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Egypt and the Irresistible Rise of Islam

Could Egypt’s secular tradition be over for good? In the absence of a strong post-Mubarak judiciary, Egyptian communities are increasingly taking justice into their own hands, and that justice has an Islamic slant. The past few months have seen Egyptians take to the street to call out neighbors and community members for atheism, among other religious offenses.

Islam has been the religion of the state since the 1971 constitution and will stay so in the new constitution. However, this grassroots approach to imposing Islamic justice is unprecedented, the Washington Post reports:

Blasphemy cases have jumped from one or two per year under Mubarak to at least 18 in the past year and a half, said Amr Gharbeia, the director of civil liberties at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based non-governmental organization.

Egypt’s penal code is vague on the issue of blasphemy, criminalizing only the use of extreme religious ideas “to incite strife.” But court cases that invoke the law increasingly derive less from obvious breaches than from popular “encouragement” by neighbors, relatives and crowds who feel emboldened by Egypt’s Islamic revival and the people power of revolution, Gharbeia said.

“We have also seen large groups of people gathering outside courthouses exerting huge pressure on the lawyers, defendants, and even on the judges themselves,” he said. In one instance, his organization’s lawyers were chased from a trial because the local community already had its own verdict in mind.

As Egypt’s revolution continues to unfold, the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of replacing the country’s laws and civil practices with Islam appears to be reshaping Egypt from the bottom up. With a new generation of military officers and recruits that is more pious than past generations, the Army is interested in preserving some of its political and economic prerogatives but does not seem opposed to a more Islamic tone to civilian governance.

This is bad news for Copts and other minorities in Egypt, as well as for many Egyptians who prefer a more secular lifestyle. But if the majority of Egyptians really want to move in this direction, so there is not a lot that leaders can do to change what happens on the ground.

The United States and Egypt’s other foreign associates need to think very carefully about what their priorities are. We are used to dealing with strong, if unattractive, Egyptian governments who have the power to impose unpopular policies on the population. The current government may not only not want to impose those policies; it may not have the ability. Egypt’s institutions remain weak. Government ministers can issue decrees from their offices in Cairo, but that may not affect what happens in courts and police stations all over the country.

In the medium to longer term, Egypt’s secular traditions will likely reassert themselves in some ways. Islam is many things, but Egypt’s Islamists are less likely than they hope to solve the country’s endemic problems of corruption, poverty and underdevelopment. Egypt has tried many modernization strategies since Napoleon occupied it in the late 18th century; the country’s current effort to chart an Islamist path to prosperity and economic modernization is going to suffer many of the same limits and setbacks that earlier efforts encountered. That, inevitably, will change the way Egyptians view the relationship among religion, politics and economics — but that may not happen quickly or in a smooth, comfortable way.

Interesting times.

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