In Cairo, one family's story shows rise of radical threat

Grimly fascinating report from Reuters' Tom Perry on a radicalized family in Egypt: 

CAIRO (Reuters) - Fahmy Abdel Raouf and his 13-year old son had been missing for months when their family got word they had been killed in a gun battle with security forces and hailed as "martyrs" by the most dangerous militant group in Egypt.
"If his intention was jihad, I hope God accepts his deed," said Abdel Raouf's wife, dressed head-to-toe in black with only her eyes visible behind a conservative Islamic face veil as she spoke at their family home in Cairo.

The story of the father and son from a working class neighborhood of Cairo offers a glimpse into the militant threat facing Egypt, which has increased dramatically since the army overthrew Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi last year.

The pair were members of the group spearheading Islamist attacks in Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, according to both the authorities and a statement from the organization.

Abdel Raouf, 38, had fought alongside Islamists in the Syrian civil war. His son, radicalized by the state's bloody crackdown on Islamists that followed Mursi's overthrow last year, was a much newer convert.

They symbolize the growing complexity of a problem that will face Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who became Egypt's de facto leader when he deposed Mursi. Sisi is expected to win a presidential election in May.

Armed groups are drawing in both established militants, such as Abdel Raouf, and the recently radicalized, such as his son.

Their reach has extended well beyond the Sinai Peninsula - birthplace of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis - to the capital. At least four members of the cell targeted on March 19 came from the same Cairo neighborhood.

"You are not talking about long-standing or known organizations," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

"We are talking about the third generation of radical jihadists that emerged from the Arab Spring," he said. "This is a generation that nobody has control over."

Also this little tidbit:

After Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011 and the Islamist Mursi elected the following year, the police left Abdel Raouf alone. But he found no satisfaction in Muslim Brotherhood rule. He viewed the mainstream group as too soft on Islam and said they were promoting "half religion".

"He never liked them," his wife said.

Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

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The other failed dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I received a very funny email out the of blue from Nour Youssef, a young reader of the website. It started like this: “Would you be interested in taking on a slave under the pretense of an internship?” After some further quite funny correspondence and a meeting, we decided to try things out — I was not sure I had the time to work with an intern but she was persistent. She calls me Mr Miyagi and I have created a rule for my email that takes her emails and files them under a folder labelled “grasshopper”.[1] She has heen sending me some very useful links and notes that I will be putting up periodically. A few days ago, she went to the debate AUC hosted between ”Egypt’s Jon Stewart“ Bassem Youssef and ultra-conservative Islamist from the Gamaa Islamiya (once a terrorist group) Nageh Ibrahim. This is her account of the debate, and serves as the inaugural post of the contributor who shall henceforth be referred to as ”Nour the intern”.

  1. Fans of The Karate Kid will appreciate.  ↩

The debate on political satire between the famous political satirist, Bassem Youssef, and member of Gamaaa Islamiyaa Nageh Ibrahim, moderated by Hafez Al-Mirazi at AUC on February 7, did not have much to do with political satire or debating. While Bassem Youssef stood his ground, Nageh Ibrahim defied gravity to hover several inches above his.

Ibrahim, who is an accurate representation of the current Salafi mood — in the sense that he is a loyal Morsi supporter, but is openly, and politely, critical of the Muslim Brotherhood — was under palpable pressure to liberalize his views to mollify the high-class audience of embittered liberals and moderates, whose main reason for attending (apart from admiring Bassem Youssef up-close) was to see an Islamist get an intellectual beat down and have the “Islam they know and love” reinforced. They got more than they bargained for: a subdued and eager-to-please Salafi who let Youssef set the tone for the argument-turned-ditto and was content to smile benevolently and merely build on Youssef’s points.

