Egypt. But unlike in neighbouring Sudan and Libya their political role has been negligible. Like the Salafis, they will need time to be coached into the mastery of the art of politics.

The 6th of April Movement, which has divided after the revolution, and the National Movement for Change have lots of potential, and their political instinct to engage the current phase through coalition-building is judicious. This gives the old and new small parties political texture and a margin of existence. Trade unions remain weak and their role will in the foreseeable future remain limited.

The above forces represent the new face of post-revolutionary Egypt, and their role in politics is bound to solidify, either by coalescing within and without, by drawing on the weight of existing pivotal actors.

Emergence of Excluded Religion

The Salafis probably outnumber the MB in terms of popular reach. They have been functioning underground and the the Alexandria-based so-called ‘Tanzeem 2’ (apparatus 2, on the right of political Islam’s spectrum) has been lying low but not idle. Today they want a place in post-Mubarak Egypt and have either formed political parties (e.g. Al-Adl, Al-Nour) or have parties under construction, as it were.

What they lack now is the civic continuity, visibility and political know-how of the MB. The MB is weighty today because it has invested so much capital in struggles against the state, competition for power in local and parliamentary elections, and networked widely, nationally and globally. Whether in Gaza or Bosnia they have had a role to play, no matter how minimal.

To raise the banner of ‘khilafa‘ (Islamic Caliphate) in today’s world, as does Hizb al-Tahrir in London, is political bankruptcy in a country like Egypt. This is a language not found within the MB, but integral to many Salafi groups politico-religious template. No wonder the liberals and the secular forces, including many Copts, were petrified by such banners the day the Salafis descended on Tahrir Square on the 29th of July.

Some of the current re-alignments happening today are reactionary, seeking to respond to the Salafis’ call for Sharia’h, Islamic law, by dragging into politics the Sufis, supposedly and theoretically the soft, moderate and accommodating face of Islam.

The Al-‘Azmiyya Brotherhood Shaykh, Alaa Al-Din Abu Al-‘Azayim tried to oblige, promising what is named here a ‘malyuniyya‘ (one-million people) to gather in Tahrir Square on the 12th of August for a Friday ‘for the love of Egypt’ show of force. The Sufis never came either for disagreement, which is the view of most Sufi Brotherhoods, or for inability to recruit enough people for the malyuniyya of patriotic ‘love’.

Plus, the timing is bad: the Military Council is banning all ‘malyuniyyas‘, and future ones will be held in conjunction with it, including the one planned for August 19. All arteries to Tahrir Square are heavily policed with security forces trucks flanking streets in and out of Tahrir.

In politics, the liberals and the secularists, despite the best of intentions, are looking like political dervishes. They are overwhelmed by the power of religion in a country where they will for some time to come be dwarfed by Islamists of all kinds.

The penny has finally dropped. The liberals and secularists may have just realised that in politics they, too, might need the mysterious hand of the lord to forge their inexistent political careers and breathe some life into their causes.

Where does that leave liberalism? And secularism? All long they have maintained that a key tenet of their political philosophy to be separation of religion and politics! They are entitled, in my view, to adapt to the local reality whose sensibilities and sensitivities differ from the birthplace and context of Western liberalism.

The MB has been adept at seeking coalitions with secular parties, including the Wafd these days, even if there are differences threatening a split between the two. Copts are becoming visible in the FJP and will join its electoral lists in November. The Wafd itself is flirting with the Salafists, as an insurance policy should their coalition with the MB-FJP come unstuck. Most likely, if the debate about the constitutional tenets heats up, the Salafists and MB-FJP would form joint lists for the November elections, with or without the Wafd.

Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Egyptians are brilliant people. They are just facing the travails for democratic reconstruction and the challenges of coming together to re-imagine political community.

They are entitled to differ, to make mistakes, and even act clumsily. There are benefits to this: it is a democratic learning curve they must measure up to.

In describing the coalition building and the battle lines, I am not naively stating that Egypt is in a state of crisis. I am saying exactly the opposite: that I am optimistic about how this great nation is learning to parley, rely on its own resources instead of importing democratic moulds from without. All this I do this in the knowledge, as a committed student of Arab democratic transformation, that the road to democratic Egypt has just begun; may be the revolution has just begun.

As for the labels, MB, FJP, Salafis, Sufis, liberals, secularists or the followers of Shaykh Imam, the 8th of July or the ‘poverty first’ campaign, they are just the political capillaries to pluralism and pluralisation, some keys of how to open up the Pandora’s box of the struggle for good government in Egypt.

Egypt is finally breathing freedom.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), and the forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source URL: