Islamism in North Africa II- Egypt's Opportunity

20 Apr 2004

24pages PDF

This is the second of a series of ICG briefings addressing the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the North African states where this activism has been able to develop most fully -- Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. The first provides general background. Each subsequent paper examines with respect to one of the three states the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist movements and organisations, their relations with the state and with each other, and especially the way in which they have evolved in recent years. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamic activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism, and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular. OVERVIEW Important changes in the outlook of Egyptian Islamic activism in recent years have opened up possibilities for progressive political development, but these have gone unexploited because of the conservatism of the Egyptian government's policies. The absence of serious violence since late 1997 strongly suggests that the strategy of armed struggle (jihad) against the state has not only failed but has effectively been abandoned. At the same time, the ideology of non-violent Islamic activism has evolved and now emphatically embraces democratic principles and elements of a modernist outlook. However, unless the Egyptian government changes its approach, opens up the political field and undertakes serious political reform, the frustration which many Egyptians feel could lead to a recrudescence of violent activism at some stage. The government risks realising too late that it has squandered a vital opportunity and wasted the fruits of its own earlier successes on the security front. Between 1974 and 1997, Egypt witnessed intermittent violence conducted by radical Islamic groups animated principally by the desperate vision of Sayyid Qutb. Between 1992 and 1997, the violence was particularly intense, with altogether over a thousand killed. Following the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor in Upper Egypt in November 1997, however, the armed movements declared a cease-fire, which has held ever since. In the meantime, the Society of the Muslim Brothers has been allowed to pursue its activities and has recovered much of the position it held, before its banning in 1954, as a social movement combining religious, charitable, educational and publishing activities with a substantial political presence. However, while it is tolerated by the state, it formally remains illegal, enjoying neither the status of a legal political party nor that of a legal association. In recent years, a new grouping, consisting in part of former Brothers but also of personalities with no links to the Society, has sought to constitute a moderate reformist party (the Wasat or Centre party) on a new basis, but has also been refused legal status by the government. If armed jihad has led to a dead end, non-violent Islamic activism appears in an impasse. Nonetheless, Islamic activism in Egypt has been undergoing an important process of change and has begun to emancipate itself from the main perspectives which had oriented it since 1970 if not earlier, that of Hassan Al-Banna on the one hand and Sayyid Qutb on the other. The ascendancy of these outlooks, expressing a conservative or even reactionary anti-Westernism, followed the eclipse of the earlier positive, if selective and critical, orientation to Western thought which had characterised the original, "Islamic modernist", thrust of the Salafiyya movement under the leadership of Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh prior to World War I. In certain respects, the changes which have been occurring in recent years represent a recovery of the "Islamic modernist" outlook. This evolution of Egyptian Islamism is not unequivocal and some scepticism is in order. In rejecting Qutb's outlook, the Muslim Brothers -- the largest movement in Egypt today -- initially reverted to Al-Banna's less radical per