Egypt: Islamism Trumps Arabism
- Shifting Sands
And Now, Islamism Trumps Arabism
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
August 20, 2006
SHE grew up in Cairo with the privileges that go to the daughter of a
military officer, attended a university and landed a job in marketing.
He grew up in a poor village of dusty unpaved roads, where young men
work long hours in a brick factory while dreaming of getting a
government job that would pay $90 a month.
But Jihan Mahmoud, 24, from the middle-class neighborhood of
Heliopolis, and Madah Ali Muhammad, 23, from a village in the Nile
Delta, have come to the exact same conclusion about what they and
their country need: a strong Islamic political movement.
"I have more faith in Islam than in my state; I have more faith in
Allah than in Hosni Mubarak
Ms. Mahmoud said, referring to the president of Egypt. "That is why I
am proud to be a Muslim."
The war in Lebanon, and the widespread conviction among Arabs that
that war by bloodying Israel, has fostered and validated those kinds
of feelings across Egypt and the region. In interviews on streets and
in newspaper commentaries circulated around the Middle East, the
prevailing view is that where Arab nations failed to stand up to
Israel and the United States, an Islamic movement succeeded.
"The victory that Hezbollah achieved in Lebanon will have earthshaking
regional consequences that will have an impact much beyond the borders
of Lebanon itself," Yasser Abuhilalah of Al Ghad, a Jordanian daily,
wrote in Tuesday's issue.
"The resistance celebrates the victory," read the front-page headline
in Al Wafd, an opposition daily in Egypt.
Hezbollah's perceived triumph has propelled, and been propelled by, a
wave already washing over the region. Political Islam was widely seen
as the antidote to the failures of Arab nationalism, Communism,
socialism and, most recently, what is seen as the false promise of
American-style democracy. It was that wave that helped the banned but
tolerated Muslim Brotherhood win 88 seats in Egypt's Parliament last
December despite the government's violent efforts to stop voters from
getting to the polls. It was that wave that swept Hamas
power in the Palestinian government in January, shocking Hamas itself.
"We need an umbrella," said Mona Mahmoud, 40, Jihan's older sister.
"In the 60's, Arabism was the umbrella. We had a cause. Now we lack an
umbrella. We feel lost in space. We need to be affiliated to
something. Usually in our part of the world, because of what religion
means to us, we immediately resort to it."
The lesson learned by many Arabs from the war in Lebanon is that an
Islamic movement, in this case Hezbollah, restored dignity and honor
to a bruised and battered identity. People in Egypt still talk
painfully about the loss to Israel in 1967, a loss that was the
beginning of the end of pan-Arabism as an ideology to unite the region
and define its people.
Hezbollah's perceived victory has highlighted, and to many people here
validated, the rise of another unifying ideology, a kind of
Arab-Islamic nationalism. On the street it has even seemed to erase
divisions between Islamic sects, like Sunni and Shiite. At the moment,
the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah
is widely viewed as a pan-Arab Islamic hero.
"The losers are going to be the Arab regimes, U.S.A. and Israel," said
Dr. Fares Braizat of the Center for Strategic Studies at the
University of Jordan. "The secular resistance movements are gone. Now
there are the Islamists coming in. So the new nationalism is going to
be religious nationalism, and one of the main reasons is dignity.
People want their dignity back."
The terms Islamic nationalism and pan-Islamism have a negative
connotation in the West, where they are associated with fundamentalism
and terrorism. But that is increasingly not the case in Egypt. Under
the dual pressures of foreign military attacks in the region and a
government widely viewed as corrupt and illegitimate, Islamic groups
are seen by many people as incorruptible, disciplined, efficient and
caring. A victory for Hezbollah in Lebanon is by extension a victory
for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
"People will say Hezbollah achieved a very good thing, so why should
we mistrust the Muslim Brotherhood," said Hassan Naffa, a professor of
political science at Cairo University.
There is a wide diversity of views and agendas under the
pan-Islamic-Arab umbrella. But as is often the case in politically
aligned movements, those differences are easily papered over when that
movement is in the opposition.
"Hezbollah is a resistance movement that has given us a solution,"
said Yomana Samaha, a radio talk-show host in Cairo who identified
herself as secular and a supporter of separating religion and
government. But when asked if she would vote for a Muslim Brotherhood
candidate in Egypt, she said "Yeah, why not?"
It was an answer she seemed reluctant but relieved to state.
"If they have a solution," she repeated, "why not?"
A solution to what?
"Loss of dignity," said Mona Mahmoud, who is her friend.
Concepts of individual and collective identity are fluid here. During
the British occupation of Egypt, a rise in Egyptian nationalism helped
lead to independence in the early 1900's. After the revolution of
1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser led the country and the region to seek unity
under the banner of Arabism. That was a theme trumpeted by leaders
from Col. Muammar
Libya to Hafez al-Assad
Syria to Saddam Hussein
But according to many political scientists and intellectuals, the glue
of pan-Arabism began to weaken in Egypt after defeat in the
Arab-Israel War of 1967, a decline that quickened through the 1970's
and into the 1980's.
"People think that this defeat was a punishment from God because we
drifted far from the teachings of Islam," said Gamal Badawi, an
Since then there has been a steady and visible change in many
Egyptians' relationship to political Islam. It is not that Egyptians
are suddenly more religious, political analysts said. This has always
been a religious country. It is that they are more apt to define
themselves by their faith. On the streets, that is most evident in the
number of women an overwhelming majority who cover their heads
with Islamic headscarves, a sign not just of individual conviction but
also of peer pressure.
"The failure of pan-Arabism, the lack of democracy, and corruption
this drives people to an extent of despair where they start to find
the solution in religion," said Gamal el-Ghitany, editor of Akhbar
al-Adab, a literary magazine distributed in Egypt.
Echoing that view, Diaa Rashwan, an expert in Islamic movements and
analyst with the government-financed Center for Political and
Strategic Studies in Cairo, said, "People have come to identify
themselves more as Muslims during the last five years in response to
the U.S.-led 'war on terrorism' which Egyptians frequently feel is a
discriminatory campaign targeting Muslims and Islam worldwide."
But it is not just outside pressures that have pressed so many people
of this nation, and this region, toward that view. The events that
helped shape Mr. Muhammad's world view from his Delta village
illustrate the way the government of Egypt also plays a role.
Last December Mr. Muhammad's uncle, Mustafa Abdel Salam, 61, was shot
in the head and killed by the Egyptian police as he was going to pray
at a mosque, according to witnesses, including Mr. Muhammad and other
villagers. The killing occurred on the last day of voting in Egypt's
parliamentary elections, a months-long process that was marred by
police officers who were ordered to block voters from getting to the
polls in many districts. The government grew concerned after
candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood began winning in
record numbers. While the brotherhood is banned, candidates affiliated
with the organization ran as independents.
The government says that the police did not fire live ammunition at
citizens, but many people were killed and doctors and witnesses
including Western diplomats said that the police did fire live
rounds into people trying to vote. After the election was over and Mr.
Abdel Salam was buried, the brotherhood-affiliated candidate visited
the family to offer his condolences and help. The winning candidate,
from the governing National Democratic Party
did not visit.
Mr. Muhammad said that the whole experience strengthened his
conviction that "Islam is the solution" a phrase that is the slogan
of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Our voice is not heard," said Mr.
Muhammad. "It is only the authorities who have a say. The smallest
thing, like we go to vote, and we get beaten. So I will hold on to my
religion, and that's it."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Egypt for this article,and
Souad Mekhennet from Amman, Jordan.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW