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Is Islamism on Trial in Post-Arab Spring Egypt? – Azizur Rahman Patel

June 28, 2013


Is Islamism on Trial in Post-Arab Spring Egypt?

By Azizur Rahman Patel[1]

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 13 (June 2013)


December 2010 saw the heralding of what has been popularly dubbed as the ‘Arab Spring.’ It was sparked off in Tunisia by the horrific incident whereby a street vendor set himself alight in protest to government ineptitude. Making sense of the Arab Spring is a daunting task. This article analyzes the performance of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in terms of accommodating secular democratic ideals in post-Mubarak Egypt. It also reflects on the prospects for the secular political formations in Egypt who in effect spearheaded the January 2011 revolution.

The Islamist/fundamentalist movement, the Ikhwān al Muslimīn (Muslim Brotherhood) of Egypt has pledged to realize the formation of an ‘Islamic state.’ In order to achieve this objective, they have manipulated the constitutional drafting process in order to entrench Islamic sharī’a law, which they believe to be divinely revealed, and hence immutable.

Post-Mubarak Egypt

Mubarak was a despotic president, who served as president of Egypt, not on the basis of the voters’ choice but through the power of the security agencies and their ability to suppress opponents. Hence, he ‘did not attach much weight to public opinion, knowing that his survival in office does not depend on people liking him but rather on the ability of the security agencies to protect him from any rebellion or coup.’[2] He presided over a state that spends nearly 9 billion Egyptian pounds a year on the Ministry of Interior, which was twice the budget of the Ministry of Health which amounted to less than 5 billion pounds a year. In other words, the Egyptian regime spent twice as much on subjugating, detaining, and repressing its citizens than it spent on providing them with healthcare. There was no legitimate way of competing with the president for office.[3]

He was also a president who enjoyed absolute powers and no authority could hold him to account. The Egyptian people have no idea how large President Mubarak’s fortune is or how much money his sons, Gamal and Alaa, had in the bank. Mubarak appropriated millions of pounds of public money which he lavished on his rest houses and palaces, while millions of Egyptians lived in wretched shantytowns without basic human necessities. The president, as well as senior officials, enjoyed complete immunity from any form of public accountability. In addition, he had the benefit of the authority to appoint and dismiss ministers at will. He did not consider himself responsible for explaining his decisions to Egyptians, who never knew why ministers were appointed or dismissed. Competence for the job was never the prime factor in choosing ministers, as it was loyalty to the president that was most important.[4]

It was under these circumstances that the Egyptian nation revolted against Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, in a triumphant popular uprising in January 2011. Egypt’s secular revolutionary political forces were at the forefront of this unprecedented turn of events. It was an uprising that eventually led to the ousting of this longtime dictator.[5] Of the major opposition players, it is only the Muslim Brotherhood which announced that it would not formally participate in the protests. However, it said it would not prevent its members from joining in their individual capacities. Mohammed al-Beltagy, the former Brotherhood MP, explained in a newspaper interview that the Brotherhood’s decision to sit out January 25 was motivated by a desire to outmaneuver the regime. If the Brotherhood participated en masse, al-Beltagy stated, the government would have controlled the narrative and painted the events as one more power play by the menacing, bearded Islamist hordes. ‘We don’t want it to be a fight between the ruling regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, because it is really a fight between the ruling regime and all the people,’ he said.[6]

Khalil further remarks that:

“In retrospect, whether or not you believe al-Beltagy’s explanation of the famously opaque Brotherhood decision-making process, the group’s choice to “sit out” January 25 proved to be one of the best legacies of that day. Egypt’s non-Islamist forces needed to prove (perhaps to themselves as well) that they could marshal mass numbers into the streets without the help of the Brotherhood’s legendary grassroots machinery. And ordinary apolitical Egyptians who feared the Brotherhood’s power needed to see that this wasn’t coming from the Islamist camp. The way things eventually played out, with the Brotherhood formally joining several days into an already robust popular uprising, turned out to be a tremendous boost to the credibility, perception, and confidence of the revolutionaries”.[7]

