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EGYPT. Religion plays a major role in Egypt today. Approximately 9o percent of modern Egypt’s estimated 61 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslim. There are several religious minorities, the largest of which is an indigenous Christian minority constituting the Coptic Church. In 1990, estimates of the Coptic population ranged from 3 million to 7 million, while other Christians included approximately 350,000 followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, 175,000 Eastern and Latin Rite Catholics, and 200,000 Protestants. In addition, an estimated i,ooo Jews remained in Egypt as of 1990. The Jewish population represents a fragment of the community of 80,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before 1948. Broad religious tolerance has been a hallmark of traditional Egyptian culture and freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution of 1971, although tensions along religious lines have risen sharply since the 1970s.

The centrality of religion in defining Egypt is deeply rooted historically. By the end of the reign of the second Islamic caliph, `Umar ibn `Abd al-Khattab (r. 634-644), the expanding empire of Islam had succeeded in incorporating the Egyptian provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Ascendent Islam found fertile soil in Egypt. From the time of the pharaohs, demigods in the eyes of their subjects, religion had played a central role in the life of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. The priests of ancient Egypt, who presided over the cults that defined each province, made up a central part of the ruling class. Persian invaders disrupted these traditional patterns when they defeated the last Egyptian pharoah in 525 BCE. Though religion among the Egyptians took different forms through a succession of foreign conquerors, it always remained a key element of political culture.

The Arab conquest gave this inherited religious bond a distinctive Islamic form. Islam ruled out any version of the old pharaonic claim of rulers to be descendants of the gods and the notion of a closed caste of priests. Instead, the new faith impelled Muslims as a collective body to express their faith by founding a community of believers or ummah. The central moral precepts of Islam, expressed in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, provided not simply guidance for personal salvation but also the moral basis for a good society on earth. Rulers of Muslim communities were thus impelled to rely not only on men of power but also on men of intellect and faith who could mediate between the timeless revelations of Islam and the exigencies of specific times and places. Power rested with the rulers and their military supporters, but legitimacy derived from the religious scholars or `ulama’, who emerged as the guardians of the legacy and the guarantors of right guidance. In theory, and despite deviations in practice almost from the beginning, only Islamic law (the shari’ah) elaborated by the scholars from the principles of the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad could bind the new community while safeguarding its distinctive moral purpose.

The `ulama’, however, were not the only religious leaders in Muslim Egypt. Alongside their austere religion of the mind and the law there arose an Islamic mysticism, Sufism, that shifted emphasis from the mind to the heart and from the law to love. This Islam of the heart evoked a powerful popular response, organized in Sufi orders that coalesced around individual saints. The initial opposition of the `ulama’, to the Sufi orders faded into an uneasy compromise as it became clear that persecution did not diminish the appeal of Sufism for the masses.

As the hold of early Muslim empires weakened and local dynasties rose in Egypt, religious leaders retained their importance as a powerful social and spiritual force. The founding of al-Azhar as mosque and university in 970 assured Cairo a secure place in the spiritual and intellectual firmament of Islam. The Ottomans, originating in one of the Turkish principalities of Anatolia, annexed Egypt in 1516-1517 and made it part of the last great Islamic empire. The Ottoman Empire survived until just before the outbreak of World War I, when the British, who had occupied Egypt in 1882, declared the country a protectorate and ended what by then had become nominal Ottoman sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire protected the lands of Islam and expanded their borders whenever possible, creating a diverse, powerful, and inclusive political structure that ruled parts of eastern Europe, western Asia, and most of North Africa for periods ranging from three hundred to six hundred years. The acquisition of Egypt had strategic, financial, and-because of al-Azhar’s importance throughout the Muslim world-religious importance to the empire. The Ottomans maintained tight control over this prize through an appointed governor and military corps. Cairo took its place alongside such major Islamic centers as Baghdad, Damascus, Mecca, and Medina in a world empire with Istanbul as its splendid cultural capital.

