An Islamist Turn?

After an alarming “power show” by Islamists that sparked fears of democracy bringing an Islamic government, Islamic groups need to play their cards right – and liberals must change their rhetoric.

On July 29, after 20 days of ongoing sit-ins, liberal protestors and online activists had to make way for tens of thousands of Islamists chanting enthusiastically “Islamya Islamya” in downtown Cairo. They called their march the “Friday of Popular Will” and demanded an Islamic state where Islamic Sharia law is applied.

The unprecedented numbers of Islamists in Tahrir Square sent shockwaves to liberal revolutionaries who felt alienated by the atmosphere and eventually abandoned the square. It also raised fears among many Egyptians that their revolution was being taken from them and turned into an “Islamic revolution”.

Political polarization began a few months ago, following the constitutional amendments referendum in March which ended with a sweeping victory for the Islamists’ campaign of supporting the constitutional amendments until a parliament – in which they will probably form a majority – is elected and drafts a new constitution. Liberals – not ready to contest elections now – refused the amendments in favor of a new constitution.

Battered by the referendum result, liberals led protests in Tahrir and held conferences to pressure for the issuance of supra-constitutional principles guaranteeing a “civil state”. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) finally responded with a pledge to issue a bill governing the regulations of the constituent assembly. Yet the SCAF’s decision also angered Islamist groups, who called for mass protests refusing constitutional principles and for “respecting people’s will”.

True: The Islamists cannot all be put in one basket. There are Islamic politicians calling for a moderate Islamic “civil” state – like the Muslim Brotherhood. And there are preacher groups whose message is to “reform” society peacefully and who believe politics is a tool to achieve that – like the Salafists. But finally, there are also groups who previously used violence to “reform” society with blood on their hands but are now weaseling out of their past – like the Islamic Group.

Islamists are in a state of exhilaration that is bordering on arrogance. Their cheers and their causes are widely popular, especially among the poor in rural areas. Yet Islamists lack any detailed political or economic program that responds to the daily sufferings of the masses; they are focused on issues of identity and regulations.

Liberals, on the other hand, aren’t introducing themselves properly to the public. They have a program, but few devoted followers. Their poor communication opens to the door to speculation whether they are notorious seculars or advocates of democracy and citizenship. Unfortunately, liberals are often not taking these concerns seriously. They are arrogantly underestimating public opinion and are making choices for “ignorant, under-aware” Egyptians.

Watching the scene are ordinary Egyptians – moderately religious and historically tolerant by nature – who know that Islam at its core is a liberal religion protecting equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims alike and who are disgruntled by quagmire of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Islamists must know that a medieval religious state is impossible in Egypt. They will have to adopt a more strategic approach in using their masses not to give the impression of jumping over the revolution that awarded them freedom. Liberals, on the other hand, must know that complete separation between religion and state and extreme individual liberalism is impossible to impose on regular Egyptians.

There is a need for politicians to mature and replace populist revolutionary politics with dialogue and reconciliation among political factions and focus on Egyptians’ demands of democracy and social justice – the original cause of the revolution.

Read more in this debate: Ragnar Weilandt, Abdullah Al-Arian, Joseph Hammond.

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