A group of mainly young Muslim Brotherhood (MB) activists in Egypt last week announced the formation of a new political party. This party has been called the Hizb-al-Tayyar al Masry (HTM), which roughly translates as the ‘Party of the Egyptian Current’. As the name suggests, the party aims to appeal to young Egyptians who were involved in the broad-based uprising which removed Hosni Mubarak. Mohamed Affan, one of the founders of the party, has said “We want the party to express the spirit of the revolution, which means we want most of its leaders to be young…”1
The HTM claims that it is not an Islamist party. According to a statement posted by one of its founders on Facebook “The party is distinguished by its civil and democratic nature. It takes pride in its identity. It is open to the other. Morals, values and religious principles play a role in regulating its performance”2. Significantly, despite the group’s roots in the Brotherhood, its manifesto does not mention sharia as being a frame of reference for state law, a key tenet of Islamism. The party claims to be not just for young members of the MB, rather to be for young political activists in Egypt more generally.
While this new party is clearly still in the process of formulating its precise goals and policies, its launch should be largely viewed as a positive development, since it is indicative and symbolic of a broader trend in the region, namely the transition of Islamist groups (who typically believe in creating an ‘Islamic state’ ruled by ‘sharia law’) towards ‘post-Islamism’, a more secular and tolerant political philosophy. This trend has partially been inspired by the success of the AKP in Turkey as well as disillusionment with the rigid and divisive nature of Islamist politics and their inability to address real social and economic issues in the Middle East. That said, HTM has yet to clarify its views on a number of key issues, such as women, Coptic Christians, foreign policy and on key human rights issues such as free speech and freedom of conscience, clarification of which would show how ‘post- Islamist’ it really is.
The launch of the HTM also illustrates the increasing existing tensions within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that has already formed its own ‘Freedom and Justice’ political party. The fact that most of the founding members of the new HTB party are young and disenfranchised members of Egypt’s oldest Islamist group points to the likelihood that the MB will continue to fracture following the departure of Mubarak. These emerging fault lines within the MB are generational as well as ideological. While they did exist previously, they were largely kept in check due to pressure from the Mubarak regime which necessitated a high level of internal unity within the group.
Since the removal of Mubarak in February of this year, all Egyptian political parties have been readying themselves for the upcoming elections. The MB, generally regarded as Egypt’s largest and best organised socio-political bloc, decided not to field a candidate for the presidency and launched its own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, which they claimed was an independent party. However, these moves were not met with approval by all within the MB. The launch of MB’s Freedom and Justice Party alienated many young and relatively young activists. Sameh al-Barqy, a 37 year old MB activist, stated “With due respect to the Freedom and Justice Party, it does not satisfy me and does not meet my ambitions”3. Many activists within the MB did not view the Freedom and Justice Party as an independent party but rather as a tool created by the MB hierarchy in order to assert its influence over younger members and other sectors of Egyptian society. For instance, the party’s president, vice-president, secretary general and the maximum number of seats the party intends to run for in the upcoming parliamentary poll, are dictated by the MB leadership council.
Following the establishment of the Freedom and Justice Paty, a prominent reformist leader within the MB, Moneim Abouel Fotouh4, declared that he would run for president as an independent on the 13th of May. His actions were viewed by the MB hierarchy as rebellious and he was expelled from the group on the 19th June5. Abouel Fotouh was popular amongst young MB activists and his expulsion was greeted by many with vocal dismay and anger. The MB leadership responded by freezing the membership of 4000 young activists who had supported Abouel Fotouh, a move that exacerbated brewing tensions within the group. Many young MB activists were already aggrieved by what they saw as the increasingly autocratic nature of the MB leadership which consistently sidelined reformist elements and preserved power for the elder and more conservative elements. These events led to the formation of the Hizb al Tayyar al Masry on 21st June.
Partly inspired by HTM’s breakaway, another reformist faction within the MB broke away on the 26th June. This group has called itself al-Riyada (the Pioneers) and is led by former senior MB activist Khaled Dawoud. Like the HTM, al-Riyada has also stated that it is not an Islamist group; rather it claims that Islam is the foundation of Egypt’s culture but not its politics. 6 It has also accused the MB of undemocratic practises within the group and criticized it for not making a clear separation between the group’s mission as an Islamic preaching organization and its political party. Although al- Riyada has a clearly less rigid Islamist outlook than the Brotherhood, like HTM it also has not yet precisely spelled out its political vision.
During Mubarak’s reign in Egypt, from 1981 to 2011, the MB became Egypt’s biggest opposition bloc because it developed into an umbrella group that contained a wide variety of religious and political activists who were all united in their opposition to Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Since his departure, the differences within the MB are increasingly coming to the fore because the repression of the Mubarak years is no longer there to unite them. Furthermore, it is the more moderate and forward thinking sections within the MB that are becoming disillusioned and peeling away.
There are a number of important policy lessons arising from these recent events. These are:
- Despite the MB being a fairly diverse organisation, power within the group is mostly held by the more conservative and regressive elements. The MB seeks to portray itself as reformed and progressive, yet its understanding of politics is seen by many young Egyptians as outmoded and as excessively steeped in a narrow, rigid and intolerant Islamist mindset. Its usage of modern political terms like freedom and democracy can be seen as a ploy designed to placate critics and observers.
- Most young people in countries like Egypt are not Islamists even if they attach themselves to Islamist parties. Such attachments are often pragmatic and can change with changing realities on the ground. As until recently throughout the MENA region often the only effective opposition to authoritarian rulers came from Islamists, these groups inevitably often won the support of ordinary people who wouldn’t normally support such groups in a free and open environment.
- As Middle Eastern countries become more open and democratic, there is a strong likelihood that after initial gains, Islamist parties will lose much of their popular support as voters realize that more pragmatic, less ideological parties are more likely to solve their countries’ social and economic problems. Breakaway splinter groups from within established Islamist parties are one symptom of this.
- The trend towards post-Islamism is increasingly being adopted by many young Islamist activists who understand the importance of having a free, democratic and accountable government that treats all its citizens as equals. Many young activists in the MENA region are increasingly looking to Turkey under the AKP as a model of a modern and progressive Muslim-majority state. Although the AKP is certainly not perfect, this is a trend to be largely encouraged.
- Historically, when a political trend has developed in Egypt, it has spread throughout the MENA region and beyond to Muslim-majority countries. This was the case with Arab Socialism in the 1950s and 60s, and with Islamism in the 1980s and 90s. It may be that the rise of post-Islamism in Egypt will lead to such trends becoming more popular throughout Muslim-majority countries.
Quilliam encourages the transition to post-Islamism that is taking place in Egypt and welcomes the formation of political parties that are not constrained by Islamist dogma and which have a stronger commitment to democratic ideals and values. However, such endorsements must be qualified: in the short term many such breakaway parties may still have Islamist or intolerant aspects which they may take some time to fully jettison.
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4 a former cell mate of Quilliam Director Maajid Nawaz during his time as a political prisoner in Egypt
5 http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/14643/Egypt/Politics-/ElErian-Brotherhood-had-to-dismiss- Egyptian-presid.aspx