Islamic Activism and Political Opposition in Egypt 1995

Islamic activism is currently an issue of great concern both within and outside the Muslim world. Unfortunately the term is overloaded with diverse, and often conflicting. Meanings. The confusion is compounded by the inaccurate usage of interchangeable terms such as Islamic ’fundamentalism, ’militancy, ’fanaticism’ ’extremism’ and violence. The Western mass media have used these terms as buzzwords permeated by excessive fear- arousal. Certain dramatic events in Muslim countries- the Iranian Revolution (1979), the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca (1979). The assassination of President Sadat (1981), the hostage-taking and suicide missions in Lebanon and Israel- have added to both media sensationalism and public fear of Islam and Muslims. There is a real for clarity in distinguishing among the terms used-and abused-in referring to Islamic activism.


Islamic fundamentalism simply means the belief in the precepts and commandments of Islam as stated in its holy book, the Quran, and as enunciated and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad – known as the Sunna. In other words, Islamic fundamentalism is a return to the purest sources of the religion, cleansing it from all the impurities, heresies, and ’revisionisms’ which accrued to the faith and practice throughout history.
    Believers, that is, fundamentalists, are convinced that adherence to the purest sources will deliver them, their society, and the entire world from all the ills of our time-decadence, corruption, weakness, poverty, and humiliation. In a word, it provides total salvation. Islam, it is claimed will enable the faithful to establish a perfect social order on earth- one that is virtuous, just, humane, compassionate, free, strong and prosperous. It is an order that is believed to be far superior to both communism and capitalism. ’Islamic order’ balances the interests of the individual with the welfare of the community; the material with the spiritual; and the imperative of the here-and-now on earth with the commandments of the hereafter in preparation for heaven. ’work for your as if you would die tomorrow.

      Fundamentalists believe that Islam, unlike other religions, has provided not only guidelines for individual living, but also comprehensive principles and regulations for all aspects of life-from the interpersonal to the international. Indeed, in those areas which Islam considers important. It even provides detailed codes for human conduct. The penal codes (hudud) and codes covering business trans actions (mu’amalat) are cases in point.

      Reinforcing this conviction in perfection of Islam is not just the deep religiosity of the fundamentalists, but also their reading of old and recent history of the umma, ’Islamic nation’ community of believers. The glorious period for them was the seventh century A.D. (the first Islamic century) – when the prophet Muhammad and his four successors, the Guided Caliphs, presided over a society which strictly adhered to the spirit and letter of the Quran and Sunna. During that golden age, Muslims not only established a “perfect society” on earth but were also the masters of the entire world. Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) was the bearer of the torch of world civilization. The fundamentalist reading of more recent history is that Dar al-Islam has decayed and become vulnerable to Western encroachment, because Muslims have strayed away from their religion-no longer strictly adhering to its purest sources. The road to salvation. Therefore, is self-evident.
      In fact, the mainstream of fundamentalist thought (al-salafiya or al-’usuliya), as expounded by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ’Abdu in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, espouses a reading of Islam which is far from being extremist. This variant of undamentalism prides itself on being the epitome of moderation. The umma is a “moderate nation” (ummatun wusta) among all nations. The “straight path” of Islam is a geometric central axis between two extremes.

     Fundamentalist Islam is consistent with human nature. It recognizes its instincts and impulses but attempts to refine, sublimate, or moderate them. Politically, it emphasizes a participatory society through a system of shura-the community’s selection of a ruling council which must consult with others and be held accountable on the bases of Shari’a as such, Islam is consistent with a Western type democracy-the Holy Quran Being the functional equivalent of a divine constitution, there is no priesthood, and hence no theocracy, under Islam, the ’ulama’ are learned men of religion, but they do not constitute a clergy in the Western sense. While rulers may perform some religious functions (for example, leading prayers) and rule according to a divine constitution (the Quran), they are not themselves considered holy, nor do they possess any divine rights. Economically, fundamentalist Islam makes human labor the only legitimate basis of generating and accumulating wealth, and recognizes and protects the sanctity of private property in all spheres,  except where it touches upon vital interests relating to the community as a whole (such as water, energy, and other public utilities). It prohibits usury (interests on loans), and production, trading. Or consumption of commodities which are considered ’repugnant’ by Islam (for example, pork, liquor, and intoxicating drugs). Socially, fundamentalist Islam considers the family as the basic unit of society, and recognizes that women are equal to. But different from, men. It accepts religious pluralism with differential rights and obligations for Muslims and “Peoples of the Book” (Christians and Jews) While recognizing classes, fundamentalist Islam frowns upon vast class difference and provides several measures to check excessive wealth. It ensures satisfaction of Basic needs for orphans, the poor, the disabled, and the aged. Finally, fundamentalist Islam glorifies the human mind, the pursuit of knowledge. And reason, so long as such activities cast no doubt on the existence and the omniscience of god. Thus, today’s fundamentalists have no quarrel with modern science and technology, and many of them are in fact students and professional practitioners of science and technology.

