The Rise of Political Islam and Repression

The Rise of Political Islam and Repression

The social base of the state under Sadat and Mubarak was undoubtedly narrower than it had been under Nasser. In some ways, it was more solid. It rested on the hard-core support of the most strategic social force, the bourgeoisie, which had a major stake in its survival, and it at least partially incorporated elements of the opposition through the party/interest group structure created under limited liberalization. Yet, although the parties articulated interests, they did not, as in strong party systems, incorporate a large mobilized public or the interests of the masses into the making of public policies. There was still an institutional gap between public wishes and policy outcomes; decisions, still made in limited elite circles, therefore enjoyed too little societal support. Moreover, the regime still lacked the ideological legitimacy to win the loyalty of the masses. By the middle of the 1980s, as economic expansion gave way to austerity, the challenge of mass control became ever more burdensome. The limits of the regime's capacity to incorporate dissident factions left the door open to the rise of a counterelite in the form of the Islamic movement, and the regime had to continue to rely on coercion and repression to stave off dissent and rebellion.

The development of the Islamic movement in the 1980s was the most significant change in the political arena and one with the potential to transform the system. Sadat originally unleashed the movement against his leftist opponents, but as Westernization and the infitah advanced, the Islamic movement became a vehicle of opposition, sometimes violent, to his regime. He attempted to curb it, but under Mubarak it took on new dimensions. The more violent messianic groups, such as Al Jihad, were the targets of continual repression and containment, apparently only partly successful. Their destabilizing potential was indicated by their role in the assassination of Sadat, a major rebellion they mounted in Asyut at that time, a 1986 wave of attacks on video shops and Westernized boutiques, and assassination attempts against high officials. The regime responded by arresting thousands of these radical activists. Another Islamic group, the Jamaat al Islamiyah, recovered the control of the student unions Sadat tried to break. In the mid-1980s, they won twice the number of votes of the NDP in student union elections, and the secular opposition was squeezed out. The left made inroads in their dominance toward the end of the decade, however. Radical groups belonging to Jamaat al Islamiyah tried to impose a puritanical, sometimes anti-Coptic, Islamic regime on the campuses and in the towns of Upper Egypt, where local government sometimes bowed to their demands. More moderate groups in Jamaat al Islamiyah could turn out large disciplined crowds for public prayer, the nearest thing to a mass demonstration that the regime reluctantly permitted. A major contest was waged over Egypt's 40,000 mosques; the government sought to appoint imams but had too few reliable candidates, while the movement sought to wrest control of these major potential centers of Islamic propaganda.

The influence of Islamic groups in poor urban neighborhoods seemed to grow in the 1980s. In 1985 when parliament rejected immediate application of the sharia, Islamic agitation led by Shaykh Hafiz Salama swept Cairo, and in the late 1980s bitter clashes occurred in Ayn Shams between a kind of Islamic "shadow government" there and the security forces. Although Islamic militants were certainly a minority and were even resented by a good portion of the public, their activism in a largely passive political arena gave them great power. The government tried to drive a wedge between the more militant youth groups and the Islamic mainstream; thus, in 1989 Shaykh Muhammad Mutwalli Sharawi, a prestigious and popular preacher, was brought to denounce the use of violence in the name of Islam.

The Islamic mainstream, possessed of increasing cohesion, organization, and mobilizational capability, rapidly took advantage of the legitimate channels of activity opened by the regime under Mubarak. The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood and its conservative cousins were incorporated into parliament; they infiltrated the parties, the judiciary, and the press; and they generally put secular forces on the defensive. The more the secular opposition proved impotent to wrest a share of power from the regime, the more dissidents seemed to turn to political Islam as the only viable alternative. A dramatic indicator of this was the substantial representation Islamists won in the professional syndicates, especially the doctors' union, traditionally bastions of the liberal, upper-middle class; only the lawyers' and journalists' unions resisted their sway. Victories indicative of Islamic influence included the reversal of Sadat's law of personal status that gave women some modest rights, a decision by certain state companies to cease hiring women so they could take their "proper place in the home," and a constitutional amendment making sharia the sole basis of legislation. Islamic sentiment and practices were widespread in the 1980s. Filling the vacuum left by the withering of state populism, the Islamic movement constructed an alternative social infrastructure--mosques, clinics, cooperatives--to bring the masses under Islamic leadership.

