The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Haenni and Tammam on #jan25 and religion

Two of my favorite commentators on religion and religious movement, Patrick Haenni and Hossam Tammam, collaborate on an excellent summary of various religious movements and institutions desultory participation in the Egyptian protest movement:

The Salafist movement condemned the protests; the Muslim Brothers first retreated, then got sucked in by the dynamism of the dispute, then tried to open up a negotiation process which the demonstrators, bolder in their demands, didn't want. Though that was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections: the voice of the street isn't necessarily the will of the people. The Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached. Among these, various parts of the Salafist movement condemned the demonstrators very clearly from the time of the first appeals.

The official religious institutions, both Muslim (al-Azhar and Dar al-Fatwa) and Christian (the Coptic Church), had ties of allegiance to the regime, and were even further from grasping the new revolutionary spirit. 

The grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, first supported the regime, then with some difficulty changed course, talking of the demands of the uprising in words that were less aligned to the regime, but extremely late. At the height of the dispute, in early February, the sheikh of al-Azhar called for calm and condemned the deaths of Egyptians – but without saying clearly that the deaths had been part of the confrontation between a regime which had resorted to violence through its usual outlets (the civilian police, the party-state) and young thugs from the poor parts of town. Pope Shenouda, for his part, called on the Christian population throughout the uprising not to join the protests. 

Let's face it: none of the establishment, Islamist, religious or secular, was actually backing this from the get-go. And the emerging counter-narrative that this was not a largely youth-driven protest is ridiculous. Yes, of course older people participated too, later. But the young were the key igniters of this movement. I see that Joseph Massad doesn't like it being called a "youth revolution" — but then again I find that Massad is almost always wrong. Demographics matter in what's going on.

Getting back to the above article, obviously their early opposition to the protest movement does not mean religious movements and institutions don't stand to benefit from the uprising, particularly as it gets co-opted by the Military Council and the like of the Council of Wise Men who basically took a pro-Omar Suleiman position during the occupation of Tahrir (I mean really, Naguib Sawiris as a revolutionary? Give me a break.) Salafists are still around and can still be mobilized by security. The Muslim Brotherhood is still doing its dance with the regime, aside from its youth branch that may now stand to create a breakaway movement (or at least a political party) with reformist Brothers like Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh.

The Brothers in Tahrir Square, truly mobilized and strongly influenced by the other groups who started the protest movement, continued to call for Mubarak's departure ahead of any negotiation. But on 5 February, their leadership began talks with then vice president Omar Suleiman, former head of Egyptian intelligence. According to a close observer, the Brotherhood's leadership thought it could not pass up such a chance of winning some sort of recognition, even a legitimate presence. This exasperated the young Brothers out on the streets.

 And the final bit is extremely important:

This dynamic profoundly affects the Brothers. As dialogue opened between some of the young Brothers mobilised in the streets and the Brotherhood elite, the disagreement was deep. A cadre from the Brothers spoke; he was close to Abu al-Foutouh, leader of the Brothers' reformist wing, nearest to the (Turkish) AKP model, and the least ready for accommodation with the regime. He said: “The rupture between the Brothers in the streets and the political leadership is total. Since dialogue opened, and with the dynamic of mobilisation, the young Brothers are calling into question the very foundations of the Muslim Brothers, based on bottom-up transformation, through educating militants. What they want is top-down transformation, still toeing a line of peaceful opposition. Abu al-Foutouh managed to capture this sort of spirit. He thinks one must break with what he calls the 'oppression syndrome' and the political passivity it brings.”

The young Brothers, especially on Tahrir Square, are now rallying to the militant spirit which is coming from the new network initiatives which were at the heart of the uprising and which the Brothers had difficulty in catching up with: the Khaled Said group, the young mobilised around Amr Khaled, the “control group” (an electoral monitoring group set up by young Brothers during the 2010 elections which kept going and which monitored police management of the uprising) - groups which owe little to the mobilisation of the parties, and even less to their spirit.

Through all this, the dynamic of opposition is showing the exhaustion of the authoritarian models of the regimes in place, but also the exhaustion of the traditional forms of opposition to them. What is happening in Egypt is not just the contesting of a regime, but the calling into question of a political culture.

One important thing to remember is that neither the leadership of the secular parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, the army or the wider regime wants to see that culture of reverence for the older leaders to end. The paternalism of the Military Council, the support it generally has from the over-40/50 crowd (with exceptions such as Aboul Fotouh or ElBaradei of course) is just another evidence that generational divides are an important aspect of what's going on.