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In Translation: On Mali's Islamist groups

There is a strange divide about the situation in Mali in the Arab world. Beyond the regular newspaper coverage and almost reflexive suspicion of “neo-colonialist” motives behind the French-led operations, my impression is that the average Egyptian or for that matter average Arab is not greatly concerned with this situation, especially at a time when many countries are embroiled in tense domestic developments. Yet, for Islamists, the Mali issue has been important: not only for the Salafis who protested outside the French embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, but also in the wider Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brothers. Just see Mohammed Morsi’s surprisingly vocal and repeated opposition to the intervention (I’ll have more on that soon) and the Brotherhood’s quite strong stance on the issue. They care about it way more than the average person or that the geostrategic importance of what happens in Mali (and is supported by the UN, Mali’s neighbors and its government) would suggest. It’s an interesting phenomenon now that they are in power, because it’s always clear whether their positions stem from opposition to interventionism or sympathies for some of the Islamist movements of northern Mali.

I came across the analysis below through a link on Twitter. I’m not sure where it originates, but the author is a well-known writer on Islamists (with Islamist sympathies himself) who edits the al-Islamiyoun website, which covers analyses of Islamist movements. I won’t comment on the content, as I am no specialist on the issue.

As always, our In Translation series is made possible by the wonderful Industry Arabic. If you need something -- anything! -- translated, please give them a go. They're really, really good.

Islamist Groups in Mali…An Overview

By Ali Abdel Aal, editor of al-Islamiyoun, Arabic original in Word format here.

In the past nine months, groups of “jihadist” Islamist groups have taken control of Mali’s northern areas, having captured them in the aftermath of an armed rebellion by the Tuareg people, a rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country and to create an independent state.

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The myth of the Islamist winter

The myth of the Islamist winter

Oliver Roy:

The Islamists are obliged to search for allies, as they control neither the army nor the religious sphere. And if they are able to find allies among the Salafists – the religious conservatives – and the military, these two groups are nevertheless not prepared to allow them to become dominant. The Islamists have to negotiate. There is a classical logic of power at work here: the dominant political group finds it hard to accept that power could change hands and so seeks to preserve its position by any means necessary. Moreover, there is no revolutionary dynamic among the populace that would allow it to prevail by appealing to sentiment in the street.

It is interesting to consider the precise nature of this authoritarian turn because it bears little resemblance to the “Islamic revolution” often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the Renaissance Party, in Tunisia. It is, on the contrary, a conservative and paradoxically pro-western “counter-revolution”. Consider Egypt. If the president, Mohamed Morsi, is denounced in Tahrir Square as the new Mubarak (and not the new Khomeini), it is because his opponents have grasped that his aim is to establish an authoritarian regime using classical means (appealing to the army and controlling the apparatus of the state).

The electoral and social base of the Egyptian regime is not revolutionary. Instead of trying to reach a compromise with the principal actors of the Arab spring, Morsi is attempting to get all the supporters of the new order on his side. The coalition he is building is based on business, the army, the Salafists and those elements of the “people” that are supposedly tired of anarchy.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Meet a Tunisian who doesn't think the revolution started in Tunisia

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, speaking at the Islamist love-in recently held in Khartoum:

"In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution."

What is he referring to? The 2006 takeover of Gaza by Hamas?

In Translation: The crisis of the political Islamists

Khalil El-Enani, an Egyptian scholar of Islamist movements, has long criticized these movements intellectual stasis and their authoritarian internal structures. Post-Arab Spring, as these movements reached power through elections, he argues the question is whether they are able to retain any ideological coherence as they become ruling parties. In the piece below, he argues that the chief threat to the Islamists comes from this rather than non-Islamist rivals.

In my view, one of the striking thing about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt is the extent to which they were unprepared for power. This is both in the sense that they still seem lack the cadres (i.e. policy and government professionals able to run things) and that they have shown a surprising lack of vision when one has been expected to turn the country in a new direction. And they have also become much vaguer about the religious content of their discourse, in part because the Islamist field is divided on these issues, and in part because they have first sought to compromise on their ideology to anchor themselves in power. But does the “crisis of the Islamist political project” described below by El-Anani, or any “failure of political Islam” as Olivier Roy puts it, mean anything significant in their ability to rule? The previous regimes were ideologically void, but held on to power for many years. Failure of ideology does not mean failure of government or regime. So when I read about the crisis of Islamists, I do not think of an endpoint but a situation that may be with us for a long time, lingering and unresolved .

