Egypt After Mubarak
This kind of democratic spirit has also infused Egypt’s professional syndicates, which between February and April overthrew their old regime leaders. In other countries, professional syndicates can be conservative organizations protecting the privileged; but in Egypt they tend to operate more like Wisconsin’s public sector unions, as vigilant protectors of the middle class.
As Mozn Hassan noted, “The March elections in the doctors syndicate, where they threw out the old guard Muslim Brothers as well as Mubarak-linked leaders and where women captured some leadership roles, represented the end of an era when professionals had leaned toward social conservatism.” The doctors syndicate also voted to give 3,000 Egyptian pounds to the family of each person killed in the Tahrir demonstrations. In the same period, the Supreme Constitutional Court declared state attempts to freeze syndicate elections unconstitutional; the journalists syndicate dumped its old regime leader and mobilized to end state control and corruption of television and the press; and the lawyers syndicate sent its Mubarak-linked leader on a “permanent holiday” and organized new elections.
The state was also forced to approve the formation of a new independent syndicate for public sector pensioners. This giant organization, representing more than 8.5 million people and asserting control over 435 billion Egyptian pounds in pension funds, immediately became a huge player in revolutionary politics. Moreover, the other professional syndicates came together in late February to form a unified coalition, the March 9 Movement, to mobilize an additional 8 million professionals.
While the middle classes were on the march, the working class was not slowing down either. Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Arabic newspaper, published a survey of the strikes happening on a typical midweek workday up and down the Nile in small towns and factory outposts: 350 butane gas distributors demonstrating against the Ministry of Social Solidarity in the town of Takhla; 1,200 bank employees on strike, demanding better wages in Gharbiya; 350 potato chip factory workers striking in Monufiya; 100 nursing students holding a sit-in to take over the medical syndicate in Beheira; 1,500 villagers in Mahsama protesting the city council’s decision to close a subsidized bread bakery; workers at a spinning and weaving factory on strike in Assiut; thirty teachers blocking the education ministry in Alexandria to demand tenure; and 200 tax authority employees occupying the collector’s office in Cairo demanding better wages and benefits.
The country’s religious organizations have also been rocked by tumult, dissent and reform. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Muslim Brotherhood itself. On March 26, Sameh al-Barqy and Mohamed Effan, leaders of increasingly vocal youth movements within the Muslim Brotherhood, hosted a conference attended by hundreds of influential young movement leaders. The meeting infuriated the old guard who control the organization’s Guidance Bureau, as the youth insisted on democracy within the organization and restrictions on the power of anyone over 65. In addition, Barqy stated that “the marginalized status of women in the group is no longer acceptable.”
The young people demanded that any party supported by the Muslim Brotherhood have quotas to ensure participation by large numbers of women, Christians and other non-Muslims. In fact, the youth leaders announced that they would reject the Freedom and Justice Party, recently created by the old guard, if it did not implement these reforms and would join other centrist and left parties, like the Nahda (Renaissance Party), a liberal-progressive nationalist group similar to Islamist modernists in Turkey or Tunisia; al-Wasat (the Center), a multicultural, multiconfessional faith-based centrist party; or the new Social Democratic Party, made up of leftists and independent labor organizations. Meanwhile, the sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood, composed of young women who were at the forefront of university organizing and of the Tahrir uprisings, continued to expand their influence among student and labor groups, especially during April’s university elections. Their popular appeal rests on a mix of anti-consumerist and anti-elitist messages, combined with demands for the redistribution of social, economic, housing and educational resources.
* * *
Change has also swept Egypt’s Sufi, Salafi and Christian organizations. Sufism represents a broad category of Islamic cultural, social and spiritual practices. It also draws on local and syncretic traditions, including forms of mysticism, the honoring of saints, meditation, chanting and collective celebration. Sufi guilds, or turuq, provide a range of services in small towns and in poorer urban areas. Identified with the “vulgar” practices of Egypt’s popular classes and with the “impurity” of mixed cultural influences, Sufism was targeted by Mubarak’s state for repression and aggressive co-optation. The state took over appointment of its top sheiks (religious scholars) and murshids (guides), banned certain religious practices and policed or canceled rituals and celebrations (moulids) with large working-class constituents.
In the post-Mubarak era, these elites have desperately tried to hold on to power. On March 25, state-appointed leader Mohamed al-Shahawi, head of the International Sufi Council, and Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem, founder of the new Sufi-leaning Tahrir Party, met with the state-appointed leader, Grand Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. The trio made an organizational commitment to the stability of the state and set about crafting a common religious agenda for the upcoming elections. But their meeting only exposed how alienated they have become from the masses of Sufis in small towns and slum neighborhoods, who often serve as the front lines in protests and strikes.
The Sufi grassroots are not interested in reaffirming state stability or the conservative social agendas of the old guard leaders appointed by the Mubarak regime. On March 29, several hundred Sufi disciples organized a march from Hussein Mosque, near al-Azhar in Cairo, down to Tahrir Square. The demonstration was joined by a few dozen members of the much-abused Shiite community and its leader, Mohamed El-Derini. They demanded that the army protect Sufis from Salafi attacks and shrine demolitions. But the march was stopped by state-appointed Sufi leaders, reflecting the widening internal divisions between the rank and file and the regime-linked leadership.
Undeterred, thousands of Sufis marched on April 15 from the mosque of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Al-Badawi to the main square in the city of Tanta to protest the increasing militancy of right-wing Salafi organizations. Salafis see themselves as puritans, purging Islam of any unorthodoxies and restoring the divine order of society by putting people in their proper place. Salafis have recently taken over certain rogue military factions, such as special-ops “Unit 777,” set up their own militias and are working to influence student and youth opinion. They were behind the rise in attacks on Coptic Christians, particularly in Alexandria.
Of course, Salafis see gender and sexual dissidents and liberals as apostates. But they direct a special degree of ire against Muslims themselves, attacking Sufi shrines as hubs of vulgarity and religious deviation and demonizing working women as prostitutes. But Salafis in Egypt, unlike in Pakistan, pose no threat of winning elections or controlling territory. Instead they seem to be only pushing public sentiment to the left and away from religious “culture war” politics altogether, as labor, student and religious progressives have joined in opposition to the Salafi puritanism and violence.
In Egypt’s revolutionary times, it seems that a contemporary religious organization’s degree of success is directly proportional not to its insistence on purity but to its generation of an inclusive community that can channel the energies of student, syndicate and worker organizations. The strong showing by liberals and leftists (secular and religious) in university and syndicate elections and the contentious transformations led by youth within the armed forces and within Islamist organizations suggest that if postrevolution political parties, or the military regime itself, should reclaim religious doctrine as the core of the Egyptian nation-state, they will seem anachronistic and, in the end, unsustainable.
Rather than abandon hope and write off the revolution as captured by conservative Muslim Brothers and aging army officers, Egypt’s young people are continuing to generate new social policy platforms and organizing strategies. Through this process they are reinventing notions of security and nation, faith and progressivism, and are creating new frameworks for twenty-first-century democracy, not just for Egypt, not just for the Middle East, but perhaps for the world.