Danger of Islamic counter-revolution in Egypt is real

Fiorello Provera, Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, says we must open our eyes about the "Arab Spring"

It all looks so romantic...
Fiorello Provera
On 20 June 2011 08:34

Egypt today is awash with groups all vying for a chance to take part in the country's political future. The most notable group which has emerged in this post-Mubarak era are the Salafists.  Previously, its adherents chose to stay out of politics, but now they are looking to raise their public profile and drum up political support.

The Salafists were out in force on the weekend of May 7 when at least twelve people were killed and 180 wounded as members of the Islamist movement tried to storm a church in the Cairene district of Imbaba. They believed a Christian convert to Islam was being held against her will. During the chaos which ensued, the church of Saint Mena was burned and a number of businesses belonging to Christians were also targeted.

In the aftermath, at least 190 people were detained. Yet this is one of a number of incidents in which Salafists have chosen to assert themselves. Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, hundreds of Salafists organized a "prayer for the absent" at a mosque in the Abbasiyah quarter of Cairo, after which they demonstrated in front of the American embassy.

Salafists follow an austere version of Islam, which is predicated on strict adherence to behavior conducive with that of the Prophet Muhammed. The word salaf means "forefather" and is widely followed in Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, Salafists enjoy wide support; particularly in rural areas. They have taken a leaf out of the Muslim Brotherhood's book by providing social services and educational assistance. There are also a number of TV channels which feature prominent Salafi preachers. Egyptian political analysts have dubbed this "satellite Salafism". They and other Islamic groups have decided to join forces to support the Muslim Brotherhood's political party "Freedom and Justice".

On May 11, Sobhi Saleh, the former secretary general of the Brotherhood-linked parliamentary group told the newspaper "Al-Masry Al-Youm" that various Islamic groups were supporting the party in the coming Parliamentary and presidential elections, despite their ideological differences, to "gain power" and to "establish a real Islamic state".

The danger of allowing such a group to gather political steam is that out of this "Arab spring" we could see the rise of political Islam, or Islamism. Egypt is a key country as it is the driving force in the region, and what happens there, has enormous repercussions for the wider Arab world. In a worrying turn of events, on May 9, according to the European strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC), 50,000 Salafi activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood staged a congress in Giza announcing the imminent creation of the "Islamic United States".

Salafists want to protect and strengthen amendments in the Egyptian constitution which enshrine Shariah as the main source of Egyptian law. Not a single Arab state has ever witnessed an Islamic revolution akin to that seen in Iran and if there is to be one, Egypt is a strong candidate.

If Salafists are able to gain greater political mileage, either through disaffected youth, stoking sectarian tension and the promise of effective change, then it is feasible that before the end of the year, we will have to confront the possibility that Egypt could fall into the hands of groups at odds with core democratic principles. 

Democracy is not about one or two days of free and fair elections, but it is about combining the prerequisites that will make it a reality: in this case an educated middle class, a free press, a commitment to pluralism and a thriving commercial class.

Changes which aim to introduce liberal democracy will only be effective in cutting off the oxygen supply to fundamentalist ideology, if they are accompanied with better job and education prospects.

Egypt is heaving under enormous social and economic strain. On May 16, the Assistant Defense Minister for Financial Affairs Mahmoud Nasr warned that the rate of poverty is close to seventy percent. In Egypt thirty percent of adults are illiterate and under current projections, the population could grow to 160 million by 2050, which means at least 700,000 jobs need to be created annually.

However when assessing potential funding recipients, the European Union should offer greater resources to countries which are sincere in their efforts to create viable democratic states. This is in accordance with the principle of "more for more".

Under the European Neighborhood Policy, the EU would give more financial assistance to those countries which demonstrate a steady commitment to reform. At the same time, the EU needs to be active in preventing radical groups from sabotaging efforts to create democratic institutions.

The High Representative for Foreign Common and Security Policy, Lady Ashton, needs to engage with those who share this vision for working towards an open, democratic and religiously-tolerant society.

While the Arab world works to navigate the complexities of forming democratic institutions, the European Union, should be at the forefront in aiding Egypt's transition and it must not stand idly by when atrocities occur which undermine democratic principles.

Radical Islamism within the Mediterranean basin is a very real threat and cannot be ignored. The EU must take a stand and prove that it does not take words lightly, but truly acts on its own core values.

Fiorello Provera is the Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament

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