What now, Egypt?

by Clemens Chay

In al-Karnak, Egyptian political writer Najib Mahfouz addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Two lines from this particular work of 1974 resound in today’s context:

“Everything depends on the unity of the Arabs in the effort.”

“Religion, religion is everything.”

Muslim Brotherhood supporters clashed with secular protesters at Tahrir Square, marking a tumultuous anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. Indeed, Mahfouz’s lines are relevant even today, where disunity plagues Egyptian politics in its political transition. While the two are at odds over the political future of Egypt, it is interesting to note that both groups had been working together in the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website, together with the use of Twitter, has come in response to the Liberals’ use of social media, and both groups are fighting over the digital space to provide a narrative about the revolution.[1] The Brotherhood’s rise to prominence following their success in the parliamentary elections has resulted in suspicion. Could this be a prelude to Brotherhood domination? Will the Brotherhood manipulate the military in order to establish their political stronghold? This remains to be seen, but this issue is no doubt a source of the political divisions that are becoming increasingly visible in Egypt.

Yet this disunity goes beyond the divide between “liberals” and “Islamists.” Within the ranks of the leading Salafi party, al-Nour, discontent is brewing. Khaled Saiid, who calls himself a “true revolutionary,” argues that the Nour Party is not only unrepresentative of the vast Salafi community in Egypt, but “unpatriotic” and “inflexible to the point of damage.”[2] Political differences now exist not only between parties, but within parties as well.

What about religion? Najib Mahfouz himself had a critical view of radical Islam and was not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood, but what is to be made of the Muslim Brotherhood? While the Brotherhood has stated that it will not run a candidate in the presidential elections, it has to cast away doubts and fears of any strong involvement with the military. Yet its recent contact with Mubarak’s former cabinet ministers has aroused more suspicion. Is religion everything then? From the Islamist party Ennahda’s strong performance in the Tunisian elections to the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, it is difficult to refute the importance of religion. However, it is the immediate political context that has allowed religion to surface as an influential factor. Egypt’s struggle against a common oppression is not over yet. Hosni Mubarak is no longer president, but military rule still stands in the way. Moreover, in this period of political transition, Egyptians struggle to determine what they stand for, and this is where religion enters the picture.

A decade after the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt was suffering from military stalemate and economic breakdown and many questioned her centrality in Arab politics. Once more, Egypt finds herself in a very familiar situation. As calls for civilian rule continue, revolutionaries must monitor the situation carefully for Egypt lies in a precarious position, strung between the possibility of military resurgence and the threat of Islamist dominance.

[1] Lauren E. Bohn, “The Muslim Brotherhood takes Twitter,” Foreign Policy, http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/11/18/the_muslim_brotherhood_takes_twitter

[2] Lauren E. Bohn, “Egypt’s Revolutionary Narrative Breaks Down,” Foreign Policy, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/26/egypt_s_revolutionary_narrative_breaks_down?page=0,1

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