With time the Ottoman military garrisoned in Egypt put down local roots and entered into alliances not only with wealthy merchants but with the `ulama’, as well. Relying on the religious scholars, the Ottomans strengthened the shari’ah and enhanced the study of Arabic. In eighteenth-century Cairo the `ulama’, flourished, numbering approximately four thousand out of an estimated adult male population of fifty thousand. From their base in the venerable al-Azhar, the organizing center of a national network of religious education, the Egyptian `ulama’ preserved a dense Islamic culture that created a formidable social and moral link between Cairo and the provinces. Moreover, the religious scholars figured prominently in all the political crises experienced by Egypt. Through their control of religious endowments, lawsuits, canonic dues, and inheritances, they held economic resources equal at least to those of the artisans or merchants. Religious leaders acted as intermediaries and occasionally even as protectors who intervened between ordinary Egyptians and their Ottoman rulers.

Napoleon’s conquests in Egypt (1798-1801) disrupted this three hundred-year-old order and cast the Egyptian provinces, vulnerable and unprepared, into a global political system dominated by the West. Egyptians encountered the West from a position of great material weakness. In the last stages of Ottoman rule, the Egyptian provinces had entered a period of severe decline. Preoccupied with holding the European territories from which they derived much of their strength, the Ottomans neglected Egypt and the other Arab centers. Local despotism flourished in the Arab lands, and the economies sank to subsistence levels as imperial linkages weakened. The towns saw little commercial trade and only the most limited artisanal production. The countryside became more vulnerable to nomadic incursions and suffered more than ever from the tax and military exaction of the hard-pressed centers. By the end of the eighteenth century it was clear that the old formulas were everywhere strained, although in Egypt the `ulama’ as a corporate body survived as one of the few remaining cohesive elements.

Amid the confusions that followed Napoleon’s incursion, the `ulama’ played a critical role in bringing to power Muhammad `Al! (1804-1841), the Albanian officer who founded modern Egypt and established the dynasty that held power until 1952. The French invasion had weakened the tie between Egyptians and Ottomans by making it apparent that the Turkish rulers could no longer provide protection against Europeans. The `ulama’ considered the natural leaders of the country, threw their support to Muhammad `Ali on condition that he rule with their consultation. When Muhammad `All agreed, they mobilized the population of Cairo to demonstrate against the Ottoman governor, calling successfully on the sultan to ratify the choice of Muhammad ‘Ali as governor of Egypt. The `ulama’ had cleared the way for the man who would set the course of Egyptian history for the next century.

Egypt’s energetic new ruler strove to transform a backward country of about two million inhabitants with a subsistence economy into a state powerful enough to counter further assaults from Europe and strong enough to maintain its de facto independence from the Ottoman sultanate. In his drive to strengthen the state and particularly its military arm, Muhammad ‘Ali launched Egypt’s first industrialization effort, borrowing both models and technicians from the West. Exploiting this new strength, Muhammad ‘Ali projected Egyptian power abroad, involving Egypt in five wars from 1811 to 1828. At home, he sought to discipline the population through new forms of education and social organization that would channel all energies to his dynastic purposes. He weakened or eliminated institutions intermediary between the peasant base and the bureaucracy of his centralized state. In the process he moved against the `ulama’ acting to circumscribe their influence as he consolidated his own power.

Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Cairo, Egypt. 1860-1890

The `ulama’ never completely recovered the independent economic and political role they had played in the eighteenth century. Yet Muhammad ‘Ali’s successful attempt to reign in the religious establishment did not tell the whole story of Islam in nineteenth-century Egypt. Though weakened, the `ulama’ continued to exert from al-Azhar a powerful religious and cultural influence in the countryside and, thanks especially to the reformists among them, on the urban elite, including the new bourgeoisie that emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Had Muhammad `All been able to continue his modernization drive unopposed, he probably would have further undercut the role of Islam and the `ulama’ in Egyptian national life. Ironically, the intervention of the British arrested that development. [See Muhammad ‘Ali Dynasty.)