This translation is made possible by the support of Industry Arabic, which offers a wide range of professional translations services. Please check them out for your personal, NGO or business translation needs.

The Crisis of the Islamists’ Political Project

Khalil El Anani, al-Hayat, October 17, 2012

According to the Islamists’ opponents, the Islamists’ arrival to power was neither pure chance nor a stroke of luck offered by the Arab Spring but rather a result of long decades of opposition to existing regimes, which provided them with legitimacy and organization that others lacked. The Islamists cannot be blamed for this as much as their opponents, who busied themselves – and continue to do so – with attacking the Islamists and attempting foil their project more than they busied themselves with building the organizational and social structures necessary to compete with the Islamists on the political and the popular level. However, contrary to what some think, the danger the Islamists – or more specifically the Islamist project – face does not come from the outside but rather from within the Islamists’ political and ideological project itself.

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"Yes, I’m a blasphemer. Get over it."

Yes, I’m a blasphemer. Get over it.

Courageous and informative column by Maikel Nabil Sanad about Egypt's use of anti-blasphemy laws against Christians, atheists and Shias. Read it all.

Blowback from Egypt's released jihadist militants?

This is an important story by Siobhan Gorman and Matt Bradley in the Wall Street Journal:

The revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa also emptied prisons of militants, a problem now emerging as a potential new terrorist threat.

Fighters linked to one freed militant, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, took part in the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya that killed four Americans, U.S. officials believe based on initial reports. Intelligence reports suggest that some of the attackers trained at camps he established in the Libyan Desert, a former U.S. official said.

Western officials say Mr. Ahmad has petitioned the chief of al Qaeda, to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.

U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Mr. Ahmad's activities for several months. The Benghazi attacks gave a major boost to his prominence in their eyes.

Mr. Ahmad, although believed to be one of the most potent of the new militant operatives emerging from the chaos of the Arab Spring, isn't the only one, according to Western officials. They say others are also trying to exploit weaknesses in newly established governments and develop a capacity for strikes that could go well beyond recent violent protests in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

Since the fall of Mubarak, in Egypt alone dozens of former Islamist militants have been released, both by the SCAF and later by President Mohammed Morsi.

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In Translation: Salafis vs Ikhwan

We’ve discussed several times, on this blog, the rivalries between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. If one goes by the results of the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections, the Salafis are the MB’s most potent political adversary, able to challenge them at the ballot box better than any other political movement. In terms of social outreach, the Salafis have a far more diverse and spread charitable movement than the MB’s, albeit one that is fragmented among any different organizations. And with regard to religious legitimacy, not only can the Salafis out-Islam pretty much everybody, they have a longstanding suspicion towards the MB’s secretive structure and the idolization of figures such as the movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna (indeed, the former regime used to encourage Salafis to denounce Brothers as practitioners of shirk — basically polytheism or undermining the oneness of God — and hizbiyya, the prioritizing of the movement/party over pure adherence to Islamic values.

The article below is about video appearances by major Egyptian Salafi preachers in which they lambast the MB on religious ground. This is based on the usual roster of Salafi critiques honed by late 20th-century Saudi Wahhabi clerics such as Sheikh Bin Baz and Sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali — hence the references to “Madkhalis” in the article below to denote his followers. If you really want to know more, follow a site such as this one which goes on at length about Madkhali’s “exposure” of the MB, and especially al-Banna as a Sufi (the horror!) and Sayyid Qutb as a crypto-Leninist Ash’ari. There is a whole universe of anti-MB Salafi literature on the internet. Of course, this tension (which is not universal to all Salafis, of course) is one aspect of the uneasiness the Saudis feel towards the Muslim Brothers’ rise in Egypt and elsewhere. It appears it is bound to be a major feature of the post-uprisings Arab world for years to come, too.

