World·Analysis

The Islamist vision of post-revolutionary Egypt

With a national election in the offing in September, Nahlah Ayed looks at calls for Sharia law in post-revolutionary Egypt.

On a recent stopover in Cairo, an anxious merchant whose acquaintance I’d just made handed me the front page of a newspaper to explain his obvious agitation.

The article in question reported that Egyptian Muslim extremists — one Salafi group, in particular — were promising they would bring Sharia, or Islamic law, to Egypt "at any cost." According to the group, the country’s minority Christians simply had to "accept that reality."

The man, who worked in an area frequented by tourists, explained that such a state would have no place for icons like the Pyramids or the Sphinx. He’d heard that those would be done away with, a la the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which under the extremist Taliban were simply blown up in 2001, on the charge of offending purists who believed "icons" were blasphemous.

"This is not good for tourism," the man with the furrowed brow pointed out. "Egyptians love foreigners, they need foreigners, and foreigners have always loved Egypt. This will hurt us."

On this, many, many of his countrymen agree, not least the thousands upon thousands of poor Egyptians — mostly Muslim, but also Christians — who are employed directly or indirectly by the country’s normally inexhaustible tourism industry.

Scan Egyptian newspapers on any given day, especially in light of the ongoing inter-religious clashes, and there are denouncements of extremist designs by everyone from the country’s top Sunni Muslim authority to secular politicians. Peruse the reams of tweets or the commentary on Egyptian websites, and you sense the same sentiment among contributors.

Many Egyptians expressed the same distaste for the idea when al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman Al-Zawahri, also Egyptian, called on his people to establish an Islamic state in the wake of the country’s revolution.

But Salafis, banned under former president Hosni Mubarak, are on the rise. Most analysts believe they are still in the minority, but their influence could grow — depending how the new Egypt fares.

A democratic vote, one would imagine, would allow a majority to choose the kind of country they want — one that may be Muslim in character, but is also modern, moderate and inclusive. One where members of the ancient but not insignificant Christian community would be treated like everyone else. One where human rights would be respected, and where the Pyramids would continue to be a source of pride as well as income.

The problem is that those determined to turn Egypt into a Sharia state — those who have long dreamt of this, along with one Osama bin Laden — are so determined, they won’t let democracy stand in the way.

That spells trouble for Egypt, even as it prepares to hold its first free elections this fall.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is popular and likely the most organized party to run in the coming election, says that unlike the Salafi groups, it is not interested in taking over the country or establishing a Sharia state. It says it is staying out of the presidential election, for example, and that it is committed to a democratic system of governance. It has its eye on about a third of the seats in Parliament, even though it is now fielding candidates for nearly half of them.

How that changes in the future is not certain — what the Brotherhood does once it wields more power is still unclear. What is clear is that many of those who led the secular and inclusive revolution are at least suspicious of the Brotherhood’s claims of moderation, until it proves its intentions. But they’re downright terrified of the Salafis, even if they remain a minority.

The revolutionaries who have graduated to national politics are doing everything they can to prepare for the polls — they’re behind in organization, funding and strategy. Existing opposition parties, mostly liberal, are also scrambling to catch up after years of being held back by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

The former president, like several other Arab leaders, manipulated and exaggerated the Islamist threat to gain untold billions in military and other aid —then used them to oppress an entire population and extend his rule.

The extremist threat has always existed. But with Mubarak gone — thanks to the efforts of the revolutionaries, not the Islamists — it is only now that it poses a real danger to Egypt’s future. Even with Bin Laden dead, some of those he inspired still yearn to make his dream come true. And those who are that extreme are not beyond using violence to make it happen — al Qaeda and other groups inspired by it have a long history of doing just that.

That’s why the country needs the world’s support more than ever — so that the new Egypt delivers on the promise it holds, so that better jobs and pay come with better human rights and so that extremists cannot gain a foothold. And, perhaps, so that Egypt too can declare a meaningful victory against extremism.

In an effort to quell people's fears, Egypt's Salafis claim they would not destroy the Pyramids. But what is at stake is far bigger than the fate of the relics of the pharaohs, important as they are.