The primary question this article is concerned with is: how is it that the ‘secular’ formations were eclipsed by the Islamist fraternity, and what prospects lay ahead for them? Generally speaking, one answer is that the post-colonial secular rulers who governed the Arab Middle Eastern and North African states created an unsavory reputation for secularism, since they were largely post-colonial elites that were dictatorial, autocratic and oppressive towards their ‘citizens,’ or rather, ‘subjects.’ Specifically with regard to the Egyptian revolution, how is it that the Brotherhood and the even-more-conservative Salafists, outperformed the forces advocating for a liberal democracy, in the aftermath of the revolution? The popular explanation given for this phenomenon is that Islamist groups used their existing grassroots networks that saw them dominate parliamentary elections in the post-Mubarak era. This saw the post-revolutionary secular parties struggling to catch up, due to the very lack of grassroots support. Furthermore, the Muslim Brothers had the added advantage of enjoying funding from, not only their own homegrown support base in the form of disciplined loyalists. In addition, ‘the Islamists are widely presumed to be benefiting from a river of overseas funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.’[8] Bear in mind that funding is a crucial element of success in campaigning for, and winning elections in democracies.

A third and more crucial factor that worked in the favour of the Islamists—who happened to become the main beneficiaries of ‘revolutions’—is that while the Muslim Brotherhood was apparently officially banned from politics, in actual fact they enjoyed extensive latitude in the field of politics as well as ‘in publications and the media.’ Hence, the collapse of the dictators provided the Islamic parties with the opportunity to take advantage of the political vacuum that existed, a situation to which they made no significant contribution.[9]

A fourth factor which ‘saw the star of the secular formations rapidly dimmed’ is what Khalil refers to as the ‘ElBaradei effect.’ Mohammed ElBaradei, who had just stepped down as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency a few months before, was widely touted to become Egypt’s savior. The people anticipated of him to be their salvation. This ‘ElBaradei-mania’ gripped Egypt for a couple of months. Despite that fact that he appeared on multiple talk shows, ‘the state-owned newspapers and television stations continued to act like he didn’t exist.’ For various reasons, this momentum soon got lost, and ElBaradei’s organization broke down. One of ElBaradei’s former senior deputy and advisor, Hassan Nafaa, remarked that: ‘I think ElBaradei wasted a very big opportunity, a historic opportunity.’[10]

According to Mustafa al-Labbad, (who I am paraphrasing), during the initial protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, various political, economic, social and security powers struggled to maintain their power so that they could maintain influence on the new order. This resulted in substantial chaos on the streets of Egypt. To counter this, the army pushed Mubarak to step down in order to maintain order and prevent the demonstrations from turning into a popular revolution that would topple the entire regime. A convergence of interests saw the military and the MB agreeing on a roadmap that would reverse the revolution’s gains in return for securing power for the MB.[11]

Regional and international powers supported the roadmap. They patched up Mubarak’s constitution instead of writing a new one. This paved the way for parliamentary elections within six months, in which the highly-organized and well-funded MB emerged victorious in exchange for them promising to preserve the economic and foreign policies of the former regime. Hence, in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood formed an alliance with the remnants of the former regime. They revised the constitution, installed the Brotherhood’s Essam Sharaf as prime minister, who was part of Mubarak’s policy committee, and allowed the military to retain its full privileges. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) then cut a deal with the MB that they would hand over political power to them and allow Mohammed Morsi to become president without a constitution or parliament, and a president who enjoyed unprecedented presidential powers. This was in exchange for granting SCAF’s leaders safe exit, and allowing the military establishment to keep all its economic privileges.[12]

When parliamentary elections were held in 2011, the MB won 45% of the vote due to the above reasons, and also because the party recast the main battle between the forces of revolution and the forces of tyranny as a battle between Islam and secularism in a very masterful manner that served the Brotherhood’s interests. The MB did not use normal political means. They used the mosques to mobilize the masses against the secularists. However, the MB’s tendency to control all aspects of the state caused them to clash with some of the former regime’s power centers, which had previously allied with them. Other forces decided to stand on the sidelines after having secured their economic interests.[13]

In contrast to the MB’s strength and superior organization, the opposition’s Salvation Front is suffering from structural problems that are related to its inability to translate the demonstrations against Mohammed Morsi and the MB into political victories. This is due to the Front’s loose structure, which is made up of liberal, leftist, and nationalist currents, as well as parties such as Amr Moussa’s. The diversified nature of the Front is getting in the way of formulating agreements on what specific steps to take. The Front includes committed forces as well as such formations that have joined only to serve their temporary interests. An example of their lack of leadership is exposed by the fact that although the Front does participate in demonstrations, it never leads them.[14]