      Articulated in the above terms, contemporary Islamic fundamentalism can hardly be described as a fanatical ideology. In fact the bulk of today’s fundamentalists are quite moderate in both word and deed. While vigorous in the advocacy of their vision, they do not, as a rule, resort to violence. The exception to this statement is the small group we may call, for the lack of a better term, ’Muslim militants’ Today’s Islamic fundamentalism, whether at the hands of its pioneers (al-afghani and ’Abdu) or its mid-century propagators (Hassan al-Banna and Sayid Qutb in Egypt, and al-Ala al-Mawdudi in Pakistan), has always emphasized conscience-raising, teaching, and peaceful pressure on rulers to heed the call of Islam. The occasional calls for the use of force have been mainly directed against foreign occupation or Zionism. But even in that respect, fundamentalists were in tune with other secular nationalist and patriotic forces in their respective countries.
      While tens of millions of Muslims around the world adhere to fundamentalism, only a fraction of the faithful act upon their beliefs politically- that is, strive to bring about an Islamic order, to restore a ’paradise lost.’ These are the Muslim activists, who propagate by words and deeds the fundamentalist vision.
        The Islamic activists themselves are not all of one mind. A majority among them have opted for a peaceful, gradualist approach to bring about the desired Islamic order. Their reasoning is that the best way to do so under the present complex circumstances is to demonstrate the practical superiority of Islamic principles in spheres of life where this is possible-including business transactions. However, other activists, a minority to be sure, believe that an Islamic order cannot be brought about through piecemeal reforms and that state power must be seized, forcibly if need be, to implement the true vision of Islam.  These are the ones the mass media often focus on; and with whom all fundamentalists and other activists are often lumped.
        These militants are symptomatic of a crisis within the Muslim world, rather than being a vanguard of its salvation. Contemporary Islamic resurgence or activism is a much broader and deeper phenomenon which involves quests for self-assertion. Cultural authenticity, national independence, economic development, and social justice. The crisis which Islamic activism is responding to is no different from that facing many societies in the Third World. the fact that Islam is invoked in confronting this crisis is simply a function of the historical and cultural specificity of Muslim societies. This is nowhere clearer than in the area of political discourse to which we now turn, using Egypt as a case in point.


    No other major religion was born as “political” as was Islam. It has remained so ever since. As we already indicated, Islam does not separate between this world and the next; the here-and-now and the hereafter; the temporal, the material. And the spiritual. A good Muslim is enjoined to work for the here-and-now as if he would live forever and to work for the hereafter as if he would die tomorrow. Islamic activists in Egypt have taken this commandment very seriously since the 1920s.
     The interwar period (1918-38) witnessed the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate (1922), representing the collapse of the last great Muslim empire. This brought with it the sprouting of explicitly (or implicitly) secular-based politics, created by western-educated elites with liberal orientations; but more often than not, with authoritarian. Though never complete, the separation between state and religion in these new polities alienated a significant   number of devout Egyptian Muslims. After their initial shock, the latter organized themselves in what came to be known as the Muslim Brotherhood(MB), led by the charismatic Hassan al-Banna.

    Since its establishment in 1928, the MB has been the backbone of Islamic activism in Egypt and much of the Arab world. in its sixty two years of legal, quasi-legal, existence, the MB has been one of the most potent political opposition groups in Egypt. All attempts to suppress or liquidate the MB have ultimately been doomed to failure. The MB and the Egyptian state have alternated in their use of violence against one another. The two political actors have also had their moments of tenuous ’peaceful coexistence.’

       At the risk of oversimplification, it is possible to identify three distinct phases in the life of the MB as a social movement. The first phase, extending from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, was one of advocacy and organization-building. The MB remained fairly small for much of this phase. Only in the 1940s, thanks to the socioeconomic strains accompanying the Second World War, did its membership grow phenomenally.
     The second phase, extending from the late 1940s to the 1960s was one of frequent violent confrontations with the state, both in monarchical Egypt (1946-50) and Nasser ’s revolutionary Egypt (1954-66). Many of the MB leaders were killed. Assassinated. Or executed in these confrontations. Many more its members were jailed and imprisoned.

     The third phase, extending from the early 1970s to the present (early 1990s), is one of nonviolent struggle, under Presidents Sadat (1970-81) and Mubarak (1981-90). In this phase the MB’s surviving leadership made a conscious decision to give up violence and to carry out its opposition to the regime peacefully. It was this latter decision which caused several splits in the MB. The splinter groups were to extend and continue their violent confrontations with the state and/or societv over the last two decades.

