Religious Extremism In Egypt

On 19 February, the Al Akhbar daily ran an article I wrote on Sa’ad Zaghlul’s extraordinary political skills which enabled him to gain the full confidence of Egypt’s Copts and Moslems alike. That confidence reached its peak in 1919 when all Egyptians saw Zaghlul as the symbol of na­tional salvation and the rallying point for national aspirations, when both Copts and Moslems forgot their bitter conflicts, for only eight years had elapsed since that somber time. The article won praise from several readers, including two whose opinions I particularly cherish: the most eminent religious personality in the Moslem community and his Coptic counterpart.

Most of those with whom I discussed the article, including the two religious leaders, urged me to write another on the subject of religious extremism in Egypt. I would have preferred to tackle that phenomenon in a book, yet the regrettable flare-up of sectarian violence in the past few days makes it imperative for all Egyptian writers who support democracy as the supreme value attained by civilization to address the subject. Another motivating factor is the appearance of a spate of recent articles attributing the spread of religious extremism in Egypt today to external factors, such as foreign incitement and the financing of extremist movements in general, and of fundamentalist Islamic groups in particular.

This attribution is extremely dangerous because, by presenting the issue of religious extremism as a security problem—to be dealt with by the police and other security bodies—removes it from the realm of problems amenable to political solutions. Those who are quick to point an accusing finger at external forces should realize that if Egypt had been a haven of social tolerance, brotherhood and peace, it would not have been susceptible to interference from abroad and that it is other, local, factors which have created a climate favorable to the success of such attempts.

In fact, the roots of religious extremism in Egypt stem from three sources. The first is the harsh treatment meted out to the Islamic trend in Egypt by Nasser’s regime. Ever since the disputes between the regime and the Moslem Brotherhood erupted into serious conflict, the regime resorted to force and torture against the movement. This happened in 1954 and again in 1965 when the confrontation was even more acute. Certainly the methods used by Nasser against the Islamic currents, whose members were persecuted, imprisoned, exiled and tortured, created generations of extremists among those who had suffered at his hands as well as from their progeny. Had they not been crushed by Nasser, the Moslem Brothers would most likely not have produced elements as extremist, as reactionary and as insular as the militant Islamic groups we see today.

Thus, once again we can see that terror breeds terror. The repression of ideas and beliefs produces unexpected forms of extremism, violence, terrorism and even crime. Significantly, the four largest terrorist groups in the world today emerged in countries which were subjected to repressive dictatorships for long enough to produce those forms of organized violence: the Bader Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan and the Basque group ETA in Spain. These organizations emerged in the fascist countries which formed the Axis in World War II, with the exception of Spain which, nevertheless, was also a bastion of fascism under Franco.

In Egypt too, the many years of repressive dictatorship generated a climate of extremism where it had never previously existed.

The second source of extremism in Egypt today is the prevailing socioeconomic situation. Poverty, the decline in living standards, the appearance of a very wealthy minority noted for its conspicuous consumption, the harrowing problems of daily life and the social anarchy they create, and a breakdown in society’s system of values—the cornerstone on which the system is built—combine to create the perfect climate for extremism and the spread of totalitarian tendencies, whether towards the left into Marxist groups or towards the right into sectarianism and religious dog­matism.

Karl Marx’s famous appeal to the working class, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” well illustrates the link between extremism and depressed socioeconomic conditions. Economic crises generate feelings of deep frustration, especially among the young, who despair of obtaining their legitimate right to a decent life. The lack of access to such basic necessities as a home, food and clothes—and education—make them susceptible to hardliners who claim that society is corrupt and doomed and that it should be destroyed to make room for a better society. These disenchanted youngsters were never given the tools to compare their society, whatever its shortcomings, to the insubstantial dream they are offered. Thus the crushing economic crisis and the ensuing breakdown in social values provide an excellent opportunity for advocates of extremism, whether communists or militant religious elements, to peddle their ideas.

Finding radical solutions to the social and economic problems besetting Egypt would certainly help extirpate some of these problems, reducing the appeal of the extremism we are witnessing today.

The third source can be attributed to external factors. Egypt is in the eye of a storm of radicalism blowing from every direction in the Middle East, especially from Iran and Lebanon, and the contagion is helped along with foreign funding and incitement. This unhealthy climate is due to internal as well as external factors, mainly that the region, which did not succeed in producing democratic regimes, has now fallen into the clutches of ruthless forces: Zionism, arms dealers and other parties with a vested interest in keeping the region in ferment.

The protection of Egyptian society from the scourge of for­eign intervention and financing is, of course, the task of the security forces. But important as this is, their role in dealing with the phenomenon of religious fanaticism cannot eliminate its causes nor bring it to a halt. The only proper cure is a combination of real democracy (as opposed to window dressing) and firm action by eminent religious figures who should use their moral authority to contain the problem, not fan the flames of extremism as so many do. Last but not least, we need the vigilance of the security forces, particularly in Upper Egypt where traditional tribal values combined with religious fanaticism constitute a highly explosive mixture.