A contrasting view is offered by Mark Lynch, who avers that notwithstanding the prevalent account that secular groups were the main drivers of the Egyptian revolution, Islamists were well represented in the uprisings. MB youth had played a key role in holding Tahrir Square ‘and keeping the protests alive during those eighteen days.’ Brotherhood youth who Lynch met with after the revolution enthusiastically explained their intentions, which was to entrench their understanding of democracy, which was one of simple majoriatarianism. They asked, ‘[w]hy should majorities not make laws? Why should their participation as part of Egyptian society be less legitimate than that of small secular, liberal movements?’ the MB concentrated their efforts on mobilizing for the elections, while activist groups focused on maintaining the Tahrir protests, ‘and liberal parties complained about an unfair playing.’[15]

Possible Future Scenarios

Nathan Brown, in his article, Islam and Politics in the New Egypt, very incisively observes how politics is reshaping and changing the Islamists, who are themselves inadvertently ‘evolving’ since their new-found engagement in realpolitik. Furthermore, while religion will undoubtedly play a major role in Egyptian politics, it does not seem as if it will take the course of Iran towards establishing a full-blown theocracy. While the Islamist movement is effectively able to manage elections, they are primarily motivated by ideological and religious sentiments. They now face a new terrain in which a government has to honour international commitments, look after the interests of the entire society and not just their specific constituency of religious-minded voters, address mundane issues, and start looking at things from a different perspective to that of religion.[16]

While the MB led Islamist formations, which includes the Salafists, seem likely to thrive in the new Egypt, this will not be possible without them making any compromises in terms of their ‘ideological vision,’ and so far the Brotherhood’s leadership has not demonstrated much initiative in this regard. Broader Egyptian society, which is religiously inclined, seeks to foster a state of affairs wherein religion enjoys a favourable space in the public domain, while maintaining some distance from political authority, and the possible corrupting effects of day-to-day politics. In addition, the majority of Egyptians ‘still believe that it is the separation of religious values from the political realm—rather than their inclusion—that is a corrupting force.’[17] 

Hitherto, the Brotherhood and the Salafis have always depended on their ability to change society from the bottom up even in the face of repressive regimes. However, now that they enjoy the instruments of state power, how this will change the way the Islamists wield their power, is left to be seen.[18]

Assertive versus Passive Secularism

The one option for Egypt that is frequently advocated is the ‘Turkish model’ of secularism. Ahmet Kuru, in his very perceptive analysis of the Turkish model refers to two types of secularism as was experienced by Turkey since the 1920s. What Kemal Ataturk and his ‘Young Turks’ enforced on the society at the time was ‘assertive secularism.’ However, since the last five elections where the AKP won, Turkey has implemented ‘passive secularism.’ He believes that ‘the AKP’s pragmatic understanding of Muslim politics,’ is a worthwhile model for the Arab countries to adopt. During a visit to Egypt in September 2011, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan called upon Arab countries to adopt the principle of a secular state. He emphasized that ‘there are multiple interpretations of secularism,’ and that ‘his party defines the secular state as being neutral toward all religious groups.’ He contended that in the process of democratization, ‘Egypt will consider that a secular state is not anti-religious but guarantees religious freedom.’ He also remarked that ‘the state should respect and protect even an atheist.’[19]

Kuru further explains his classification: in terms of ‘assertive secularism’ the state plays an ‘active role in excluding religion from the public sphere and making it a private affair.’ Examples of countries that ‘embrace this form of secularism include France, Mexico, and, until recently, Tunisia.’ In contrast, ‘“passive secularism,” requires the state to assume a passive role in accommodating the public visibility of religion. It is the dominant paradigm in the United States, the Netherlands, and Senegal, among others.’[20]

Nathan Brown similarly observes that as mentioned earlier, the religiously inclined constituencies who envisage a more public role for religion, are in effect endorsing ‘American-style secularism, though its proponents would be loath to recognize it as such.’[21]

Zubaida declares that ‘[e]lectoral democracy is not liberalism, and without sturdy institutions and a system of checks and balances, can become majoritarian authoritarianism.’ This is not only typical of Egypt or the Arab world. A similar phenomenon can be observed in Russia under Vladimir Putin, and in Turkey under Erdoğan.[22] These societies are characteristic examples of:

populist leaders with constituencies based on organised networks of patronage and dependence, as well as the image of national power and resurgence against foreign conspiracies, facing an opposing public of citizens, of educated urban middle classes striving for rights and liberties and the rule of law. Egypt under Morsi may be heading in that direction. Note that, in these respects, Islam does not enter the equation. But it does as legitimising ideology for authoritarianism.[23]

