We could say that the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, born in Egypt in 1928 and wiped out by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s coup d’etat in 2013, has been a history of failed opportunities. For although the Muslim Brotherhood has been a grass-roots movement, deeply entrenched in civil society, it failed for decades to seize political power, and when finally, for two years (2011-2013) it succeeded in achieving its goal, its performance was poor. Applying Gramsci’s categories, we could say that the Muslim Brotherhood was never able to capitalize on the credit it earned deploying a counter-hegemonic opposition under Sadat (1970-1981) and Mubarak (1981-2011). It is true that many scholars and observers argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition was a smokescreen concealing its effective will to be legitimized and co-opted in power. However, in the frenzied context of the first months of the Egyptian “revolution” (or perhaps better “revolt”) of 2011, the Brotherhood actually did capitalize on a great deal of its credit, winning the polls and the republic’s presidency with Muhammad Morsi. In their management of power until the military crackdown of July 2013, the Brotherhood made a number of serious mistakes, trying to impose from above an “Islamist” constitution and failing to improve the economy.
‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s coup d’etat destroyed the organizational web of the Brotherhood (it is enough to remember the hundreds of deaths in Rabi‘a al-Adhawiyya Square). The crackdown in the summer of 2013 allowed the new regime to accuse the Brotherhood of all past and present (and future) misdeeds that occurred and will occur in Egypt. It is practically impossible to know if and how the Brotherhood is re-organizing itself under the radar, and, moreover, if and how this re-organization will be successful. No doubt, the crackdown’s harshness could lead to further radicalization, encouraging the Brotherhood to seek a link with jihadist groups operating in Egypt. After all, Sayyid Qutb’s jihadism in the Sixties was born precisely as a reaction to the Nasser regime’s repression.
The vacuum left in the landscape of Political Islam in Egypt could be filled by Salafism. Salafism is today a growing phenomenon throughout the Muslim world, due to several factors. From the ideological point of view, many people yearn to reproduce the Prophet Muhammad’s perfect age, and from the political point of view Salafi propaganda is assertive and vociferous. At least two issues prevent Salafism’s growth, however. On the one hand, the very little room ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime grants to any kind of opposition, especially if religious. On the other, the silent alliance between the Egyptian government and the official Islamic establishment, represented mainly by the al-Azhar network. The government and al-Azhar need each other: the former in order to find legitimization; the latter in order to extend its influence in society and especially in education. The al-Azhar network enrolls about a half million (and probably more) students at all levels of education, from elementary school to university. It is arguable that a substantial part of Egypt’s future intelligentsia will be educated in this cultural context. The al-Azhar establishment needs the government’s benevolence to increase its authority; the government could find in al-Azhar (at least tacit) support for its policies.
A commonly neglected actor in Islamic polity is the establishment, the grassroots Islam tantamount to the Catholic parish system. Normally all eyes are concentrated on extremism and violence, which are on the contrary marginal and involve few people, while scant attention is paid to institutional religion. In fact institutional organizations represent the backbone of religious systems in almost all Muslim countries. It is within this framework that most of religious thought is elaborated.
Religious thought in contemporary Egypt seems less lively and original even in comparison with the most recent past. Al-Azhar’s shayks often take conservative stances as if they were besieged in a fortress: the times of great figures like Mahmud Shaltut or Muhammad al-Ghazali seem over. Other intellectuals are engaged in pure speculation. Currently, secularism is also progressing in the Muslim world, and this progress sometimes arouses the concern of religious establishments, as it fosters the blind violence of radical ideologies. It is important to stress that Islamic thought is not “Islamist” thought: the former refers to classical paradigms and is normally an enemy of extremism and armed opposition; the latter refers to a particular, extreme and often distorted, reading of the traditional sources extolling violence through a biased interpretation of some controversial Qur’anic verses. Moreover, “Islamist” thought is not always violent: on the contrary, a number of Salafis are apolitical. And jihadism is a largely minority phenomenon. What then are the connections between religious thought and Political Islam? Has Political Islam a future in Egypt? And in the Muslim world at large?
An answer can be only tentative. The “old” shayks with their red turbans, walking proudly in Cairo’s streets, still enjoy wide prestige among the populace. Islamic political thought again rotates around the concept of shura (consultation) and ijma‘ (consensus), but without explaining how these classical categories must be interpreted in contemporary society. Sometimes, Islamic political thought gives the impression of being in a stalemate. “Islamist” thought is in itself Manichaean and conceptually rigid, albeit sometimes more sophisticated than would seem from outside. The idea of an Islamic state as a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya), that is, a state grounded upon law and not “theocratic”, (an idea especially supported by, among others, famous Egyptian ‘alims like Yusuf al-Qaradawi), is widespread among Islamic thinkers in Egypt and abroad. “Islamist” thinkers never managed to clarify what the effective meaning is of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya). Although the two trends are not completely at odds – sharing for example the concept of shura –, the differences are equally evident, both in tactics (education vs compulsion) and in objectives (civil state vs God’s sovereignty). A number of scholars continue to prophesize the death of Political Islam. I believe that we must be more cautious and that Egypt could return to being a laboratory of intellectual Islamic recovery.