Britain had grown alarmed by Egyptian military successes in the Levant and perhaps even more by the creation of the industrial base in Egypt that made them possible. British threats culminated in a dramatic naval show of force in Alexandria, and Muhammad `All admitted defeat by signing the Treaty of London in 184o. The Egyptian army was limited in size, war industries were disbanded, and the tariff and monopolies that protected the remaining industries were removed. In these circumstances of containment and imposed weakness, the `ulama’ assumed a renewed importance; they provided a reservoir of intellectual, cultural, and religious opposition.

Europe throughout the nineteenth century proceeded to colonize Egypt. Conventional history delineates two fundamental strategies of Egyptian resistance, the first secular nationalist and the second Islamic reformist. In fact, that line should not be drawn too sharply: both strategies drew on an underlying fusion of religion and collective identity. In the battles with the West the masses always felt their strongest solidarity with the `ulama’ even when they appeared to speak for the secular interest of the nation, and they responded most dramatically to the calls of political figures when those calls were expressed in Islamic terms. While weaving together diverse patterns of anti colonial sentiment and impulses for modernization and reform, resistance until after World War I remained securely anchored in Islamic structures of thought and civilization. To the present day, the cry that “God is dead” has found little resonance in Egypt.

No figure better captured the energizing thrust of this potent blend of tradition and reforming impulse than the peripatetic Iranian, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (18371897), who played a large role in the story of Islam in Egypt. Al-Afghani traversed Iran, India, Turkey, and the Arab world sounding the theme of defensive reform while calling for local and Pan-Islamic revolts. Admired for his classical Islamic learning, al-Afghani also displayed an impressive familiarity with the social and scientific thought of the West. He argued that reason, science, and liberal ideas of government and social progress were fully compatible with Islam when the message of the faith was properly understood.

Al-Afghani called on his students, including the Egyptian Shaykh Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905), to work out interpretations of Islam along these lines. The master’s own greatest talents had a more activist thrust. The call for unity al-Afghani embodied was driven by his conviction that the entire Muslim world, not just its frontiers, lay vulnerable to the power of the West. Deliberately cultivating mystery around his origins and his movements, al-Afghani made himself a unifying figure, embracing at once Sunnis, Sufis, and Shi’is. Wherever they could, al-Afghani and his followers engaged in direct attacks on Western, especially British imperialism. These political confrontations helped legitimate the painful conclusion that successful confrontation of the West would entail almost as much imitation as refusal.

Al-Afghani’s message resonated with particular force in Egypt. Al-Azhar had not remained isolated from modern trends in science and social thought, despite its traditional methods. From the time of Muhammad ‘Ali its scholars had been sent abroad to study Western sciences. Al-Afghani made himself a major though controversial intellectual force at al-Azhar. Resistance to the Western threat had become the driving force of Egyptian nineteenth-century history, and al-Azhar became an important center of resistance. [See Azhar, al-; and the biography of Afghani.]

None of Muhammad `Ali’s heirs could match him in ruthless energy, ambition, or vision. With Egypt’s industrialization effort stymied, the economy became a huge monoculture cotton farm for Britain’s textile factories. The conditions of the masses deteriorated, and the royal government grew more corrupt and inefficient, while the country slipped deeper and deeper into foreign debt. By the time of Khedive Tawfiq (1879-1892) the country had fallen totally under foreign domination. With the foreign ruling elite discredited, the ‘initiative for Egypt’s defense passed from the state to broader Egyptian social forces.

The first effort at internal reform arose from an unlikely quarter, the emasculated Egyptian army. The precipitating issue was the blockage of access to the officer corps dominated by a closed Turko-Circassian elite. When Egyptian colonels led by Ahmad `Urabi challenged these restrictions, the government responded by arresting `Urabi. The move backfired when the colonels, speaking in the name of the people, broadened their demands to include a constitution, a change of government, and an increase in the overall size of the army to the eighteen thousand men specified in the Treaty of London. Drawing on his traditional religious education, the charismatic young colonel couched his call for reform in terms of Islamic renewal, greatly enhancing his appeal. `Urabi became a symbol for a broader campaign that coalesced around the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians.” Characteristically, al-Afghani and his follower Muhammad `Abduh rallied to the `Urabists and did their best to bring the `ulama’ as a corporate body with them.

