Islam and Politics in Egypt

Unrest in Egypt and the departure of President Hosni Mubarak have raised questions about the role of Islam in political life going forward. Dina Shehata, a Cairo-based expert on Islamists, says it is a misconception to think of Egypt as on the brink of a theocracy. Islam and sharia are already embedded into the Egyptian constitution, she says, and there is a "kind of balance" between the sharia and the civil code. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist party, "doesn't want to move away from that." Shehata contends that Egypt will more likely continue to follow states like Malaysia and Turkey, which have Muslim identities without being fully Islamic. "What most Egyptians are concerned about right now is not whether we build a secular or a religious state, but how to create a democratic state, a sound economy, a just order," she says. The challenge going forward will be for non-Brotherhood opposition groups to establish viable political parties. She also says that when faced with elected Islamist political parties, the United States "should respect the will of the people and deal with these governments as the legitimate representatives of the people."

There's been considerable concern about what kind of governance Egyptians will choose going forward. Will they choose a hard-line, Islamic Republic akin to Iran, or will they lean toward a more moderate system akin to Indonesia?

Egypt is not Iran in the sense that having a theocracy is not on the table at all. Theocracy means rule by clerics. So this is not at all an option in Egypt. We don't have a strong clerical establishment like the one in Iran that took over in 1979. The Muslim Brotherhood, being the major player in this movement, is one of lay people who are religiously conservative. They are teachers, they are university professors, they're doctors, they're engineers, and they are religiously conservative. So the comparison is conceptually flawed. It might be better to compare it with Indonesia and Turkey and Morocco, countries that have lay movements rather than movements led by clerics. the Brotherhood is important in Egypt and will play a role in the coming period. But I don't think they themselves want to establish a theocracy.

How different is Egypt-based Islam compared to other countries in the region? What defines Islam in Egyptian daily life? And what's the relationship to democratic ideas?

There are different groups in Egyptian society that have different interpretations of Islam. You have Sufi groups who see it more as an emblematic set of practices. You have the Muslim Brotherhood who sees Islam more as a social and political system. And you have Salafi movements who see it as a very strict set of practices that Egyptians must follow closely. You have secular Egyptians. Some of them are religious and see Islam as a form of private practice and faith. And some who are not religious at all. They are secular both in their private lives and in their political orientation.

There's this fallacy that you are moving from a secular state to a religious state, which is completely misconstrued because it's already a state that is heavily informed by religious law, like most Muslim states.

People talk about Islam as though it was one thing to everyone. It's used by many countries and many people and different places, and it's associated with different traditions. The difference here is that you have some movements that represent a significant group of people who also want the political system to be more heavily informed by Islam. Already the Egyptian political system is not fully secular, where family law is based on the sharia and many of our laws are already [derived] from the sharia. The Egyptian constitution already states that sharia [underpins] the force of legislation. So we're not talking about moving from a fully secular to a fully Islamic order. What the Brotherhood typically says when they talk about their agenda is that they want to actualize or operationalize Article 2 of the constitution, which says that the sharia is the principle source of legislation.

There have been some polls in the last couple of years looking at different countries and how they feel about democracy, secularism, and sharia. And there is significant support for sharia law. Are there countries that Egyptians point to where sharia has created a less corrupt, more just system?

There are Muslim countries that continue to follow their tradition as Muslims in their political system that have prospered, like Malaysia and Indonesia. They're not theocracies, but they are Muslim countries and their governments are not fully secular or fully Islamic either. It reflects the majority of the population who are both Muslim and modern. In Egypt, sharia is already an integral part of our legal system and it is already an integral part of our constitution. There's this fallacy that you are moving from a secular state to a religious state, which is completely misconstrued because it's already a state that is heavily informed by religious law, like most Muslim states. There are many Muslim countries that have prospered by modernizing while maintaining their identity as Muslim countries. There are [also] Muslim countries that have not [prospered] but it's not about Islam. Islam doesn't explain to you why Malaysia has prospered and Egypt has not, or why Turkey is moving forward and another country has not.

Are there policies, whether it's family law or the role of women in society or how minorities are treated, that you think may become more religiously conservative?

The only area where there might be stricter application would be alcohol sales and consumption. But otherwise, the Islamists are not against women participating in public life. Already most Egyptians are quite religiously conservative, [and] our family law is based on the sharia so there isn't much more to do, in my view, to go in this direction. I don't think they would try and force a certain dress code on Egyptians, but they might closely regulate the alcohol consumption at nightclubs and so forth. For 99 percent of Egyptians, nothing would change. There's only a small minority of Egyptians, who you might say are more Westernized in the sense that they consume alcohol and so forth. So they might be affected in their lifestyle.

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