December 03, 2011

Egyptian Vote Forces Islamists to Confront Their Divide Over Rule by Religion

Khalil Hamra/Associated Press
The Muslim Brotherhood sent out volunteers last week for Egypt's election. Early results suggest the group's party has about 40 percent of the vote.
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a leader of the ultraconservative Salafi movement, has called for stricter use of Islamic law.
Sheik Shahat is a leader of the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis, whose coalition of parties is running second behind the Brotherhood party in the early returns of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. He and his allies are demanding strict prohibitions against interest-bearing loans, alcohol and “fornication,” with traditional Islamic corporal punishment like stoning for adultery.
“I want to say: citizenship restricted by Islamic Shariah, freedom restricted by Islamic Shariah, equality restricted by Islamic Shariah,” he said in a public debate. “Shariah is obligatory, not just the principles — freedom and justice and all that.”
The unexpected electoral success of the Salafis — reported to have won about 25 percent of the votes in the first round of the elections, second only to the roughly 40 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — is terrifying Egyptian liberals and troubling the West. But their new clout is also presenting a challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, in part by plunging it into a polarizing Islamist-against-Islamist debate over the application of Islamic law in Egypt’s promised democracy, a debate the Brotherhood had worked hard to avoid.

“The Salafis want to have that conversation right now, and the Brotherhood doesn’t,” said Shadi Hamid, a researcher with the Brookings Doha Center, a Brookings Institution project in Qatar. “The Brotherhood is not interested in talking about Islamic law right now because they have other priorities that are more important. But the Salafis are going to insist on putting religion in the forefront of the debate, and that will be very difficult for the Brotherhood to ignore.”

The Brotherhood, the venerable group that virtually invented the Islamist movement eight decades ago, is at its core a middle-class missionary institution, led not by religious scholars but by doctors, lawyers and professionals. It has long sought to move Egypt toward a more orthodox Islamic society from the bottom up, one person and family at a time. After a long struggle in the shadows of the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, its leaders have sought to avoid potentially divisive conversations about the details of Islamic law that might set off alarms about an Islamist takeover. But their evasiveness on the subject has played into long-term suspicions of even fellow Islamists that they are too concerned with their own power.
The Salafis are political newcomers, directed by religious leaders who favor long beards in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. Many frown on the mixing of the sexes, refusing to shake hands with women let alone condoning any sort of political activity by them. Although their parties are required to include female candidates, they usually print pictures of flowers instead of the women’s faces on campaign posters. And while the Salafis’ ideology strikes many Egyptians as extreme and anachronistic, their sheiks command built-in networks of devoted followers, and even voters who disagree with their puritanical doctrine often credit the Salafis with integrity and authenticity.

After the first election results last week, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party quickly declared that it had no plans to form any coalition with the Salafis, with some members already ending months of restrained silence by striking back. In an interview after the vote, for example, Dina Zakaria, a spokeswoman for the party, derided the Salafis’ prohibition on women in leadership roles and their refusal to print the faces of their female candidates.
“We don’t hold stagnant positions,” she said, insisting that the Brotherhood’s party favored an evolving understanding of Islam that supported the right of women to choose their own roles. (At campaign rallies, women from the party sometimes underscore the point by saying Muhammad even enlisted women in combat.)
Such debates, however, threaten to knock the Brotherhood off the fine line it has attempted to walk.

Mayy el Sheikh and Amina Ismail contributed reporting.

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