Meanwhile, the British Consul persuaded his government that the revolt had produced anarchy in the country. The British and the French dispatched a joint fleet to make a show of force at the port in Alexandria. When riots broke out in the city, the Khedive secretly encouraged the Europeans to shell the city and land forces to destroy the revolution, despite the fact that `Urabi had rushed from Cairo and succeeded in restoring order. The British, though not the French, obliged the frightened Khedive and bombarded Alexandria. The forces of `Urabi’s movement, ten thousand roughly trained men and a rabble of peasants, were crushed in 1882 by an occupying British force of thirty thousand at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. Al-Afghani and `Abduh were exiled. The era of direct British colonization had begun, to end completely only in 1954

Returning from exile to a colonial situation dominated by a monarchy imposed by British power, `Abduh had little choice but to shift his reformist efforts to the theological, educational, and cultural arenas. The journal he published, Al-manar, concentrated on Qur’anic exegesis and theological explication. Although `Abduh had no illusions about the cynical manipulations of the throne and the brutality of the occupier, he also understood that behind their raw power stood the cultural attraction of new principles for organizing society and new kinds of knowledge. An Azhar-trained member of the `ulama’ Abduh taught at al-Azhar, but also at the new college of Dar al-`Ulum where a modern curriculum had been developed to prepare functionaries for the state bureaucracies. His modernist project aimed to free religious thought from the shackles of imitation (taqlid) and to open the way to reforms that would express the spiritual power of Islam in terms appropriate to the modern world. [See Taqlid.]

`Abduh legitimated this reform program by drawing a careful distinction between the essential spiritual message of Islam and its elaboration in social prescriptions and laws. He explained that the fundamental doctrines of belief in God, of revelation through a line of prophets culminating in Muhammad, and of moral responsibility had been preserved by a line of pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih), and that these compelling and unchanging principles could be expressed and defended by reason. In contrast, laws and moral injunctions had the status of particular applications of these principles by successive Muslim communities. Naturally, when those circumstances changed, such formulations could be adapted and modified to meet new needs.

`Abduh believed that Egypt’s situation at the end of the nineteenth century demanded just such restatements. He directed attention first to the modernization of the curriculum and reform of the religious courts. As the senior legal officer or mufti of Egypt, he issued progressive legal opinions on the permissibility of Western dress, banking interest, marriage, and divorce.

`Abduh intended his compromise with colonial power, and more basically with the westernizing project, to assert Egyptian identity and liberation through the reform of Islam. But the penetration of the West all but overwhelmed his prodigious effort. Having integrated a dependent Egypt into the global economy, the British pressed their effort to remake the country through a web of institutional reforms in the military, the bureaucracy, and the legal and educational systems. From this colonial situation emerged a new Westernoriented elite that wrested control of the national project from Egypt’s natural rulers, the `ulama’ The continuities of a reformed Islam, on which `Abduh had insisted, faded. [See the biography of `Abduh.]

In 1919 a second wave of nationalist revolt stirred the country and pushed the secular elites into even greater prominence. Wartime conditions had contributed to the creation of serious food shortages and a staggering rate of inflation. This time nationalist leaders like Sa’d Zaghlul gave voice to the popular resentment of foreign rule aggravated by these conditions. The rejection of Zaghlul’s request for an Egyptian delegation or wafd to the Paris Conference sparked a wave of armed rebellion and strikes that paralyzed the country. Under the pressure of these disturbances, Egypt was declared an independent monarchy in 1922. Egypt’s new constitution enshrined liberal nationalist ideas. The Wafd party that Zaghlul founded included Copts as well as Muslims in its leadership. The country had entered a liberal constitutional era that lasted until the revolution of 1952.

These secularizing events in Egypt coincided with the final destruction at the end of World War I of the overarching Islamic political framework in the Middle East. Events in the Turkish successor state strengthened the hands of secularists in Egypt and throughout the region. Ataturk thwarted imperialist designs on Turkey and launched a development effort under a republican, nationalist, populist, secular, statist, and revolutionary banner; his reforms included abandoning the Arabic script and, even more significantly, abolishing the caliphate.