The movement was backed by the power of Islamic banking and investment houses, an enigmatic development that possibly was filling the gap left by the decline of the state economy. Claiming to represent an alternative economic way, these Islamic banks initially seemed better positioned than government or foreign banks to mobilize the savings of ordinary people. Yet, while the Islamic movement grew up in opposition to Westernization and the infitah, these institutions were linked to entrepreneurs enriched in the oil states who made huge profits on the same international connections and through many of the same speculative financial, black-market, and tertiary enterprises infitah had encouraged. As scandals shook public confidence in them, the government moved to curb their autonomy. But their tentacles reached into the political system. They were major contributors to the ruling NDP and had forged alliances with the New Wafd Party and the Islamic Alliance as well. It was unclear by 1990 whether the effect of Islamic banking institutions would be to incorporate ordinary Egyptians into a more indigenous, broader-based capitalism adjusted to the infitah regime, to provide the economic basis for an alternative socio-political order, or to prove a mere flash in the pan. The regime's mix of hostility and wary tolerance toward them suggested it was not sure itself.

The Islamic movement thus emerged as a powerful cross-class political alliance, a potential counterestablishment. As its economic and political power grew, however, there were signs that its antiregime populism was being overshadowed by the emergence of a bourgeois leadership preaching conservative values: class deference, respect for elders, female submission, the right to a fair profit, and the superiority of the private sector. To the extent that its program thus became indistinguishable, except in symbolism, from regime policies, a gap threatened to separate this leadership from its plebeian following, splitting or enervating the movement. If the bourgeois leadership prevailed, the outcome was likely to be a gradual cooptation of the Islamic movement and Islamization of the regime rather than Islamic revolution.

To the extent control mechanisms proved inadequate, a role remained for coercion and repression in the political system. Under Nasser coercive controls were very tight although largely directed at the upper class and limited numbers of middle-class opposition activists. Sadat initially relaxed controls, particularly over the bourgeoisie, but when opposition became too insistent, he did not hesitate to repress it. His massive 1981 purge showed how quickly the regime could change from conciliation to repression. Under the more tolerant Mubarak regime, political freedoms were still unequally enjoyed. Dissent within regime institutions was tolerated, but when it crossed the line into mass action--such as Islamic street demonstrations for implementation of sharia and anti-Israeli protests--it was regularly repressed. Strikes were also regularly smashed with the use of force. The regime continued to round up leftist and Islamic dissidents, charging them with belonging to illegal organizations or spreading antigovernment propaganda, apparently part of a strategy to keep dissent within manageable bounds. Indeed, the regime went so far as to arrest whole families of political dissidents and to hold them as virtual hostages in order to pressure suspects to surrender.

The security apparatus, more massive than ever, contained the main episodes of violent challenge to the regime--notably the food riots and localized Islamic uprisings at Sadat's death. The Ministry of Interior presided over several coercive arms including the General Directorate for State Security Investigations (GDSSI), the domestic security organization, and the gendarmerie-like Central Security Forces; behind the police stood the army itself. But there were signs that these forces were neither totally reliable nor effective. In the 1977 riots, the army reputedly refused to intervene unless the government rescinded the price rises, and scattered Nasserite and Islamic dissidence in the military continued in the 1980s. There were rivalries between the army and the Ministry of Interior, and disagreements inside the latter over whether dialogue or the iron fist could best deal with opposition. In 1986 the CSF itself revolted. Although the rebellion had no political program and was mainly sparked by worsening treatment of the lower ranks, it signaled that the use of conscripts from the poorest sectors of society to contain radical opposition to a bourgeois regime was ever more risky. Yet the regime continued thereafter to use the CSF against students, strikers, and Islamic militants. Finally, the assassination of Sadat after his crackdown on the opposition showed that coercion could run two ways; according to its perpetrators, their purpose was "to warn all who come after him and teach them a lesson."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamism
http://countrystudies.us/egypt/


Country Studies main page | Egypt Country Studies main page