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Islam and Politics in Egypt

Interviewee: Dina Shehata, Senior Researcher, Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies
Interviewer: Toni Johnson
February 24, 2011

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Unrest in Egypt and the departure of President Hosni Mubarak have raised questions about the role of Islam in political life going forward. Dina Shehata, a Cairo-based expert on Islamists, says it is a misconception to think of Egypt as on the brink of a theocracy. Islam and sharia are already embedded into the Egyptian constitution, she says, and there is a "kind of balance" between the sharia and the civil code. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist party, she adds, "doesn't want to move away from that." Shehata contends that Egypt will more likely continue to follow states like Malaysia and Turkey, which have Muslim identities without being fully Islamic. "What most Egyptians are concerned about right now is not whether we build a secular or a religious state, but how to create a democratic state, a sound economy, a just order," she says. The challenge going forward will be for non-Brotherhood opposition groups to establish viable political parties. She also says that when faced with elected Islamist political parties, the United States "should respect the will of the people and deal with these governments as the legitimate representatives of the people."

There's been considerable concern about what kind of governance Egyptians will choose going forward. Will they choose a hard-line, Islamic Republic akin to Iran, or will they lean toward a more moderate system akin to Indonesia?

Egypt is not Iran in the sense that having a theocracy is not on the table at all. Theocracy means rule by clerics. So this is not at all an option in Egypt. We don't have a strong clerical establishment like the one in Iran that took over [in 1979]. The Muslim Brotherhood, being the major player in this movement, is one of lay people who are religiously conservative. They are teachers, they are university professors, they're doctors, they're engineers, and they are religiously conservative. So the comparison is conceptually flawed. It might be better to compare it with Indonesia and Turkey and Morocco, countries that have lay movements rather than movements led by clerics. the Brotherhood is important in Egypt and will play a role in the coming period. [But] I don't think they themselves want to establish a theocracy.

How different is Egypt-based Islam compared to other countries in the region? What defines Islam in Egyptian daily life? And what's the relationship to democratic ideas?

There are different groups in Egyptian society that have different interpretations of Islam. You have Sufi groups who see it more as an emblematic set of practices. You have the Muslim Brotherhood who sees Islam more as a social and political system. And you have Salafi movements who see it as a very strict set of practices that Egyptians must follow closely. You have secular Egyptians. Some of them are religious and see Islam as a form of private practice and faith. And some who are not religious at all. They are secular both in their private lives and in their political orientation.

There's this fallacy that you are moving from a secular state to a religious state, which is completely misconstrued because it's already a state that is heavily informed by religious law, like most Muslim states.

People talk about Islam as though it was one thing to everyone. It's used by many countries and many people and different places, and it's associated with different traditions. The difference here is that you have some movements that represent a significant group of people who also want the political system to be more heavily informed by Islam. Already the Egyptian political system is not fully secular, where family law is based on the sharia and many of our laws are already [derived] from the sharia. The Egyptian constitution already states that sharia [underpins] the force of legislation. So we're not talking about moving from a fully secular to a fully Islamic order. What the Brotherhood typically says when they talk about their agenda is that they want to actualize or operationalize Article 2 of the constitution, which says that the sharia is the principle source of legislation.

There have been some polls in the last couple of years looking at different countries and how they feel about democracy, secularism, and sharia. And there is significant support for sharia law. Are there countries that Egyptians point to where sharia has created a less corrupt, more just system?

There are Muslim countries that continue to follow their tradition as Muslims in their political system that have prospered, like Malaysia and Indonesia. They're not theocracies, but they are Muslim countries and their governments are not fully secular or fully Islamic either. It reflects the majority of the population who are both Muslim and modern. In Egypt, sharia is already an integral part of our legal system and it is already an integral part of our constitution. There's this fallacy that you are moving from a secular state to a religious state, which is completely misconstrued because it's already a state that is heavily informed by religious law, like most Muslim states. There are many Muslim countries that have prospered by modernizing while maintaining their identity as Muslim countries. There are [also] Muslim countries that have not [prospered] but it's not about Islam. Islam doesn't explain to you why Malaysia has prospered and Egypt has not, or why Turkey is moving forward and another country has not.