From the outset, al-Afghani and `Abduh had argued that successful resistance to the West would entail a substantial dose of imitation. In Egypt the followers of `Abduh who had responded most to his call to imitate the West now had an influential model that pushed them decisively into the arms of the secular nationalists.

These same ambiguities linking resistance and imitation simultaneously fostered a quite different orientation. Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) `Abduh’s most prominent follower, responded to the pressures of westernization in a strikingly different manner, eventually taking events in Saudi Arabia rather than Turkey for his inspiration. Although Rida initially tried to hold onto both aspects of the master’s legacy, the deterioration of the faith drove him to increasingly defensive and apologetic strategies. Rida drew closer to the conservative Hanball school of Islamic law and came to believe that the early eighteenth-century Arabian reform movement of Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab, which had provided the religious underpinning of the Saudi Ara-bian state, represented the most viable Islamic alternative to capitulation to the West.

The Wahhabis called for a return to Ibn Hanbal’s understanding of Islam that required absolute obedience to the Qur’an and the hadith as interpreted by the responsible `ulama’ of each generation and the rejection of illegitimate innovations. In line with this thinking, Rida issued a series of fatwas designed to bring existing laws in line with a revised shari’ah. Rida noted that the Saudi state that had taken shape on this. basis in the early nineteenth century had never succumbed to the colonial .onslaught. Like both Afghani and `Abduh, Rida, though a reformer, spoke as one of the `ulama’ While working to contain influences that threatened to undermine the distinctive character of the Muslim community, Rida embraced modernist conceptions of instrumental reason and efficiency; above all, he stressed creating new forms of institutional life to reassert Islam’s social role under modern conditions. [See Wahhabiyah and the biography of Rashid Rida.]

In 1928, Rashid Ridd’s strand of Islamic reform bore its most impressive and lasting fruit when his disciple, the schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna’, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Like his master, al-Banna’ drew on modern institutional and communications strategies to create a durable organization to advance Islamic modernization. Unlike Rida, however, his project implied the creation of an Islamist elite by claiming to speak not only for Egypt but also for the world beyond.

The radical character of al-Banna’s project reflected the terrible deterioration of Egypt’s material situation. By the late twenties it was clear that Egypt’s economy had been colonized. For more than half a century the country had been little more than an exporter of raw cotton to British mills. Direct occupation made effective resistance more difficult as the British tightened the bonds of economic dependency. Control of the Suez Canal by European shareholders continued to bind Egypt to the Western global economic system. Reacting to the Great Depression, the Egyptian private sector, including the large foreign component, moved the country on the path of Western-inspired import substitution and industrialization. The economic and political dimensions of the nation seemed now to be monopolized by the Western-oriented secular elite.

Undoubtedly al-Banna’s immense charisma helped to validate the Muslim Brothers’ claim to represent a plausible Islamic alternative, but much more was involved than the personality of one man. Al-Banna’s assessment of Egypt’s needs went beyond breaking the bonds of dependency in the political and economic realms: he understood that the most damaging injuries from colonization were internal. Islam’s enemies, he warned, had succeeded in entering the social body, attacking and undermining the Islamic community from within and wounding Muslims in mind and soul. The westernized Egyptians who made up the colonial political class became his prime targets.

Hasan al-Banna’ cast the Muslim Brothers as the heir of the unified project of resistance-political, economic, and cultural-that had characterized the nineteenth century. It was the brotherhood alone that grasped the possibility for a culturally located mode of resistance. In the face of daunting “internal colonization” the brothers struggled to develop an authentic social ethos consistent with Islam yet compatible with the modern world. They acted on that ethic of “social Islam” in concrete activities and services that reached a large body of Muslims, especially in the urban areas. At the same time, the brothers moved decisively to assume the political responsibilities of resistance, earning enduring appreciation for their role in directly combating British occupation forces in the Canal Zone and the Zionists in Palestine. These militant actions helped solidify the reputation of the brothers abroad and fostered the transnational links to the larger Islamic body that later generated branches of the brotherhood in other parts of the Arab world, most importantly in Syria and Jordan. In Egypt of the 1940s, membership in the Muslim Brothers numbered approximately one million. [See Muslim Brotherhood, article on Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and the biography of Banna‘.]