Featuring translations from the Arabic press in Egypt and elsewhere is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a really good translation service specializing in Arabic. Reports, press articles, technical documents — you name it, they can do it. If you have professional Arabic translation needs, check these guys out.

Salafis Wage Video Warfare Against Muslim Brotherhood

Abdel Wahab Eissa, al-Tahrir, 16 September 2012

Political disagreement, or maybe even rupture, has come to characterize the relationship between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood recently, as statements from both camps against each other have become more heated and full of invective, which indicates that the united front they seem to present is only against common enemies. Some of these statements have been compiled by the Madkhali Salafi Front in a single video that contains harsh commentary and criticism against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini. It also includes grim, virulent attacks by Sheikh Yasser Burhami, and a fierce offensive waged by the premier Madkhali sheikh in Egypt, Sheikh Mohamed Said Raslan.

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Crackdown on Islamists in the UAE

Jenifer Fenton writes in about the mass arrests of Islamists in the UAE, whose spiraling campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood regionally and domestic dissidents (Islamists from Islah and others, including non-Islamists) at home continues apace. One question I have about these arrests is, how do they play out in the inter-family politics of the Emirates? Notable in all this is the public absence of the Nahyan family, often thought to be the most anti-Islamist, and of course the most powerful in the UAE. The ruler of Sharjah, who might be thought to be in a position where he has to make more public concessions to Islamists (and social conservatives more generally) within his own emirate, has taken the lead in justifying the crackdown — albeit in that typically paternalistic/tribalist manner of the Gulf.

At least 50 people are now detained in the United Arab Emirates.  The arrests amount to one of the biggest crackdown on Islamists in years, after mounting nervousness by the authorities in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Many, but not all, of those held are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), which calls for reform but also for “adhering to Islamic principles”.  

Al-Islah was founded many years ago with the approval of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The stated purpose of the group was to be a religious and educational body. The government feels that it has moved away from these goals and has developed a political agenda.

On July 15, Salem Saeed Kubaish, the Abu Dhabi Attorney General, ordered the arrest of a group of people “for establishing and managing an organization with the aim of committing crimes that harm state security,” according to the state news agency WAM. The group is accused of  “opposing the constitution and the basic principles of the UAE ruling system, in addition to having links and affiliations to organizations with foreign agendas.”

Amnesty International has voiced their concerns that the detained men “are thought to be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.”

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Dunn on the necrophilia law hoax

It's gone around the internets a lot already, but I really think Michael Collins Dunn of MEI deserves kudos for his excellent deconstruction of the stupid "necrophilia law" hoax. It's really amazing how many people completely suspended their common sense and took it seriously. As he writes:

It's a case study in the down side of instant 24/7 reporting, and it tells us something about the tendency for Western media to believe absolutely anything about Islamists.

In Fayoum, the Salafis are the moderates

I often think some of the articles in English-language newspapers in Egypt are too riddled with academic jargon. But here's a fantastic example of an article by an academic — an anthropologist — that sheds light on politics rather than obscure it. It's by Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, and looks at why Salafists gave the Muslim Brothers real competition in mostly rural Fayoum:

Despite the common perception that Salafis are strict followers of Sharia compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, many of my research participants often talked about Salafis as religiously less strict than the Ikhwan. From the work of Ikwani leaders in the village, the villagers have noticed the strict hierarchy that informs the work of the Brotherhood members on the ground. In other words, the villagers understood the Brotherhood’s adherence to the dictates of the Guidance Bureau, or the Murshid, as an orthodoxy that made the Brotherhood stricter than the Salafis. They often said to me: “How come Ikhwan grassroot leaders all agree on the same things?” An incident that they often referred to is the insistence of Muslim Brotherhood members to force people to pray outside of a mosque, not build by the Brotherhood, during the Eid al-Fitr prayer last September.