      Despite their nonviolence, the MB has remained faithful to its avowed principles –that is, setting up an Islamic state, with the Quran as its constitutional, and Islamic Shari’a as its legal foundation. The MB has changed only its methods in pursuing these objectives. Some observers believe the change to be tactical, others believe it to be strategic.

     Ten years ago, this author identified the major issues over which  the MB opposed President Sadat. 5 These included, (1) the Open-Door Economic Policy, (2) controlled democratization, (3) alignment with the West
(especially the United States). And (4) reconciliation with Israel. Ironically, these four major policies of Sadat represented a total departure from Nasser’s regime, which the MB vehemently opposed. In other words, the MB was on the whole in favor of Nasser’s policies but not his politics; hence their violent confrontations. With Sadat it was nearly the exact opposite – that is, the MB were in discord with his policies but in accord with his policies but in accord with his politics; hence their peaceful coexistence almost until the end of his regime. The break between Sadat and the MB happened in the summer and fall of 1981 when he arrested hundreds of them-that is, on the eve of Sadat ’s assassination (6Ortober 1981).

     Under President Mubarak, the MB continued its opposition to Sadat ’s policies insofar as Mubarak continued to condone them. But it is during Mubarak ’s tenure that the MB has evolved as a viable and effective opposition force. It has done so through a multi-pronged strategy, which includes the following dimensions.

Though still unable to restore its pre-1954 legal status, or obtain a license as a political party, the MB participated fully in the parliamentary elections of 1948 and 1987. In 1984, the MB joined in a coalition with Egypt ’s oldest and most liberal-secular party, the Wafd under the latter’s election lists, the MB managed to win seven seats. In 1987, having switched to a new coalition with two smaller parties, the Socialist Labor party (SLP), and the Liberal party (LP), in what was called the Islaic Alliance, it managed it to win thirty-five seats6 – that is , five times more than three years earlier. Though still quite a small number out of the total 455 members of the People’s Assembly, the MB deputies made their presence markedly felt by their articulateness and parliamentary skills. The majority party (the National Democratic party. NDP). Or . for that matter, most other opposition deputies. Cannot match. The MB has not managed to pass any legislation in full accord with its Islamic ideology, but it has managed on several occasions to influence public policies through the parliamentary platform it enjoys. This is particularly true with regard to the state-controlled mass media, public education, and social affairs. Public education, and social affairs. The MB has managed to shape the agenda of public debate on several issues. Even though it rarely wins such debates. Finally, the MB deputies have surprised many skeptical observers by their relative moderation. While continuing the Islamic quest, the MB has made clear that it seeks its objectives via a gradualist approach, that is, the MB does not expect Egypt to turn into an Islamic state over night, not even if they secured a majority in parliament. These and other signals have earned the MB deputies growing respectability even among their most dedicated rivals.

The second prong in the MB nonviolent strategy has been the steady penetration of organizations of civil society, especially professional associations (PAS). In some ways, Pas in Egypt are more crucial than political parties, for, as in many Third World countries, Egypt’s political parties are still ’underdeveloped.’ Here, the MB and its other Islamic sympathizers have done much better over the last ten years than they did in parliamentary elections. This is well documented in a recent paper by Amani Kandil, in which recent elections in major PAS are analyzed. In the most prestigious PA, the Egyptian Medical Association (EMA), MB candidates have steadily increased their share of members on the executive board in the last decade. In 1986 they managed to secure a majority, and by 1988 they obtained a landslide victory, by winning all seats, except the chairpersonship, which they willfully left to the ruling NDP candidate (Mamduh Gabr). The MB repeated the same scenario in the 1990 EMA elections. With their ascendance in the EMA, membership participation in election has also increased, as may be seen from Table 1:

Table 1

Membership participation in Egyptian Medical Association elections

              Membership     No. of voters          %voters/total  
1980       40,000                 3,000                        7,5
1986       79,000                  11,800                    14,9
1988       88,000                  19,100                     21,7
1990       96,000                  21,500                     22,4

      the same trend held in three other equally prestigious Pas – the engineers. University professors, and pharmacists. The case of the Egyptian Pharmacists Association (EPA) is particularly interesting. Since its establishment, the EPA had been dominated by Christian Copts, who are disproportionately attracted to the pharmacist profession. But by the end of the 1980s. the MB had managed to dislodge them from the syndicate board and even the post of chair.
      Several factors are advanced by Kandil and others to explain the MB’s growing ascendance in Pas. Among these is the preponderance of younger professionals in these associations. About one half of their respective membership graduated in the 1990s-that is, they are under the age of thirty-five. As youngsters. They experienced the traumatic events of Egyptian society since 1967. many of them had already been recruited into one of the Islamic groups during their secondary school or college years. Beginning their professional careers in the ’Open-Door Egypt’ of the 1970s and 1980s, they encountered immense difficulties. Older colleagues were already in control of their respective professions. A young doctor, engineer, or pharmacist would be hard-pressed to find an apartment in overcrowded Egyptian cities to start a practice, much less to live. With the old guard in control of both the professions and their respective associations (which function as trade unions), little was done to help the younger professiontion as trade unions), little was done to help the younger protessionals. The accumulated resentment of the latter toward the former has been exploited by the MB.

