The Common Islamist: Principle, Pragmatism, or Triumphalism?
For many in Egypt, conspiracies and manipulations are evident, none clearer than the current battle over the Supreme Constitutional Court. Many liberals are convinced Islamists are seeking to destroy the judiciary in order to establish control over all three branches of government. But do Islamists see themselves this way? Setting aside any possible top level schemes and propaganda among Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi leaders, do their supporters believe they are involved in a pre-planned hijacking of the revolution? Or might their own assumed conspiracies of the liberals have a measure of legitimacy?
‘They are doing everything they can to keep the decisive voice from going to the people,’ Ezzat al-Salamony, a member of the Guidance Bureau of the Islamic Group in Cairo, said of the secular politicians.
Demonstrations on Sunday at the Supreme Constitutional Court led to its chief justice suspending all work in protest. The headline of Ahram Online read: ‘Besieged by Islamists, court delays ruling on Constituent Assembly’. Attending this protest, I witnessed hundreds chanting against the court.
But I also witnessed scores of riot police securing the entrance, enabling anyone to go in or out. Had they wished, the judges could have entered, issued a decision to dissolve the constituent assembly, and then left. The protesters were calm; perhaps the judges’ real fear was the possibility of violence if the crowd was displeased with their decision. If not from fear, though, it may have been from manipulation.
‘The demonstration is hurting the cause rather than helping it,’ said Salamony. ‘It may result in them saying they are pressuring or attacking the judges.
‘Of course, the court has no legitimacy anyway. How can it dissolve an assembly that already dissolved itself – presenting the constitution to the people?’
If this is a game played in the media by liberals and judges, however, there are other games in play as well. According George Messiha of the Wafd Party, the president called withdrawing members of the constituent assembly to a meeting. In his earlier declaration the president issued two more months for this assembly to complete its work. But in this closed door meeting the message was different.
‘Either we accept the declaration, or the constitution would be voted on tomorrow [Thursday, November 29],’ said Messiha, referring to the message delivered by the president’s legal advisor Mohamed Gadallah. The president was forcing their hand, and they refused. Just like that, the two months disappeared.
Establishing the truth of the matter requires analysis far beyond this article. But in the self-perception of ordinary Islamists, are they acting on principle, pragmatism, or triumphalism?
Speaking to those present at the pro-Morsi protest in Giza, the answer was a mixed bag.
‘They are always lying and disfiguring us,’ said Essam al-Sharif, party secretary for the Salafi Asala Party in Warraq, Cairo, motioning to a banner picturing seven or eight popular Egyptian media figures. Each was given vampire fangs with blood dripping from their mouths. Of course, Sharif was completely unaware of the irony in his statement. He and his colleagues were convinced they represented the people, the revolution, and the right.
‘Morsi carries the revolution and these are revolutionary demands,’ explained Mohamed Atta, a young, unaffiliated protestor in Salafi garb. After describing the efforts of Mubarak’s men to undo the revolution, he bristled at the use of the old laws as an arbiter.
‘The revolution itself was against the law, so Morsi must go with the decisions of the people.’
But which people? And did not Morsi swear to uphold these laws before the very Supreme Constitutional Court in question?
‘We can go outside the law if necessary for the public interest,’ said Adel Mohamed, ‘and the wali al-amr [Islamic terminology for the leading governmental authority] has the right to define the public interest.
‘Morsi walks righteously because he knows God, whereas Mubarak [also a wali al-amr] put those who mentioned the name of God in prison.’
Abeer Jad, director of women’s affairs for the Freedom of Justice Party in the Marg district of Cairo, blended the sense of legality and exceptionalism. [Click here for YouTube video of a women’s march at the rally.]
‘Once the president took legislative authority he had the right to issue declarations,’ she said. A lawyer present with her detailed the case. ‘Any president in ordinary times must not take this [judicial] immunity, but because of the circumstances of the country, it is necessary.’
The circumstances, mentioned by all, is the corruption of certain judges and politicians who wish to indefinitely extend Egypt’s transition, especially concerning the constitutional assembly.
‘Those who withdrew recently were part of the constitutional writing process the whole time, and contributed to it,’ said Sherif.
‘They withdrew because they planned to bring the assembly down and other institutions with it. They do not want the stability of the nation.’
By contrast, pro-Morsi supporters feel that the Islamists have been accommodating.
‘Article 219 explains the “principles” [in terms of Sunni jurisprudence],’ said Atta. ‘We argued for the “regulations” of Sharia but submitted to the majority since the nation must agree and start working again.’
‘We have to make the country go,’ argued Mohamed. ‘We need a constitution, and we can amend it later.’
Sherif argued similarly, but with more religious rationale. ‘In Islam, the principle of benefit versus damage demands we look at the two choices and adjust our perspective accordingly, so that nothing bad will happen.
‘If we insisted on our view we would have lost the support of the people for Sharia,’ he explained. ‘Instead, this is a preparatory phase for its greater application.’
In the months of debate concerning the constitution, Salafi leaders vowed never to accept a constitution that limited Sharia by the word “principles”. Yet in the end, they agreed. In the minds of their supporters, this is not ugly pressure politics, but necessary for the good of society, defined according to Islam.
‘Sharia is larger than the constitution,’ argued Jad.
Yet in terms of the upcoming vote, on whether or not Article 219 is sufficient to satisfy the Salafi moral absolutism, the issue is deferred to others.
‘We have a reference – if the sheikhs say ‘vote yes’ we will, and if not, we will vote against,’ said Mohamed.
As if to establish similarity he continued with a smile, ‘Everyone has a reference – don’t you have to adhere to the views of your editor?’
Photo Credit: Jayson Casper