The elaboration of a viable social Islam in Egypt proved to be the Muslim Brothers’ most impressive legacy for Egyptian public life. However, from the outset a strand of radicalism, a “political Islam” prone to erupt in violence, threatened to overshadow this achievement. Initially directed at the British and Zionist colonizing agents, the militants gradually turned their weapons against the regime. The central figure in this development was Sayyid Qutb. The emergence of the new mainstream social Islam created by the Muslim Brothers and Qutb’s radical evolution out of it can only be understood against the backdrop of the relationship between the Free Officers regime and the brotherhood.

Key members of the the young army officers who spearheaded the 1952 Free Officers’ coup that became a revolution from above were drawn to the brothers. They knew Hasan al-Banna’ personally and shared many of his ideas. When Gamal Abdel Nasser and the young colonels around him first moved to curtail political parties, the brotherhood was exempted. In the critical early days the Muslim Brotherhood supported the military as they moved against the old secular elite. Later, echoing the fate of the traditional `ulama’ at the hands of Muhammad ‘Ali, Nasser turned against the brothers as he moved to concentrate his own power. The conflict emerged essentially from these power considerations rather than from questions of ideology.

The task of subduing the brothers did not prove easy. On two separate occasions, roughly a decade apart, the regime launched murderous attacks on the brothers. An alleged assassination attempt occurred in 1954 at a time when Nasser was manufacturing incidents to create a climate of general disorder. The regime moved to crush the one remaining organization capable of challenging state power. The brotherhood survived underground, but a decade later it once again became the target of massive repression as the regime moved to consolidate its leftist support. Once again, the brothers were brutally crushed and dispersed.

Within their prison cells and in exile, the Muslim Brothers developed a compelling critique of the Nasserist experience. Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s had drifted from Islam as its mediating device. At the heart of the military regime, they saw a void. The brothers charged that for all the surface movement on economic, political, and foreign-policy issues, the Free Officers had no clear sense of where Egypt was going. The military rulers, the brothers charged, were chasing other people’s modernity at the price of their own spiritual and cultural integrity.

Sayyid Qutb developed his own version of such thinking in the context of terrible personal suffering. Qutb began his intellectual and moral odyssey from a proWestern position. As a young man, he found the West and and its modernist project attractive, but a trip to the United States reversed that outlook. Disgusted by the anti-Arab prejudice he encountered and shocked by what he perceived to be the moral turpitude of American cities, Qutb joined the brotherhood on his return to Egypt.

The brutality of the regime confirmed Qutb’s antiWestern experience and provided the impetus for the elaboration of a new militancy. In outline, Qutb argued that while there were millions of Muslims in Egypt, the system under which they were forced to live was fundamentally un-Islamic. In Signposts on the Way, his most important theoretical statement, Qutb condemned the Egyptian regime as un-Islamic. Perhaps most significantly, he urged the formation of a vanguard of true believers who would mount militant and armed resistance that alone had a chance to succeed. The regime recognized the direct and dangerous challenge that Qutb’s thought represented: he was executed, and the broad Islamist movement was smashed once again. But by the mid-1960s the regime’s effort at modernization had crested. A financial crisis coupled with the devastating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war effectively ended the Nasserist experiment. From these momentous events, many read the message that neither the liberal nor the socialist face of the Western project had much to offer Egyptians. The way had opened for those, whether moderate or radical, who claimed to speak for Islam. [See Nasserism and the biographies of Nasser and Qutb.]