      Equally important in this regard is the fact that Pas have become a freer arena than political parties for sociopolitical discourse. PA elections are far freer and fairer than their parliamentary counterparts, which are widely believed to be unfairly manipulated by the government in favor of the ruling NDP. This belief has been strengthened by a series of court rulings that seem to substantiate this charge, leading many politically-minded professionals to use Pas to express their points of view and vent their frustrations vis-à-vis the government.

       Finally, we must indicate that, so far, MB candidates have been winning seats in a situation in which only a small minority turn out to vote in the elections of their respective associations. Taking the EMA again as an example, the turnout of voters in the best of cases (the 1990 elections) was still less than 23 percent of the total membership (21,500 out of 96,000). But out of the minority which turned out, the MB won by obtaining 59 percent of the votes cast, that is, 12,900 votes, which represents only 13 percent of the total EMA membership.

     In other PAs where election turnout is over 50 percent (for example, the Bar Association, Union of Social Professions, and labor unions), the MB candidates do not do nearly as well. Nevertheless, the systematic penetration MB of all Pas become a cause for alarm to the government and other secular forces alike.


As part of its nonviolent struggle to establich an Islamic order in Egypt, the MB has encouraged many of own members as well as sympathizers to set up Islamic economic institutions. Helped by many of the MB members who escaped to the oil-rich countries during the Nasser years and accumulated reasonable fortunes, this initiative materialized in the 1970s and 1980s in the form of Islamic banks and investment companies. The essential feature of these economic institutions, as constantly self-proclaimed. Is that they are usury free in strict observance of a principal dictum of Islamic Shari’a.

      The initial success of early Islamic enterprises tempted many non MB interlopers to follow suit, using the same religious appeal and usury-free slogans for their enterprises. By the mid-1980s, the original, as well as the interloper Islamic entrepreneurs, had amassed substantial deposits from a broad strata of Egyptian Muslims. They gradually began to outstrip the state-owned and other conventional private institutions.

Press reports estimated that the volume of Islamic venture capital held by some 180 institutions was between 5 billion and 10 billion in 1987.

       It was rumored that the Islamic Alliance, of which the MB is the backbone, received generous donations from these Islamic enterprises to finance its 1987 election campaign. Such rumors added to the belated alarm of the Egyptian government at the growing power of the Islamic financial institutions. In the simmer of 1988, the government waged a press and legal campaign against Islamic investment companies. And indeed several of them turned out be fraudulent-mainly the non-MB interlopers.

    Nevertheless, the Islamic economic enterprises have enhanced the MB’s quest. They proved to be able to mobilize small savings, give a high to moderate rate of return on investments, and most important of all, provide
thousands of jobs to young Egyptians.

The MB and its sympathizers have not confined themselves to profit making enterprises, politics, or professional associations. A broad range of health and social services are rendered under the catch word Islamic Many of these were stared by original Muslim Brothers in the 1970s. among the widespread facilities are the medical services to be found in more than twenty thousand non-govern mental mosques. Many have operating facilities for minor surgeries, and quite a few are full-fledged medical complexes. The Islamic clinics charge their clients a nominal or modest fee for a generally better and more compassionate service than their state-run counterparts. Similar educational and other social services are rendered by nonviolent Islamic activists. Often these are located on the premises of non-governmental mosques. They are run on a low-cost overhead basis, and generally provide good quality services given the donated time and expertise of their volunteer workers. More recently, Islamic economic entrepreneurs have also involved themselves in providing similar services on a graded service-charge basis, according to ability to pay. Thus al-Rayan the controversial and well-publicized investment company, used to advertise daily for its newly established nurseries, schools, medical clinics, restaurants, and publishing houses.

       This strand of Islamic activism has therefore set about establishing concrete Islamic alternatives to the socioeconomic institutions of the state and the capitalist sector. Islamic social welfare institutions tend to be better run than their state-public counterparts, less bureaucratic and less impersonal, if slightly more expensive. They are definitely more grassroots-oriented, far less expensive, and far less opulent than the private institutions under Sadat ’s Infitah (Open-Door Economic policy), which mushroomed in the late 1970s and provide an exclusive service to the small elite of the country’s population.