Are there policies, whether it's family law or the role of women in society or how minorities are treated, that you think may become more religiously conservative?

The only area where there might be stricter application would be alcohol sales and consumption. But otherwise, the Islamists are not against women participating in public life. Already most Egyptians are quite religiously conservative, [and] our family law is based on the sharia so there isn't much more to do, in my view, to go in this direction. I don't think they would try and force a certain dress code on Egyptians, but they might closely regulate the alcohol consumption at nightclubs and so forth. For 99 percent of Egyptians, nothing would change. There's only a small minority of Egyptians, who you might say are more Westernized in the sense that they consume alcohol and so forth. So they might be affected in their lifestyle.

Right before the protests, there was unrest regarding Coptic Christians. What's going to happen to Copts going forward?

If Egypt were to establish a more democratic political system, a more viable economic system, a more just social system, all Egyptians would be better off. If this was a better educated country, if it was a more democratic country, there would be less tension between Egyptians of all kinds. What most Egyptians are concerned about right now is not whether we build a secular or a religious state, but how to create a democratic state, a sound economy, a just order.

Most Egyptians are happy with the current formula, that is, we have the sharia, we have the civil code, and there is kind of a balance between these two. Even the Brotherhood doesn't want to move away from that. They say, "We like the current constitution, [and] we don't want it to change." So, Christian and Muslim relations can get better if Egypt is able to build a strong democratic political system and a viable economy. If not, then there will continue to be tension. Because these have to do with the existing political system and the existing economic system that creates a lot of grievances and discontent and social tension among communities of different kinds. The previous regime reinforced these divisions in order to stay in power.

Everyone is focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, but outside of the Brotherhood, who do you expect the major political players in Egypt to be?

In Egypt, [there are] the Islamist bloc, the liberal bloc, and the leftist bloc. So far, only the Brotherhood is organized as one single organization that has previous experience with winning elections and representation in Parliament and so forth.

The left [which is more for labor rights, economic redistribution and welfare, and social justice], given the recent wave of labor activism, has a real chance of coming back to life as a viable political bloc. Already many leftists are working on creating a new political party. Of course this will take time before it builds up.

The liberals, [such as] the business elite, the secularists, and so forth, tended to support the previous regime, but you also have many liberal figures in the opposition, like [Mohamed] ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, who have a number of parties that sort of represent the liberal trend. The challenge over the coming months and years would be for the liberals and the leftists to organize themselves into a viable political entity or more than one entity.

What most Egyptians are concerned about right now is not whether we build a secular or religious state, but how to create a democratic state, a sound economy, a just order.

There's been some debate whether the United States should engage with Islamists and how to do it. In looking at the U.S. struggles with Hamas and Hezbollah and even the Taliban in Afghanistan, what should the U.S. strategy be and what are the obstacles?

The United States should respect the will of the people and deal with these governments as the legitimate representatives of the people. Hamas and Hezbollah are unique cases because these are resistance movements. They're not your regular political parties and they have to be understood in that context. The problem with American analysts is that they make broad statements about Islamists without distinguishing. These are armed movements that are engaged in resistance struggles with occupation. You have other Islamic movements in the Arab world and beyond that are political parties and integrated into the political system, like the Brotherhood in Egypt or the AK party in Turkey or the [Party for Justice and Development] in Morocco. You deal with these in a different way because these are legitimate political actors, and if their people choose to elect them to represent them, then you have to accept that as a fact of life.

Looking at the unrest in the region, what role can we expect Islam to play in shaping these movements and the governments that come after?

Each country is unique and has its own set of conditions, but these have been movements against authoritarian, corrupt regimes. So people want these regimes to leave and to elect representatives that allow for popular participation and for less corruption and more sound economic policies. It's about democracy and better economic conditions and social justice. And these are demands shared by the different groups of people within these countries, Islamists and seculars. These movements are not about Islam at all.

You can ask what you perceive the role of the Islamists will be in the coming period. That's a very different question. Islamists are an important part in all Arab countries, but they are not the only political say. These revolutions were not driven by Islamic groups. They were predominately driven by people who were not part of any movement, young people who felt they weren't represented. Islam will be an important player, but what others do to represent other interests will be the decisive factor.

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