November 5, 2002
Authoritarian regimes worldwide are finding it increasingly difficult to silence the voices of their citizens seeking a democratic reform. Egypt is no exception. Even though Egypt is a secular state, a growing number of its reformists call for a political system based on Islam.
In the past few decades, western observers have noticed increased religious observance in Egypt.
Carrie Rosefky Wickham, professor of comparative politics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote about it in her new book titled Mobilizing Islam.
"Since the 1970-s and continuing through today, we see a trend toward increasing levels of private religious observance, which can take the form of praying on a regular basis, fasting both during the holy month of Ramadan and during other appropriate times, high levels of attendance at religious lessons at private mosques and, perhaps most conspicuous of all to a western observer, a trend toward women wearing Islamic dress," said Wickham.
At the same time, Islamists have been gaining political power. Egyptian-born Naiem Sherbiny, a visiting research professor at Georgetown University said "two years ago, in October of 2000, there was the election ofthe National Assembly in Egypt, and the Islamists won about one third [of the seats]. They did not go in as a party. They did not go in as organized groups. They actually went in as "independents."
Sherbiny said that Egyptian Islamists have been active and influential since the 1920-s, although for many years they had to work underground. "They've made such strides under an extremely restrictive system," he said.
President Mubarak allowed Muslims to form professional organizations, publish newspapers, sponsor speeches and promote social welfare and financial institutions, but he did not allow them to form political parties. In spite of the suppression, or maybe because of it, the Islamic political movement has grown. Sherbiny said that sooner or later, the Islamists would come to power in Egypt.
"The reason is that every time the government deals them a blow, they take a blow and make adjustments. I believe that the ones that assassinated [President] Sadat in 1981, were essentially the next generation of those who were dealt a fatal blow back in 1954 and 1964. So every time the government deals a blow to the Islamists, they take it and they adjust and then reemerge a decade or two later a lot stronger, a lot more clever than the generation before, a lot more lethal than the generation before."
What has attracted so many Egyptians to the Islamic movement? Wickham said one reason is popular discontent with slow economic development, and social injustice.
"So you have a situation where chemists are working as plumbers, engineers are installing air-conditioners and many of them consider this type of work what they would say is beneath their station. And if you add to this an acute housing shortage, low wages in government jobs, which are conditions which have caused many young people to postpone marriage for many years, sometimes a decade or more, you have a situation where you have high levels of frustration among would-be members of the middle class, who cannot attain middle-class lifestyles and incomes."
Wickham said the Islamist groups have tapped into people's discontent by promising an accountable and responsive government.
Diane Singerman, professor of political science at American University in Washington, says it is not surprising that leading political groups are religion-based, because the mosque is the only place where people have been allowed to meet and raise funds without government approval.
"They started having [Islamic] educational lessons and soccer clubs and places for people to get married and medical services, at a time when the state was not providing all those services, and the state was withdrawing all those services because of structural adjustment and pressure on Egypt to reduce its public subsidies of everything."
According to many analysts, Israel has been a factor in the Islamic rise. Journalist Caryle Murphy, the author of a new book Passion for Islam, says "most commentators and most analysts I spoke to in Egypt cited the military defeat in 1967 by Israel of the Arab countries. This was a terrible psychic shock to the Arab countries -- that this tiny little Jewish state could defeat all these mighty Arab governments and armies, or so they were considered, as mighty. And this was an intellectual, it was a psychic and it was theological shock," said Murphy.
"And many people, in Egypt, for example, came to the conclusion that one of the reasons that 'we were defeated was because we don't hold fast enough to our religion.' And many of them even pointed to the Israeli state as one founded on religious identity."
Murphy says the majority of Islamist groups in Egypt are currently looking for peaceful solutions to the Middle-East conflict. But militant Islam with its terrorism, she adds, will keep emerging until a permanent settlement is in place.
"It is not a secret what such a settlement would take. The outlines of it are already there. Israel and the Palestinians came close to such an agreement in Taba [Jan. 2001] The second thing is that the United States, should be more in support of human rights, more condemning of human rights violations openly in all Arab states and it should be more supportive of efforts to open up the political systems in these states, even if the beneficiary of opening up are Islamist parties."
Western governments, anxious about the resurgence of Islam in formerly secular Arab nations, have lent support to monarchies and some authoritarian regimes. Murphy said a failure to support moderate Islamists strengthens the extremists who are responsible for the violence that everyone condemns. The author cites the Algerian elections of 1992.
"America was seen as very hypocritical when it said very little and did very little when the military aborted the elections in Algeria, because they felt that Islam party FIS was going to win. They [the military] aborted the elections, they banned FIS, they put tens of thousand of people in detention and this led to that incredibly horrible civil war that's been going on in Algeria."
Experts seem to agree that the majority of Islamists in Egypt are currently peaceful-minded, and their parties should be viewed as portends of fledgling democracy.
Sherbiny said the United States should support their movements because their victory would help dispel the growing frustration among Egyptian people that leads to violence. He said Washington can foster democratic change in Egypt through its foreign aid.
"We are talking here about two-billion dollars worth of foreign aid from the United States to Egypt every year and until now, most of this aid has gone to building up the physical infrastructure of the country, which of course was necessary. But now we are at a point where it is politically more astute to put the money where it can absorb the anger of people - put it in social sectors, put it in educational reform in helping with the health care, put it in helping improve the small business environment."
Strictly on their own, moderate Islamists may move too slowly along their democratic path, said Sherbiny. Some US assistance may help them and ultimately Egypt.