The revolutions that swept the Arab world in early 2011 took on a distinctive character in the nations they touched, each with unique socio-cultural, historical, and political circumstances. What began, particularly in North Africa, as idealistic opposition to corrupt regimes, spearheaded by youth, was rapidly overtaken by better organized hardline groups, from Tunisia’s Salafi extremists to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
While it is easy for westerners to suppose that democratic elections marked a step toward progress, the reality suggests that political Islam is likely to be less transitory than some observers might have hoped. On a recent trip to Egypt to learn from its people what life is like after the deposition of President Hosni Mubarak and the 2012 election of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, I encountered a diverse cross-section of Egyptians. Among the youthful idealists who began the revolution more than two years ago, there was a sense of unfinished business.
Andraos, an Egyptian man in his early thirties, was involved in the protests from the outset, feeling himself pulled into the protests in Tahrir Square from the first day. “He was not like this before the revolution,” says a friend, who serves as translator. Andraos paces back and forth between the balcony and the room, pulling drags from his cigarette. He has the intensity and discipline of a professional revolutionary from another era, another continent. He is also a Christian.
Andraos speaks of his experiences in the revolution, of his commitment to toppling the Mubarak regime, and on June 30, of renewing the protests—this time against Morsi. Andraos did not vote in last year’s election between Morsi and Ahmad Shafiq, who served as Premier in the regime of Mubarak. “This was no choice,” he says. He resists the characterization of his revolutionary efforts as Christian, preferring to focus on the idea of Egyptians united in favor of liberal democracy. Many Egyptians share his passion for reform and contempt for Morsi. As the June 30 anniversary of Morsi’s election approaches, however, there is growing concern that a second revolution will undermine Egyptian democracy over the long term.
Fadwa, an American citizen of Libyan extraction who has lived most of her life in Egypt, believes firmly in the revolution, but thinks democracy must take its course, even if that means that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will remain in power until 2016. “I would not like to see the revolution overturn the election,” she says, referring to the anticipated events of June 30, which are expected to challenge Morsi’s presidency. Millions of Egyptians regard Morsi’s leadership as either illegitimate or unfaithful to the promise of reform that animated the uprising against Mubarak.
One Egyptian woman says that everything went backward except one thing: “The people are no longer afraid.” But, she adds, with this has come instability. She believes that for many Egyptians, freedom means chaos, not responsibility. Others believe that the Muslim Brothers, given time, will ultimately bring prosperity to Egypt.
Hossam, an Egyptian in his thirties, supports the Muslim Brotherhood but acknowledges the widespread criticism and disillusionment. “I’m not a member but I support them. I think they are doing great. I have a feeling they will take Egypt to the safe side.” Like others of his generation, he speaks of the revolution in the present tense. “Some in Egypt are trying to turn the revolution from the correct path. The revolution will win.”
As with “democracy,” people seem to mean different things when they use the word “revolution.” For Hossam, it means “freedom and justice for everyone, every single Egyptian, no matter [his] religion, race or anything else. My hope is that Egypt will become like Brazil, Malaysia or Turkey.” The older generation, however, believes the stability and prosperity of Mubarak’s regime is gone and unlikely to return—especially with the nation in the hands of the Muslim Brothers.
A professor of English literature at a women’s university in Egypt shares this skepticism. She is particularly struck by how many Egyptians became prone to radicalization. “It all began after 1967, with the defeat,” she says, referring to Israel’s humiliation of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. “The people did not understand how God could let this happen.” This humiliation provided fertile ground for extremism, which grew with the present generation. She was taken aback by the casual attitude with which many young people took part in the revolution. “My students would come back and say, ‘It was so much fun. We went to the square, met our friends, and had a good time.’ Meanwhile, we sat here and watched in shock as Egypt collapsed into chaos.” She shakes her head, still befuddled two years later.
The professor believes another crucial factor has been the influence of Wahhabism in Egypt. She notes that even the wives of sheikhs at Al Azhar University would be seen sleeveless in public in her childhood. “When I was a young girl, you would never see veil. . . . It is these Wahhabis.” Wahhabism, a fundamentalist movement in Sunni Islam that originated in 18th-century Saudi Arabia, made deep inroads into Egypt in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when many Egyptians worked and lived in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, who served on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, noted in 2011 that Wahhabism “radicalizes those who are indoctrinated with it. The aim is to radicalize students to hate the West, hate non-Muslims, to hate Jews, and to say that killing is sanctioned by God.”
During the same period when many Egyptians were bringing Wahhabism back home with them, Saudi Arabia was spending untold millions to export Wahhabi Islam through the building of madrassas and mosques in the Middle East and beyond. As Shea noted, “Saudi Arabia is making every effort to make [Wahhabism] mainstream in the Muslim world and make it the dominant interpretation of Islam.” In Egypt, Wahhabi-Salafi ideology has created a chasm between the secular moderates of Mubarak’s generation and many of the youth of the revolution.
“My students try to convert me—and I’m a Muslim,” the professor adds with a laugh. “This is not the Islam of Al Azhar.” Al Azhar, a center of Muslim learning for more than a thousand years, is well-known for its temperate edicts and for being a moderating influence among the various sects in Egypt. But advances in communications technologies, especially the internet, have given more fundamentalist clerics the ability to drown out the nuanced moral theology of Al Azhar’s scholars. Al Azhar is generally not highly regarded by Wahhabists, or by Salafists, adherents of a related fundamentalist movement.
The day after I meet with the professor, I encounter two young Salafi men, who take the opportunity to explain to me that Al Azhar has gone astray, but are quick to add that Osama bin Laden was not an adherent of true Islam, because he took the task of interpreting the Quran upon himself. The first man, his nearby wife dressed in the niqab, says, “If you ask an imam, he will tell you that what bin Laden said is not in the Quran.”
“Do you know what ‘Islam’ means?” asks the second man, a Rhodes scholar. “Peace and submission,” I reply. “Surrender,” says the first man. I ask him if he has ever doubted. “When I was a child, I would do bad things. My mother would scold me, tell me that God watched my actions. From then on, I know.” I ask the second what role reason has in his faith. “There can be reason, but there is a saying in Quranic interpretation that ‘Reason is subservient to the text.’” He tells me that I should go to Saudi Arabia, as this would give me a better understanding of Islam. We part on friendly terms.
The stories of these disparate individuals reflect but a small part of Egypt’s complex cultural and political mosaic. As the country braces for a second wave of protests in June, there is much speculation that the Muslim Brothers will not hesitate to quash protests—and will do so under the banner of preserving democracy. A well-defined concept of democracy is not the only thing that eludes Egyptians. Perhaps more elusive is a sense of the common good. It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for peace and prosperity here until such concepts are fleshed out by open political discourse, something that does not exist in any meaningful way here. The anticipated June 30 continuation of the revolution leaves little time for that to happen.