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December 18th, 2012, by Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan

Egypt: The Ideological Battle of the Decade


The demonstrations, violent incidents, resignations, accusations and more that are sweeping Egypt are symptoms of a much greater development. What is developing in Egypt is the ideological battle of the decade. The basics of this battle are quite complex, fluid and changing. However, a few overriding issues are clear. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters within the Salafis want to turn Egypt into a place that is far closer to its ideas of what are right and wrong. There are spin-off groups within the Salafis, such as those led by Hazem Abou Ismael, who want even greater moves to the far conservative fringe. On the other sides are the intellectuals and he so-called “secular groups”, which are often populated by pious Muslims and Copts who are far from secular.

However, the Salafis and some of the stricter members of the Muslim Brotherhood do not consider the Muslims who are part of these groups as even full Muslims. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have their own tests and ideas of what is a true Muslims. This is similar to some of the most extreme evangelical Christian groups in the United States who think that Catholics and others are not real Christians. Clearly, Catholics and other non-evangelicals have many differences with such a set of opinions. Similar differences are seen by those pious Muslim who are not Brotherhood members or supporters or are and not Salafis.

In my 20 years of living, working and visiting Egypt I have met many decent and good Muslims who are clearly quite pious, good family people, honest and apply the five pillars of Islam assiduously. The tensions between these fine and decent people and the more extreme groups was not as clear in the past as I found them to be during my recent six week visit to the country. During a late night conversation with some clearly conservative Muslims one of them stated that the “Muslim Brotherhood is a foreign element in Egypt”. Another person said that the Brotherhood is “zay Shia”, “like the Shia”. That person was referring to the vertically hierarchal nature of Shi’ism, with its mullahs and ayatollahs. This differs greatly from the more horizontal and egalitarian version of Sunni Islam that has been the norm for Egypt. The ulema in Egypt, the sheikhs of Al Azar, the scholars of Islam in Egypt, are seen as scholars and those with greater knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence by many Egyptians. They do not have the bureaucratic and religious power that many Shia see in the mullahs and the ayatollahs. There are certain large followings for certain sheikhs, such as of the late Sheikh Sharawi, who had a very popular and down to earth TV program explaining Islam, but such followings are not as one would find for Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq or what was seen as a fanatical following of the Ayatollah Khomeinie in Iran in the past.

Most Egyptians see themselves as pious Muslims, but are far from fanatical and extremist. They are serious in the following of the rules of Islam as they understand them. They resent anyone trying to impose their ideological approaches upon them.

The more liberal Egyptians, the more free-wheeling intellectuals and the internationalist Egyptians often resent such outside interference in their ideas more than the average Egyptians.

In many ways what we may be seeing in Egypt is a clash of interpretations of Islam, or even a clash of civilizations within Egypt. How this works itself out could affect similar debates and clashes in many places throughout the Muslim world.

Egypt is a vocal place. It is a place that has been seen as an intellectual and political center of not only the Arab world, but the Muslim world. This view of Egypt changed during the time of Hosni Mubarak. It is back into the spotlight.

The world is watching. The Muslim world is watching. The results will be vital for so many issues within the Muslim world, but also with regard to its relations with the non-Muslim world, that this underlying conflict and debate needs to be watched closely and considered carefully.

The Arab Spring brought us revolutions and lots of views of young people yearning for what was thought of as greater liberty and freedom. Things seem to be turning into something else: an ideological battle of interpretation and application. How this works out will be important for us all.

The results will not be determined by the ongoing referendum or even the upcoming elections. These are just symptomatic debates that may prove to be small parts of far greater issues.


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