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The rise of informal Islamists

The Advent of “informal” Islamists - Khalil al-Anani | The Middle East Channel:

The fragmentation of the Islamist scene in Egypt is a hallmark characteristic of the post-Hosni Mubarak era. After stagnation and dominance by one force, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Islamist scene has been drastically reshaped. More than 15 Islamists parties have officially or unofficially emerged after the revolution. Myriad Islamists have overwhelmed the public sphere freely and painlessly. And a parliament dominated by Islamists is in commission. It seems the lure of politics has immersed Islamists.

However, while many are preoccupied by the "rise" of the Muslim Brothers and the ultra-conservative Salafis, "informal" Islamists are stepping into politics vigorously and freely. They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas "formal" Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, "informal" Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework. They vividly operate in the new and expansive religious market that has flourished in Egypt since the revolution.

Good piece drawing attention to the fact that Egyptian Islamism has gotten a lot more complicated (or rather that its complexity has been brought to the fore by the removal of security constraints) and that independent actors such as prominent sheikhs can have a large political impact outside of formal institutions. Most interesting, as Khalil puts it, is that informal Islamists "target the members of "formal" Islamist organizations" — as we're seeing in the difficulty the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party are having in endorsing a presidential candidate without alienating their base.

Here's an excerpt from something I am in the middle of writing that touches on this:

The two biggest Islamist trends, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement, performed well in the parliamentary elections but face much greater problems in advancing a candidate of their own for the presidency. As the dominant parties in parliament (through the Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party respectively) they face multiple dilemmas: whether to choose a candidate among their leaders or a figure that has broader appeal, whether to back a candidate who is strongly independent and critical of SCAF or someone more conciliatory and controllable, and most of all how to resolve the divisions that exists among their bases and their leadership over who might be an appropriate figure.

This was evident in the Salafists' reluctance to choose a candidate and in the Muslim Brothers' back–and–forth or the selection of a candidate. The problem is particularly acute for the Brothers: both leading Islamist contenders (Aboul Fotouh and Abu Ismail) come from opposite ends of the Islamist spectrum, both have ties to the Brotherhood, and both are perceived to being uncontrollable by the group's leadership. This is probably why the Brotherhood is now trying to build internal consensus around a prominent external figure (Tareq al-Bishri, the prominent Islamist intellectual, has refused; so has Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil al-Arabi; Mansour Hassan is uncertain and head of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary Hussein al-Gheriani appears to be the favorite candidate but would be a late-starter with little name recognition.)

This is a really, really, big problem for the MB and the press is relaying on a daily basis their changes of mind, including the strong resistance from within to simply doing the obvious and nominating Khairat al-Shater for the presidency.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

The Muslim Brothers and their heretics

One of the more significant developments taking place in Egyptian politics in the last few years is the fragmentation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is perhaps part of a wider erosion of its monopoly on non-violent political Islam in Egypt. The rise of the Salafis may be a cause for concern, but the movement of young Muslim Brothers who left the Brotherhood to form their own movement, joined by major former leaders such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohammed Habib, is telling of the creation of a wider Islamist identity. And I think that's a good thing, because it dampens the authoritarianism that exists in the Brotherhood's tradition of discipline and hierarchy.

This testimony by a young former Brother is excellent, especially when talking about why he's not tempted to rejoin now that the Brotherhood is in a position to have real influence on society.

Overdoing Islamist panic

John Bradley, a British journalist who has written books about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has a new book out. And it's all about how the Arab uprisings were the most horrible thing ever to happen, how the Islamists have taken over everything, and everyone is stupid for hoping that some form of democracy might finally come to the Arab world.

Bradley's book on Egypt captured well the sense that things were coming to an end, and being subtitled "The land of the pharaohs on the brink of a revolution," he can claim uncanny prescience. But in fact, the book did not really predict anything specific other than the exhaustion of the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime, and had other problems. One of them was a very hostile treatment of Islamists — not that they don't deserve a cautious approach, but it was very much over the top — I remember for instance an odd passage in which Bradley gets pissed off with the then Deputy General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Muhammad Habib, for speaking polished fusha rather than aamiya.