        Political Islamic activism has thus developed a substantial socioeconomic muscle through which it has it has managed to baffle the state and other secular forces in Egypt. The Islamic non-governmental organizations are operating within the bounds of Egyptian law but independent of the state. So far they are displaying a high degree of vitality and viability that is envied is envied by their secular counterparts. And so far, attempts to smear or discredit them by the state media have had little impact. The irony is that while the Egyptian public is often be exposed to hostile editorials such organizations, they are also exposed to positive promotional advertising by the Islamic organizations, usually in the same daily newspapers and weekly magazines. In fact, most of these institutions are quite sophisticated in their advertising. Their style combines the appeal of Islamic authenticity and a Madison Avenue-like attraction. The atmosphere they have created is also beneficial to the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood.

Though nonviolent Islamic activism is no doubt the most influential in the long and medium term, it is the violent factions which attract the headlines at home and abroad. These violent factions, although numerous, can generally be grouped in two broad categories: those which are only anti-anti or anti-regime; and those which are hostile to the entire societal order (state and regime included).

The anti-regime Muslim  groups represent some of the factions that broke away from the main body of the Brotherhood and have been acting on their own since the early 1970s. the militant violence of these groups was aimed at toppling the regime (Sadat ’s and later Mubarak ’s ) and bringing about an ’Islamic state.’ Proponents of this tendency contend that the present decadence and corruption that characterizes society is rooted within the ruling political elite, and that not amount of preaching, religious consciousness-raising. Or behavior-modeling is sufficient to change this state of affairs. Nor would any amount of nonviolent political activism bring about the desired result, as contended by the mainstream trend within the Brotherhood. In their view, Egyptian society at large is redeemable if, and only if, its leadership becomes truly Islamic. Thus the struggle must be directed against the rulers, to remove them or force them to submit to the Islamic will.

      This anti-regime tendency has been embodied in the Islamic Liberation organization (Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Islami) and the Jihad group. The first, otherwise known as the Military Academy group, MA. (Gam’at al-Fanniya al-’Askariya), entered into bloody confrontation with the Sadat regime in April 1974. the second, the Jihad, is believed to be an ideological, if not also an organizational extension of MA. The Jihad group has been by far bloodiest and most deadly in its confrontations with the state. Despite the preventive detention of hundreds of its members by the state in September 1981, it still had sufficient organizational capability to plan and successfully carry out the assassination plot that took the life of President sadat on 6 October 1981. And despite a second roundup of its members in the aftermath of the assassination, the Jihad was still able to storm the main police headquarters in the governorate of Asyut, and kill or wound tens of state security men. Some members were tried for direct involvement in the assassination of President Sadat, receiving death sentences or varying terms of imprisonment. A second trial, involving 302 Jihad members charged for the Asyut events and membership in an unlawful organization, resulted in 110 convicted, receiving prison sentences ranging from two to forty years.

      After a four-uear lull under President Mubarak, the Jihad and other like-minded groups resumed their confrontions with the state through acts of defiance and violence. In 1986, several attacks and bombing incident were directed against nightclubs, video shops, alcohol stores, taverns. In 1987 assassination attempts were made on the lives of two former ministers of the interior-Hassan abu Basha and al-nabawi Isma’il-and a leading journalist, Makram M. ahmad. The first two were targeted by Islamic militants for their alleged role in ordering the torture of Muslims while in jail between 1981 and 1984. the third was singled out for his relentless smearing of Muslim groups in his editorials in the weekly magazine al-Musawwar, Between august 1987 and November 1987 several skirmishes and shootouts took place between Egyptian authorities and Islamist ’militants, resulting in scores of dead and charge suspects in the assassination attempts.

      In a few cities in upper Egypt, namely Asyut, Suhag, Minya, and Bani swef. Islamic militant students have harassed other students, either for being “liberal” or for being Christian Copts. They have been occasionally audacious enough to hold hostages and make demands on the authorities in return for their release. They often also issue their own religious pronouncements and edicts (fatwas) and proceed to implement them directly, bypassing religious (al-Azhar) and state authorities.