What better populist symbol could the secularists enjoy in comparison to the Islamists stratagem of appropriating the jargon of creating ‘a civic state with an Islamic reference,’ with regard to the role Islam would play in matters of legislation? I intentionally use the word stratagem in order to emphasize the point Zubaida makes, that there is ‘nothing particularly Islamic about economic policy and government administration: in fact the Islamists in government in Egypt and Tunisia have been floundering on economic issues and policy.’[24]

Moreover, the only significant arena in which the Islamists can establish their Islamic credentials are those that fall within the purview of ‘family, morality, public space, cultural expression and education’. Their ‘historical and symbolic locus’ is limited to issues of ‘family and sexuality: patriarchal rights, segregation of the sexes, enforced female modesty.’ In relation to matters pertaining to the ‘[c]ivil rights of free expression and cultural creativity,’ such matters are subjected to religious censorship, and often, the ulamā’ (religious scholars) are given the special and privileged authority to pronounce on these issues.[25]


In this article, I sought to unpack the reasons for the predominance of the Islamist constituencies in post-Mubarak Egypt. I have also shed some light on why the Egyptian public has—to whatever extent—seemingly favoured the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in the first post-revolution elections, as well as in the referendum vote for an interim draft constitution. We have also seen how the Muslim Brotherhood, by employing the rhetoric, of forming ‘a civic state with an Islamic reference,’ manipulated—perhaps sincerely—the ‘traditional’ Islamic sentiments of the Egyptian public, in order to gain their votes.

The “Arab Spring” revolution in Egypt, as in the other countries of the MENA region, indeed remains an unfinished business. This state of affairs will remain so, for as long as the broader societies of the region do not acculturize themselves to genuine liberal democracy from the bottom up. The prospects for the liberal and secular constituencies do not seem promising for as long as the broader Muslim publics remain mired in antiquated rhetorical appeals to a very modern-day assumption of the existence of an ‘authentic Islamic turāth (religious legacy), which is frequently, and shrewdly invoked in political discourse in the region.

It is now left to be seen how far the Islamists, who for now are currently at the helm of Muslim politics in Egypt, will themselves be amenable to transformation from below, that is, will they be able to listen to the disparate voices in their societies, including that of the ‘liberal’ and the ‘secular,’ and steer their societies in a ‘pragmatic’ manner, towards a ‘post-Islamist’ phase, given the social and cultural exigencies of the current era.



[1] Azizur Rahman Patel is an independent researcher based in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has an M.A. on religious studies from the University of Cape Town. His email is:

[2] Alaa al Aswany. (2011). On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable? (EPUB ed.). (J. Wright, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books. p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 42.

[4] Ibid., p. 43-4.

[5] Ashraf Khalil. (2012, 09 04). As Egypt’s Islamists Cement Their Rule, Can Secularists Reclaim the Revolution? from (Time Inc.) Available online at: (Accessed 08 May 2013).

[6] Ashraf Khalil. (2011). Liberation Square. New York: St. Martin’s Press. p. 94.

[7] Ibid., p. 94.

[8] Khalil, op cit., 2012.

[9] Sami Zubaida. (2013 February 18) Islam and the Arab Transformations. From Open Democracy. Available online at: (Accessed 06 May 2013)

[10] Khalil, 2011 p. 75-9.

[11] Mustafa al-Labbad. (2013, January 29). Is a Second Egyptian Revolution on the Way? from ALMONITOR Translated by: Rani Geha from as-Safir Lebanon.: Available online at: (Accessed 29 May 2013).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Marc Lynch. (2012). The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions Of The New Middle East. [EPUB ed.] New York: PublicAffairs. Pp. 185-6

[16] Nathan Brown. (2013 April 23)  Islam and Politics in the New Egypt. From Carnegie Endowment. Available online at: (Accessed: 17 May 2013)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ahmet T Kuru. (2013). Muslim Politics Without an “Islamic” State: Can Turkey’s Justice And Development Party Be A Model For Arab Islamists? Foreign Policy at Brookings . Doha, Qatar: Brookings Institution. p. 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Brown, op cit.

[22] Zubaida, op cit.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

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