The death of the defeated Nasser and the succession of Anwar el-Sadat in 1971 paved the way for yet another return of the Muslim Brothers. As Sadat moved his regime to the right on all levels, he turned to the Islamist current to contain the old Nasserists and other elements of the left. Less than five years after Sayyid Qutb’s martyrdom, the Muslim Brothers reemerged to play their most important role in Egyptian public life since the 1940s. There were important differences, of course. No single leader emerged with the stature of Hasan alBanna’. Equally important, although not initially noticed, the moderate mainstream that returned to civil life was haunted by the shadow of the militants, hardened in concentration camps and inspired by their selective reading of Sayyid Qutb. The mainstream brothers found themselves caught in a new way between the regime and the violent militants who had emerged from the abused Islamist body.

In this difficult context, the brotherhood assumed something of the role that traditional `ulama’ had once played in speaking for the nation and serving as a reservoir from which a variety of competing strategies emerged. In this sense, the brothers gave rise to both the most moderate and the most militant voices for Islam in the 1980s and 1990s.

The mainstream, under the stable but uninspired leadership of `Umar al-Tilimsani (Omar al-Telmesany), compromised with the Sadat regime and that of Hosni Mubarak. Adopting the conscious strategy of working within the existing order, the brothers took advantage of every opportunity to play as large a role as possible in the emerging civil society. With official Islam diminished by Nasserist authoritarianism and the Sufi orders brought into the same network of control, the brothers constituted a quasi-independent Islamist mainstream that inspired a whole network of Islamist institutions and new forms of Islamist political and social action. Social Islam took on concrete forms.

For a time the compromise with the Sadat regime worked. The brothers threw themselves with genuine commitment into the officially orchestrated de-Nasserization campaign with attacks on socialism and authoritarianism. But when the full implications of Sadat’s reorientation became clear in the mid-1970s, especially in the form of the separate peace with Israel in 1979, the tacit alliance came undone. As even the mainstream Brothers saw it, Sadat’s break with Arab and Islamic ranks sacrificed Jerusalem and the Palestinians for narrowly conceived Egyptian interests. The United States failed to hold Israel to the Camp David commitment to do something for the Palestinians, and the social gap in Egypt widened under liberalization policies. The Sadat regime’s promise of peace and prosperity collapsed, leaving the president isolated and vulnerable. In October 1981 Islamist militants assassinated Sadat as he reviewed a military parade.

Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who was also on the reviewing stand, survived and assumed the presidency in a smooth constitutional transition. Mubarak began with a firm commitment to continue the policies of the Sadat era, including reconciliation with the moderate Muslim Brothers. In some ways Mubarak initially deepened the democratization process that Sadat had tentatively begun. He certainly continued to strengthen the presence of official Islam in public life.

By the end of the first decade of Mubarak’s rule the Islamic current in Egypt had assumed an impressive array of forms. Alliances with legitimate political parties gave prominent Islamists seats in parliament, a leading role in the major professional syndicates, and many publishing houses. At the same time, the mosques steadily expanded their functions to include not only religious activities but also medical clinics and social service facilities that offered high-quality services at low prices, attracting middle-class as well as lower middleclass families. But despite these impressive advances of Social Islam, the Islamist radicals cast a threatening shadow.

Militant political Islam, fragmented into small and often violent groups, continued to absorb the regime’s energies in increasingly deadly duels. While the broad Islamic current draws support from all social classes, the militants appear to have originated predominantly from the lower middle-class provincials, with their leaders coming from the rural elite. Their roots appear especially strong in those parts of Upper Egypt, such as Minya and Asyut, with large Christian populations. The militants splintered over their assessment of the appropriate target of their violent anger-the regime or society as a whole. They disagreed on strategy, with some militant groups such as the Takfir wa al-Hijrah urging withdrawal from society to preserve their purity as the vanguard of a genuine Islamic order, and others such as al-Jihad favoring shock attacks and assassinations designed to undermine the Mubarak government and produce the social chaos that would create the opening for a militant takeover. [See Takfir wa al-Hijrah, Jama’at al-.]

