By Elizabeth Tenety
Egyptian demonstrators perform the Friday noon prayer in front of riot police during a demonstration in Cairo on January 28, 2011, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
Analysts rushed Friday to read the religious tea leaves of Egypt’s political uprising.
According to the CIA Factbook, Egypt religious population is 90% Muslim (mostly Sunni) and 10% Christian (mostly Coptic). A neighbor to Israel, and home to Al-Azhar, a millennia-old center of Islamic scholarship, what happens in Egypt matters throughout the Muslim world. President Obama knew this in choosing the country as the location for his 2009 speech ‘A New Beginning‘ which he gave from Cairo University.
(A screenshot of protestors gathered for final evening prayers on the streets of Cairo/ Image via the livefeed of Al Jazeera.
Here’s a roundup of what some reporters and analysts have said about the faith factor in Egyptian revolts:
Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulish of New York Times published a must-read story Friday titled ‘With Muslim Brotherhood Set to Join Egypt Protests, Religion’s Role May Grow,’ calling the brotherhood not only a ‘wildcard’ but also “the largest organized opposition group in the country.”
Via CNN’s explainer ‘What is the Muslim Brotherhood?“
The Muslim Brotherhood is a religious and political group founded on the belief that Islam is not simply a religion, but a way of life. It advocates a move away from secularism, and a return to the rules of the Quran as a basis for healthy families, communities, and states.
Why is it important in Egypt?
The Brotherhood has widespread support among Egypt’s middle classes, and its members control many of the country’s professional organizations.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer wrote a post called ‘Don’t Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood‘ for The Daily Beat yesterday in which he said that “understanding the Brotherhood is vital to understanding our options” in coping with a potential post-Mubarak Egypt:
Technically illegal, it has an enormous social-welfare infrastructure that provides cheap education and health care. In Egypt’s unfair elections, it is always the only opposition that does well even against the heavily rigged odds.
Others disagreed that the role of the Muslim Brotherhood was central to the opposition, given the diversity of the anti-government coalition and the leadership of the reformers like Mohamed ElBaradei, who recently wrote in Time:
If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market-oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organize themselves to elect a government that is modern and moderate. They want desperately to catch up with the rest of the world.
Historically, Islam was hijacked about 20 or 30 years after the Prophet and interpreted in such a way that the ruler has absolute power and is accountable only to God. That, of course, was a very convenient interpretation for whoever was the ruler. Only a few weeks ago, the leader of a group of ultra-conservative Muslims in Egypt issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for me to “repent” for inciting public opposition to President Hosni Mubarak, and declaring the ruler has a right to kill me, if I do not desist. This sort of thing moves us toward the Dark Ages. But did we hear a single word of protest or denunciation from the Egyptian government? No.
UPDATE, 5:15 p.m., January 28:
Time Magazine’s ‘Fear of Islamists Paralyzes the U.S’:
Democracy movements are attractive to Washington when they target a regime such as Iran’s, but in allied autocracies, they’re a problem. There’s no way for Egypt to be democratic and exclude the Islamists from political participation. The same is true for most other parts of the Arab world — a lesson the U.S. ought to have learned in Iraq, where Islamists have dominated all the democratically elected governments that followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
UPDATE, 8:45 a.m., January 29:
CNN asks, “After Mubarak, will Egypt face a void?“
Years of harassment and detention have hollowed out the Brotherhood as a political force. It has not been in the vanguard of these protests and the consensus among commentators is that the Egyptian military would not tolerate the Brotherhood in power.
In any event, says [Thomas P. Barnett] — formerly a professor at the U.S. Navy War College — events in Egypt and Tunisia show that the “Islamist narrative” to explain the woes of the Arab world is being challenged by a maturing and well-educated youth movement whose expectations of a better life have been dashed by economic stagnation and a stifling political atmosphere.
Amr Hamzawy, research director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, notes in an article for the Los Angeles Times: “While the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, there were no signs saying, “Islam is the solution.” Egyptians have grown accustomed to the same political forces and opposition personalities in the streets, but this fundamentally changed.”
What’s next for Egypt?
Is the revolt a democratic uprising or a religious rebellion? A little bit of both? Time will tell, and On Faith will update as more reports come in.