     The ideological underpinnings of this violent, anti-regime, Islamic tendency are outlined in a small booklet, al-Forida al-gha’iba (the Absent Commandment’), attributed to Muhammad Abd al-salam Farag. The ’absent commandment’ is jihad (’struggle in the name of religion), and hence it became the name given by the authorities to this group led by Farag which assassinated President Sadat in 1981, Farag takes his cues from Ibn Taymiya (A.D. 1263-1328), a noted Islamic thinker of more than six centuries ago. Both have described their respective societies as an abode in between the ’abode of peace’ (Dar al-salam) and the ’abode of war’ (Dar al-Harb). This ’in-between’ status means that the majority of subjects (citizens) are basically good Muslims. But are living under non-Islamic’ laws and ’non-Muslim’ or ’nominally Muslim’ rulers. The implication of this characterization is that it is the duty (commandment) of good Muslims to fight their ungodly rulers and liquidate their laws. In Farag ’s words: this state is ruled by heathen laws despite the fact that the majority of its people are Muslims. These laws were formulated by infidels who compelled Muslims to abide by them. And because they deserted jihad, Muslims of today live in subjugation, humiliation, division, and fragmentation. The Quran has aptly scolded them in the verse, “Thou believers, why if told to rise up for the sake of God, you hedge closer to the ground? Are you more content with the earthly life than with the hereafter? The pleasures of the earthly life are little compared to those of the hereafter. If you do not rise up, God will torture you most painfully. “Thus, the aim of our group is to rise up to establish an Islamic state and restore Islam to his nation…. The means to this end is to fight against heretical rulers and to eradicate the despots who are no more than human beings who have not yet found those who are able to suppress them with the order of God Almighty.
       This combatant spirit, combined with religious passion, has made Islamic militants quite deadly in their confrontations. Often the leaders have no illusions about a quick victory over the “heathen state” and its rulers. Nevertheless, they are willing to “rise up anger for the sake of god” (ghadba li-llah) for they take their death in battle, or subsequent execution after trial, as akin to a martyrdom that takes one directly to heavenly paradise (al-janna).

       The anti-regime Islamic tendency appeals to educated and motivated youngsters of rural or small-town and lower-middle-class back-grounds, but who are found living in large cites and away from their families at the time of their recruitment. Contrary to common stereotypes that claim that these radical groups generally attract a disproportionate number of ’misfits, ’alienated,’ or otherwise ’abnormal’ characters, our fieldwork showed Egypt’s Islamic militants to be almost ’model young Egyptians.


      The second tendency, the anti-society Muslim groups, also broke away from the Brotherhood in the early 1970s, believing that the Brotherhood ’s analysis of societal affairs was incorrect and that a different strategy and tactics were required for the situation at hand. Initiated by Shukri Mustafa this tendency deplores the corrupt, decadent, and sinful nature of Egyptian society in its totality. Thus they believed that moral change was required not only among the rulers, but from the grassroots upward. The group’s strategy, therefore, is necessarily one of patience. In view of such a comprehensive objective and long-term goals, it calls for building a nucleus “community of believers” who can act out “the true life of Islam. “This Islamic community of believers, it is claimed, would gradually grow in num-ber,  in spirit, and in material strength, until it is capable of marching and bringing down the already crumbing sinful social order of Egypt at large. Shukri Mustafa and his young followers cite the example of the Prophet Muhammad who, surrounded and harassed by the jahiliya people of Mecca, fled to Median with a few followers, and there established the first true Muslim community. Ten years later, and much stronger, the Prophet marched on Mecca and terminated the state of jahiliya.

     The notion of removing oneself, literally or metaphorically, from the present corrupt society is akin to a Hijra-holy flight-from jahiliya, a condition of infidelity, decadence, and obvious ignorance, similar to that prevailing in pre-Islamic Arabia. Hence, the name given by Egyptian authorities to the group formed and led by Shukri Mustafa in the early 1970s was “al-Takfir wa-l-hijra” literally, Repentance and holy Flight’ (RHF).
     While not against the use of violence, RHF would only resort to these means in its final struggle against the jahiliya society. Unlike the Jihad, RHF was not bent on engaging the state in a continuous and immediate war of attrition, but rather on striking one final blow later, Thus, the major bloody confrontation in 1977 between the RHF and the Egyptian government was not part of its long-range plan. The group had scarcely begun building its “model community” somewhere in an unpopulated hinterland on the edge of the Nile Valley.

According to RHF militants, the 1977 confrontation was forced on them by the regime. Egyptian security forces had arrested several of their “brothers” and detained them without trial. Their pleas to be tried or set free were repeatedly ignored. In retaliation, RHF kidnapped Sheikh A.H. al-Dhahabi, a former minister of awqaf (religious endowments), and held him as a hostage until their brothers were freed. When their deadline passed without a positive response from the government, they had nothing left but to kill their hostage as they had threatened. Their credibility was at stake.

       The shootouts that followed between RHF and government left some sixty dead or wounded. Ultimately, the state prevailed and several RHF members were arrested and tried. Five RHF leaders, including Shukri Mustafa, were sentenced to death, while others received varying prison sentences rantences ranging from five to twenty-five years.

