New breed of Islamists emerges in Egypt
Mohammed Sharaf Eldin and Ahmed Usama joined the Muslim Brotherhood as young men in the belief that the organization’s vision of political Islam was the way forward for Egypt.
But as they left their university years behind and settled into adulthood, they took slightly different paths. Eldin, 32, decided that the country’s largest opposition group was too constricting; Usama, 33, vowed to reform the movement from within.
Both believe in working with secular parties. They both talk of a need for compromise in politics. They are fully engaged with the West, and at the same time deeply pious. Together, they represent a new generation of Islamists who have branched out in the 21st century.
After the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, some observers have predicted that Islamists will try to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. Others say that a generation raised in a global economy and exposed to satellite television and the Internet will foster a proliferation of parties, Islamic and otherwise.
“We are seeing a new Egypt,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “The old descriptions will not apply. We will have more Islamic parties than just the Muslim Brotherhood. We will also have more liberal parties, and more national parties.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, has been alternately tolerated and subjected to campaigns of arrest by authorities. It now has as many as 600,000 members. It renounced violence in the 1970s and pledged to work gradually to increase the influence of Islam. It contends that only a Muslim can be president of Egypt, and it favors a ban on alcohol.
Eldin grew up in the Brotherhood. One uncle was killed by the British while smuggling weapons to the Palestinians in 1948. The other was thrown in jail by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who founded Egypt’s modern military state in the early 1950s. Upon his release, that uncle fled to the United Arab Emirates and was considered influential in Brotherhood circles.
At 11, Eldin started attending after-school programs run by the Brotherhood and memorized the Koran and sayings of the prophet Muhammad.
He desperately wanted to become a formal member, but he was not allowed to join until his first year of university in Cairo, where he studied electronics and engineering. There, he published Islamic magazines and organized social activities for students. He also met Usama, and the two worked together to promote religious spirit among students.
After university, Eldin went to work for the company Siemens, which sent him on business trips around Egypt. His journeys made him appreciate Egypt’s diversity, he said, and caused him to think about whether one ideology or belief could apply for everyone.
Eldin also started traveling to Europe for work, and decided it was time for him to leave the Brotherhood. He formally quit in 2006.
“I started questioning why are we so closed,” Eldin said. “I wondered why we didn’t work with the entire country, why didn’t we cooperate and integrate ourselves fully in the community.”
Last year, he branched out again politically, joining a new group called Salt and Bread, which brings together Muslims, Christians and political liberals to promote dialogue.
On a recent night in Cairo, the group hosted a seminar on the post-Mubarak era. People proclaimed that they were no longer afraid of one another, that Mubarak’s regime promoted fear and the security apparatus prevented people from truly talking to one another. They said a new chapter had begun.
Eldin emphasized his love for the Brotherhood, but said, “If I am doing something for society, I want to do it for all and be responsible for my actions.”
Eldin hails Turkey, led by the Islamist Justice and Development Party, as a success. “This is the post-Islamic period,” he said. “I don’t express my religious perspective, but it exists in my core.”
Usama, who comes from a religious family, sympathizes with his friend. Like Eldin, he has worked in the global economy, selling industrial equipment and traveling to Europe and Asia for business. He has also come to love Western films.
He describes himself as a major fan of the Julia Roberts film “Pretty Woman”; he said the story of a prostitute who finds love with a businessman shows that everyone can change.
The Brotherhood remains too centralized and too old, he said; none of its leadership is under 50. But Usama added that the group is about to undergo a major face-lift, and that the protests in Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak would help.
The Brotherhood initially watched from the sidelines, while members of its youth wing joined the demonstrations. They started working with people from all walks of life in Tahrir Square, including liberals and socialists. The youth wing is now participating in an umbrella group of activists.
“After this revolution, the Brotherhood will change. They don’t have an option,” Usama said. “The youth will have more power, even in the highest levels of decision-making.”
“If they don’t change, many of the youth will leave,” he warned. “We’ve had enough of old theories.”