Egypt's religious extremists re-emerge to breed bigotry


SINCE THE fall of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, secular activists striving to form new political parties have been fending off serious challenges from the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most organised political movement, and anti-democratic radical fundamentalists.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1928 to promote a conservative, religion-based agenda and to struggle against British colonialism, has been outlawed but tolerated since 1954. The parent of other Muslim religious movements, it has established clinics, schools and welfare organisations for the poor as well as a political wing that predicts it will gain 25 per cent of seats in parliament in the coming election.

Following the ousting of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood announced the formation of its first political party, Freedom and Justice, but tried to reassure secularists by proclaiming it does not seek to transform Egypt into a religious state, win a majority of assembly seats, or field a candidate for the presidency.

However, the Brotherhood insisted on retaining article 2 in the current constitution which stipulates that Islam is the official religion and Sharia law (Muslim canon) is the source of state law.

While the more moderate religious group, al-Wasat (the Centre), registered as a party, radical groups operating for decades underground have re-emerged. They are outbidding moderates and seeking to promote a religious agenda as Egypt’s new political system develops.

The best known radical organisation is Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) which was behind the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and made an attempt on the life of Mr Mubarak who exploited the danger Gama’a posed by cracking down on all opposition. Some 50,000 of Gama’a members were jailed and 100 executed during his 30-year reign. Today, its leaders claim 30,000 members and are organising publicly for the first time since the 1970s.

The religious right, dominated by the Brotherhood, demon- strated its clout by helping to marshal a 77 per cent Yes vote in the referendum on constitutional amendments put forward by a military commission.

Brotherhood and radical ultra-orthodox (Salafi) activists – who follow strict Saudi interpretations and practices – warned the devout poor and uneducated that a No vote was anti-Islamic and would lead to the creation of a Godless state.

In Egypt, as elsewhere, assertive religious movements are breeding intolerance, discrimination, persecution and a determination to dominate.

Salafis within or on the fringes of the Brotherhood or connected with the Gama’a and other extreme factions have battled Coptic Christians in the streets of Cairo, vandalised shops selling alcohol, assaulted women not wearing concealing clothing or head-coverings, and destroyed tombs of Muslim saints revered by mystical Sufis, regarded as heretics by Salafis.

Salafis have identified for demolition 16 mosques – dedicated to Sufi saints – in the port city of Alexandria.

In response, Sufis have formed teams to protect their mosques and one of the prominent Sufi orders, al-Azeemia, has declared its intention to form an Egyptian Liberation Party to fight the Brotherhood and the Salafis. This endeavour has the backing of leading secular organisations and the Shia minority.

Al-Masry Al-Youm,an Egyptian daily, reports that, fearing persecution, Coptic Christians have staged demonstrations demanding protection from the ruling military council and rising numbers of Copts are applying for emigration, particularly to Canada where there is a well established Coptic community.