      At present there is no evidence that RHF still exists as an organized group. But the tendency that RHF embodied is still alive. Several small groups have sprung up. Influenced by the same ideas, but bearing different names-the ’Saved from Hellfire, and ’Pause and Reveal’ groups. The intellectual roots of this anti-society tendency are to be found primarily in the writings of Sayid Qutb, the Brother hood veteran who was executed by the Nasser regime in 1965. In his famous book, al-Ma’alim fi-l-tariq (’Landmarks on the Road’). Qutb declared the entire Egyptian society as a jahiliya society. His arguments have been compelling to thousands of Muslim youngsters in Egypt and elsewhere. To date, this book has been reprinted more than thirty times in Egypt    alone. In addition, this tendency has been influenced by the writings of the modern Pakistani Islamic thinker, Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi, and Muhammad Ibn ’Abd Al-wahhab, an eighteenth – Arabian thinker, as by the Kharajite (al-khawarij) tradition (which goes back to the middle of the first Islamic century).

      At present, the anti-society Islamic groupings in Egypt are small. Their membership tends to have the same sociological profile as the membership of the anti-regime Islamic tendency: young, educated, high achievers, from rural or small-town lower-middle-class back-grounds. They represent the raw nerve not only of the Islamic movement but also of Egyptian society at large. Three decades earlier their counterparts of similar backgrounds responded readily to Nasser’s Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism. And six decades ago. The youth of Egypt also responded readily to Saad Zaghloul ’s anticolonial, liberal-democratic call.

     Thus, successive sociopolitical movements of mass following in Egypt-such as liberalism, nationalism, and socialism-have had their respective share of militants in past times. We ought not to confuse the bulk of a grassroots trend with the behavioral manifestations of its most extreme elements. The anti-regime and anti-society Islamic militants represent the margins of the otherwise moderate grassroots Islamic activist movement that is a major force in Egypt today.

     Islamic activism, with its various tendencies, is dominating much of the political space and discourse of Egypt at present. In recent years, a day has hardly passed by without some form of media coverage of an act of violence by one of these Islamic groups. There is also alarm over their growing economic power or their ascendancy within the political forum. In passing, we mentioned a number of the conditions responsible for the upsurge of Islamic activism in Egypt. However. A broader explanation of the phenomenon is in order. Here, the Egyptian case must be placed in the wider Arab-Islamic context.

      To begin with. Islamic activism under various names, has always been an integral part of Arab-Islamic history. In fact, much of that history is one of successive religious movements striving to return to the pure sources of Islam and to put their vision into effect. Some of these movements have succeeded in seizing power at one time or another, and some have failed. Seizure of power did not always lead to implementation of the promised vision-in fact, that often triggered others to take up the challenge. Ibn Khaldoun, the fourteenth-century precursor of modern social science, noted the cyclical nature of these attempts, in which asabiya (esprit de corps) coupled with religious zeal, punctuated the rise and fall of ruling dynasties in Arab-Islamic history. The cycle was roughly one hundred years-the life span of four generations in the Islamic Middle Ages.

     Focusing on the last two centuries, we note the disruption of Islamic society ’s traditional of life by Western intrusion. By the end of the nineteenth century no Muslim country was free of direct or indirect domination by one or more of the western powers. This swift domination was both traumatic and humiliating. It generated three model reactions in Muslim countries. One response was to attempt to emulate the west in its ways in order to befriend or fight back. A second response was to reject Western ways completely and to fall back on the glorious heritage of Islam and adhere to its pure sources as the only means of successful resistance. The third response was one of attempting to reconcile the best elements of Islamic heritage with the best elements of western civilization.
      The emulators, the rejecters, and the reconcilers have coexisted, debated with one another intellectually, and competed and even conflicted politically over last hundred years. These three trends have been labeled “liberal” “fundamentalist” and “nationalist” respectively. The emulators and reconcilers included all types of secular combinations, some even involving socialist, Marxist, or even fascist elements. Each trend has gone through expansions and contractions and has had its ups and downs during the past century. But none of them has completely disappeared. At brief historical moments they have even cooperated.
     The liberals and nationalists dominated the political scene during the fight for independence and in the early decades thereafter. However, with mounting problems during the stage of modern nation-building, especially because of failures to check the new hegemonic design of outside powers, the liberals and nationalists began to lose their credibility. To many, the defeat of Arab armies at hands of Israel in 1967, for example, was not just a military one. It was a defeat of political regimes and their secular ideologies. Furthermore, it was a blunt reminder of the century-long humiliation suffered by the Arabs at the hands of the West, which is seen by Arabs and Muslims as the patron and supporter of Israel. The USSR, which had befriended some of the defeated Arab regimes, did not fare much better in the Arab-Muslim view. The rejecters of everything foreign (Western, Zionist, and Communist) were ready with their explanation of the defeat and with their prescription for salvation: the Arabs had lost because they had and forgotten their traditions, and the only solution was the return to the purest source of Islam. In the late 1960s and 1970s the fundamentalist call found many to heed its message.
       We submit that a fuller interpretation of the of Islamic activism must be sought in understanding the century-long crisis of Muslim societies. The salient dimensions of this crisis are the frustrated quests for true independence, social equity, political participation, and economic development. The culprits behind these frustrations are said to be capitalism. Communism, and Zionism; or, the West (especially the USA). The USSR. And Israel.
     Islamic activists have no difficulty in amassing evidence to corroborate this assertion. Along with outside culprits, they also blame those whom they consider domestic perpetrators of secular ideologies who they believe to be, at best, misled or brainwashed, and at worst outright agents of some of some foreign power.
Regardless of the truth of its claims, the above explanation is simple, clear, and enhances amorphous but deep-rooted sentiments in the Arab-Islamic word. And while many Arab secular political forces may share with the Muslim activists at least part of their of their above explanation of the present crisis, it is only the Islamic activists who have displayed daring and effectiveness. They ousted the hated pro Zionist Shah: they shot down the pro-Western Sadat; and they forced the US Marines out of Lebanon. They are also bleeding Israel with their guerrilla attacks. Many of the secular political forces in the Arab-Islamic world may have wanted to achieve these objectives, but it was only the militant Islamic activists who managed to do so.

