Sun, Dec 11, 2011
Iranian speculations on Egypt’s Islamists: Shi’ite-style revolutionaries or Turkish-style democrats?
Originally published in The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center’s bulletin on Iran, number 145.
This week the Iranian press provided extensive coverage of the Islamists’ victory in the first round of elections for the lower house of the Egyptian parliament. In addition to regular reports on the election results, in recent days there have been various speculations on the significance of the Islamists’ victory and the nature of the Islamist faction in Egypt.
On the eve of the anniversary of Imam Husayn’s death in the Battle of Karbala, marked in the Shi’ite world this week, the conservative daily Keyhan chose to portray the Islamist faction in North Africa and Egypt in particular as having pro-Shi’ite inclinations. The daily said that as far back as the days of Sayyid Qutb, a major ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, clerics and the Islamic faction in Egypt had a great deal of respect for the Shi’ites, particularly Husayn, the third Shi’ite imam. The daily discussed the observance of Ashura in North African countries throughout history, offering it as proof that Imam Husayn is particularly revered in those countries and that he enjoys exalted status in North African Islam. Islam in North Africa differs in its characteristics from Islam elsewhere and is closer to the Shi’ite school of thought, Keyhan said. Throughout history, the leaders of Al-Azhar have recognized the Shi’ite school of thought and considered any offense against Shi’ite Islam an offense against the entire religion.
Keyhan argued that North African Islam cannot be compared to the Salafi model operated and directed by Saudi Arabia, which makes that country’s influence on developments in North Africa extremely limited. Salafi groups are well aware of the anti-Salafi social sensitivity in North Africa and therefore attempt to change their image to gain more influence. They conceal their real views and try to penetrate deeper into the social services, distributing money and food to garner as much public support as possible.
The daily also argued that “moderate Islam”, as it is referred to by the West, cannot influence developments in North Africa, since North African Islam is based on the spirit of struggle and the culture of the Prophet’s family, and coincides neither with the model espoused by Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor with any other “anti-revolutionary” model. That is the reason why, throughout Egyptian history, the moderate school of Islam has been unable to gain a firm foothold in that country (Keyhan, December 4).
The portrayal of the Islamist school of thought in Egypt as being close to the Shi’a is yet another example of the complexity of Iran’s approach towards Islamic movements across the globe, in which emphasis is placed both on Muslim unity and unique Shi’ite characteristics. Since the Islamic revolution, Iranian efforts to spread its revolutionary ideology have not been confined to Shi’ite Muslims; Iran extends assistance to Muslim movements and organizations worldwide regardless of whether or not they are willing to embrace Shi’ite Islam. However, Iran’s policy shows a preference for establishing status and influence with Shi’ite Muslims, regarded as standard-bearers for the Islamic revolution.
After Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009) there were a number of attempts by conservative circles in Iran to associate the struggle of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the activity of Hamas in particular, with Shi’ite Islam. For example, an article published on several websites affiliated with the conservative faction argued that Hamas and the Palestinians are close in their beliefs and religion to Shi’ite Islam, since most Palestinians belong to the Shafi’i school, which, of the four schools of Islam, is considered the closest to Shi’ite Islam in terms of the respect it has for the descendants of the House of Ali. The article listed a number of mosques in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank named after major figures in Shi’ite Islam, such as Ali bin Abi Talib, his wife Fatima al-Zahra, and Husayn bin Ali. In its attempts to associate the Palestinians and Hamas in particular with Shi’ite Islam, Iran sought to add yet another constituent to its relations with the Palestinian movement, which would allow it to expand its influence on the Palestinian scene and take advantage of more opportunities to penetrate the Gaza Strip.
The election results in Egypt were also discussed by the conservative daily Ghods, which defined the victory of the Islamists as “the last nail in the coffin of secularism”. The daily argued that the Islamists’ victory should be considered to reflect the struggle against the Americans. The Egyptian people are well aware that, when the Americans talk about democracy, they don’t mean free elections. Instead, they are interested in taking advantage of democracy to bring the liberals and anti-Islamists to power. The victory underlines the Islamists’ status in the Egyptian society and proves that the Arab public aspires for the implementation of Islamic religious law to eliminate the cooperation between Arab governments and foreign countries (Ghods, December 3).
Contrary to Keyhan and Ghods, reformist thinker Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam argued that the Islamists in the Arab world, including Egypt, are essentially democrats who follow the Turkish model. In an editorial published earlier this week by the reformist daily Shargh, titled “The West and the victory of the Arab Islamists”, Prof. Zibakalam provided an analysis of the reason why the West is not concerned with the victory of the Islamists in the Arab world and is not rushing to the aid of the secular, liberal, and anti-Islamist school. The main reason, according to Zibakalam, is that Islamists in the Arab world are essentially democrats committed to a democratic worldview.
Nearly ten months into the “Arab spring”, the Islamists are not calling for cutting off ties with the United States and Europe; they are not chanting slogans against the West. Even their approach to Israel is fairly moderate, Zibakalam said. Their opposition to the Camp David Accords stems mostly from the Israelis’ failure to promote the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as stipulated under the accords. The Islamists’ demand to reconsider Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaties does not stem from a desire to eliminate the State of Israel but rather from their wish to promote the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Islamist mainstream, including the Muslim Brotherhood, supports free elections, the rule of law, freedom of press, existence of political parties and groups, and other democratic demands. This reality puts Turkey as the most important power in the region, reinforces its position, and strengthens its relations with the Islamists in the Arab world. That is the reason why the West is not concerned with the Arab Islamists, just as it is not concerned with the Islamists’ rise to power in Turkey (Shargh, December 3).