Since the Arab Spring — which Bradley has taken to calling the Salafi Spring — he has been resoundly negative and pessimistic, and often alarmist about the electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. I downloaded the first chapter of his new book, After the Arab Spring: How Islamist have hijacked the Middle East revolts and found him resolutely negative about Tunisia (Tunisia for Pete's sake!), only citing Tunisians who worry about the victory of Ennahda (in my experience a minority) and taking incidents that were likely political manipulations like the whole Persepolis affair of last summer as signs of an impending totalitarian imposition of Sharia law. He almost sounds nostalgic about the supposed liberalism of Ben Ali! 

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Olivier Roy and post-islamism

les matins - Olivier Roy by franceculture

The above video, from the morning talk show on France Culture (a radio channel where the intellectual level is so high it is tantamount to being completely alien to typical US talk radio), features the "Islamologue" Olivier Roy, one of the best of the French school of academic specialists on Islamism. Roy is known for having coined, some 20 years ago, the failure of political Islam. In this show he discusses the post-uprising Arab world, making the following points:

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Hamid on the MB's "Arab Calvinism"

Shadi Hamid of Brookings-Doha does some great research, but I tend to disagree with what he has written over the past year about the Muslim Brothers — I think they are much more conservative and less democratic than he gives them credit for, and strongly oppose any special relationship or particular "engagement" between the US and the MB, which he seemed to advocate in this piece last May. And I don't think they're interested in the Turkish model in any meaningful manner. But Shadi has a very nice turn of phrase in his latest Foreign Affairs piece:

In years past, the Brotherhood distanced itself from the Turkish Islamists under Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, whom they saw as unfaithful to the Islamist program, morphing into little more than European-style conservative democrats. But having emerged from Mubarak's repression with a real chance of ruling, the Brotherhood is increasingly looking toward the Turkish model. What the Brotherhood has absorbed from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party is that strong economic growth makes everything else easier. If you raise people's living standards, they are more likely to listen to you on noneconomic matters. Perhaps more important, the Brotherhood believes Egyptians will associate any such economic success with the "Islamic project" -- a sort of Arab Calvinist dream.  

He goes on about the potential for the MB to use parliament as a counter-weight to SCAF and, eventually, the presidency as well as their institutional culture. But I find what's interesting about the economic ideas of the Brothers is actually taking place away from parliament (although they did try to introduce a business court reform bill in 2006 I believe) and in their discreet reaching out to the business community since Mubarak's overthrow. As a group of mostly economic liberals that has many entrepreneurs in its higher echelons, the MB has been experimenting with business incubators and sending reassuring messages to the business community. But it also has some odd economic ideas with roots in an Egyptian tradition of populism that cuts across the political spectrum and makes little sense today, such as, in the FJP's program, "Achieving self-sufficiency in strategic commodities, particularly of wheat and cotton."

But in many other respects they favor free entreprise, economic rule of law, help to boost SMEs and other very reasonable ideas, interwoven with some religious concepts such as makign zakat more effective, reforming the awqaf charitable foundation system and more. Do check out their program, which we've made available in English and Arabic in our documents section.

Egypt's Islamists and tourism

Halal tourism: summer fling anyone?

Read the passages below and you'll see a fundamental miscomprehension of what most European tourists (the bulk of those who visit Egypt) like to do on holiday:

"Tourists don't need to drink alcohol when they come to Egypt; they have plenty at home," a veiled Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Azza al-Jarf, told a cheering crowd of supporters on Sunday across the street from the Pyramids.

"They came to see the ancient civilization, not to drink alcohol," she said, her voice booming through a set of loudspeakers at a campaign event dubbed "Let's encourage tourism." The crowd chanted, "Tourism will be at its best under Freedom and Justice," the Brotherhood's party and the most influential political group to emerge from the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

. . .