      Whether Islamic activists in general, of their militant elements in particular, can offer more than suicide missions, displays of martyrdom, investment companies, and service institutions, is still to be seen. For the time being at least, Islamic activism has galvanized the imagination and mobilized the energy of thousands of Islamic youth. In Egypt, Islamic activism is still on the rise. Its achievements so far are impressive. Its future depends its own ability to come up with creative solutions to problems-not only current problems from previous centuries, but more importantly, the looming challenges of the twenty-first century.


1-         the closest thing to this term in Arabic is usuliya-’religious rootedness’ or ’authenticity’ Both the English and the Arabic terms are hardly used by Islamic groups or native scholars studying them. The western reader must be forewarned not to associate with Islamic groups the connotation invoked by the term ’fundamentalism’ when referring to Christian fundamentalist groups in the West. We use the term ’fundamentalism’ here very reluctantly, and only because it is commonly used in Western academic and journalistic writings.
2-         Much of this account on the belief system or ideology of Islamic fundamentalists abstracted from their  literature and empirical research conducted by the author see Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “anatomy of Egypt ’s Islamic Militant Groups. “International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 12, no . 4. December 1980: and Nimat Ginina, ’the Jihad Movement. M.A. thesis, American ber 1980; and Nimat Ginina. The Jihad Movement; M.A. thesis American University in Cairo 1985.
3-         A saying (Hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad.
4-         Here we find a marked difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. The latter assigns a far more important religious and political role to the ’ulama’ We are mainly concerned here about Sunni Islamic fundamentalist thought.
5-         See S.E Ibrahim, “an Islamic Alternative in Egypt: the Muslim Brothers and President sadat. Paper submitted to a conference on “Political Islam” Boston, 23-25 June 1980; later appeared in the Arab studies Quarterly. Vol.4. no 2 . Spring 1982.
6-         The opposition parties contested a greater number of seats (seventy-eight).
7-         Amani Kandil, “the Islamic Trend in Organizations of Civil Society; the Case of Professional Associations. “an unpublished paper, June 1990.
8-         In early 1990 a court ruled that the elections of 1987 had been carried out unfairly and were therefore null and Void, but the ruling NDP, which dominated the People ’s Assembly at that time, refused to recognize the ruling. In May 1990. Egypt ’s Supreme Constitutional Court declared the then parliament illegitimate.
9-         The principal pioneers this regard were the Sherif brothers, whose enterprises are now estimated to be worth over L.E.2 billion (about $1 billion).
10-    See an interview with ’atif Sidqi, Egypt ’s prime minister, in al-Ahram, 14 august 1987.
11-    Such as Mustafa Mahmud Mosque in Giza, and al-Fath Mosque in Ma’adi Cairo. For more details see lman Rushdi, “Religious Medical Centers in Cairo” an M.A. thesis presented to the Department of Sociology/anthropology, American University in Cairo.
12-    Much of the following account is abstracted S.E Ibrahim, “Anatomy of Egypt ’s Militant Islamic Groups. “International Journal Middle East studies vol 12, 1980 pp. 423-53; and “Egypt ’s Islamic Activism in the 1980s Third World Quarterly, vol. 10 (2) April 1988, pp. 632-57
13-    S.E. Ibrahim, “Anatomy of Egypt’s Militant Groups.”   

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