In some ways, the regime’s most impressive weapon against the violent Islamist radicals was the moderate brothers. On one hand, the brothers were given increasingly widened scope for their own activities; on the other, they were encouraged by the regime to cooperate in containing more militant elements that might challenge their own leadership. Uninspired leadership prevented moderate brothers from fully exploiting this new opening. In retrospect, the most disappointing aspect of al-Banna’s legacy was the leadership void he left behind. During his lifetime al-Banna’ surrounded himself not with the most talented but with the most loyal, compensating for their limitations with his own impressive abilities. Official repression directed quite consciously against the top leadership cadres worsened the situation.

Not surprisingly, some of the most creative and original minds in the Egyptian Islamist current found the institutional confines of the brotherhood too limiting. As the twentieth century drew to a close, some of the most impressive figures moved out of the brotherhood to play a role as independent Islamist figures, although frequently maintaining loose ties to the brotherhood and always acknowledging the historic role of Hasan alBanna’ and social Islam. Most impressive was the loosely linked group who called themselves the New Islamic Current and brought together such figures as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali,, Kamal Abu al-Majd, and Fahmi Huwaydi. At the outset of the Mubarak era, Kamal Abu al-Majd, on behalf of the group, produced a manifesto that expressed their moderate views, emphasizing commitments to democracy and pluralism. Despite its moderate thrust, the regime blocked the initiative, and the manifesto was not published for a decade. [See the biography of Ghazah. ]

In the first decade of Mubarak’s rule, however, the New Islamists preserved their presence in Egyptian civil society and attempted to offer enlightened leadership to the rapidly growing Islamist body. They were joined by other prominent independent intellectuals such as the distinguished jurist Tariq al-Bishri and the diplomat Hussein Amin, who participated actively in rethinking Islam’s role in public life. Amin in particular took a sharply rationalist and realist position that went well beyond `Abduh. He insisted on fully acknowledging the historical forces that had shaped the religious inheritance and on the necessity, in interpreting Islam today, of taking account of new conditions.

During the Gulf War the New Islamists stepped into the public arena with two statements addressed to the nation, condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait yet calling for an Arab and Islamic diplomatic solution, in opposition to regime support for the American-led military resolution. At moments of grave social tension precipitated by communal strife, key figures from their circle urged religious tolerance and acceptance of Egypt’s Christians as full members of the political and social community. With ever greater urgency they addressed their conciliatory message to Egypt’s disillusioned young, who, in the deteriorating conditions of the 1990s, appeared to be responding instead to the shriller voices of the most unsubtle heirs of Sayyid Qutb.

In tracing the history of the relationship between Islam, the Egyptian state, and civil society, it becomes clear that Islam has played a vital yet constantly shifting role in the development of Egyptian public life, particularly with respect to the ongoing need to define a common life for Egyptians. Within this history, prominent Islamist intellectuals and groups have formed and articulated unique and diverse responses to modernism and the influence of the West. This is best evidenced by their creative attempts to mediate modernism so as to appropriate and extend its influence in Egypt under Islamic terms.


Dessouki, Ali E. Hillal, ed. Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World. New York, 1982. Though of uneven quality, the essays usefully place developments in Egypt in the broader Arab context.

Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York and Oxford, 1992. Written for a general audience, this authoritative survey of the current scene effectively counters media and scholarly distortions of Islam’s role in public life.

Gilsenan, Michael. Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World. New York, 1983. Sensitive and probing anthropological study of popular Islam in its full diversity and complexity. Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. Brilliant and indispensable history of the Arabs and Islam, with important sections on Egypt, that crowned a lifetime of humanistic scholarship.

Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Berkeley, 1986. Helpful though one-sided guide to Egypt’s radical militants.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of Muslim Brothers. New York, 1969. Still the most insightful and fairest account of the Brothers’ historic role in Egypt and beyond.

Oweiss, Ibrahim M., ed. The Political Economy of Contemporary Egypt. Washington, D.C., 1990. Helpful collection sketching the sociopolitical conditions of Egyptian Islamist movements. See in particular the essays by `Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot and Moustafa K. El-Sayed.

Sharabi, Hisham. Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society. New York, 1988. Theoretically eclectic, this influential essay forcefully summarizes and restates negative assessments of the prospects of Islamist political movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/egypt/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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