Also, clerics like Yasser Bourhami, influential among hard-line Salafis, are presenting ideas for restrictions on tourism. Bourhami calls it "halal tourism," using the term for food that is ritually fit under Islamic law.

"A five-star hotel with no alcohol, a beach for women — sisters — separated from men in a bay where the two sides can enjoy a vacation for a week without sins," he said in an interview with private television network Dream TV. "The tourist doesn't have to swim with a bikini and harm our youth."

A leading member of Al-Nour, Tarek Shalaan, stumbled through a recent TV interview when asked about his views on the display of nude pharaonic statues like those depicting fertility gods.

"The antiquities that we have will be put under a different light to focus on historical events," he said, without explaining further.

If they truly feel that their religion really doesn't allow the sale of alcohol or use of beaches in swimsuits, fine — although I'd still like to see the whole religious argument for it, with sources, and particularly when it concerns non-Muslims. But at least be honest about the impact on a major source of revenue for the country. We are now at a point when the comfortable role of opposition no longer holds for Islamists, it's time to be serious about one's positions and their consequences.

A few years ago, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood MPs in parliament opposed a law that would tighten the ban on Female Genital Mutilation (a practice that has absolutely no basis in Islam, it's largely a Nile Valley thing) and also opposed a law banning child beatings. If they are just traditionalists, let them say that. But if they want to invoke religion, they better make their case with full theological and scriptural backing.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Salafists are not the Tea Party, they're Shas

Sheikh Yasser Burhami, one of Egypt's most influential SalafistsRabbi Ovida Youssef, spiritual head of Shas








This morning's WSJ makes the Salafist - Tea Party comparison:

Political analysts don't expect the Nour Party and their allies to win more than 5% to 10% of the incoming Parliament. By comparison, leaders of the Brotherhood-aligned Freedom and Justice Party have said they aim for about 35% of the incoming legislature.

But the Salafis' popularity could create a "tea-party effect" on the Brotherhood, said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egypt at the Brooking's Institution Doha Center. Likening the Salafis to the American conservatives whose electoral gains have helped move the Republican Party to the right, Mr. Hamid said these Islamists have the potential to alter the political platform of the Brotherhood, which has been comparatively more moderate.

"It's very likely that Salafis will be the second-largest bloc in Parliament behind the Brotherhood," said Mr. Hamid. "Down the road, the Salafi competition could...drag the rest of the political spectrum rightwards."

As we await the results, what may be more important than the size of the Salafist presence in the next parliament is their results compared to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafists pose a problem for Egyptian society overall, but also pose a particular problem for the Brotherhood in two ways: first, they are competitors for "the Islamist vote" (whatever that is), but secondly and more importantly, they have an internal impact in a Brotherhood that is partly Salafist-oriented itself. Hence a big question is whether Salafists, who are more intellectually innovative than the Brotherhood has been in years (at least in that they produce a lot of cultural, theoretical and theological output whereas the Brothers largely stick to Hassan al-Banna) might not drag the Brotherhood their way — rather than the entire political spectrum.

If the Salafists remain under 10%, the Brothers can afford to make alliances with centrist forces knowing that the Salafists will have their back on social conservative issues. If they start to rival the Brotherhood itself, it becomes more complicated, especially if both the Brotherhood and Salafists do well, because it will freak out the rest of the political spectrum. But we should also remember that politically, the MB and the Salafists are different political animals. The MB have a political project, whereas good parts of the Salafist movement (which is diverse) might have more narrow interests related to the role of religion in public life, social mores, education and similar issues. They've shown in the past that they could be quietist about who holds power, and the Salafi movement has a strong tradition of defference to the rulers. They are not necessarily upstart radicals out to change the political system, which is how the Tea Party presents itself. They might be more like the Israeli party Shas, focusing on a narrow range of issues. It might not be getting funding for Yeshivas (or madrassas), but rather fighting the culture wars they've been fighting for decades: influencing education, state-backed religious and cultural production (al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf, the Ministry of Culture, etc.), and laws having to do with women and family.