Egypt's Islamists mobilising mass support

  • 3 August 2011
  • From the section World
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So the long promised trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is now underway.

Back in January during the revolution, Egypt's disparate political forces united to demand that he step down. During the months that followed his ouster, the insistence that he face a court was one of the few things these groups could still agree about.

As the judicial process moves ahead, and the past fades in importance, these parties are increasingly at loggerheads fighting to define the future of the country.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, is still a little hazy about the dates of elections but it seems that those or the country's parliament will happen in late November.

It is already clear that the liberal-minded parties that have been the focus of much Western media attention are not doing well as the competition hots up.

The coalition of human rights and other groups that re-occupied Tahrir Square early in July (and whose encampment was described in my last blog entry) was cleared out by soldiers with armoured vehicles on Monday, with many onlookers apparently cheering the troops.

We had spoken to many Egyptians who resented the re-occupation of the square and the march on SCAF headquarters that produced street clashes 10 days ago.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best organised opposition group, had already pulled out of the protest camp and denounced the march on the military HQ for, "causing chaos".

Everybody understands that the Brotherhood, with its 60-year history of social activism in the country's poorer districts, is well placed to contest elections.

Indeed it is the coincidence of interest between that party and the army - with its desire to hand off to civilian leaders as soon as possible - that leads to all manner of theories about an alliance between these two forces. The Brotherhood denies that there is any pact with the generals, just a shared commitment to early elections.

Talking to Amr Adel Sabry, editor of a liberal online newspaper, he argues that the lack of preparedness of some of the more secular Western-style parties is one of the few issues that might still knock the planned elections off course.

Members of those groups meanwhile argue about possible electoral pacts, the constitution, and the role of the army.

As things stand, the SCAF will press on with planned elections - whether or not the new parties are ready - and the Brotherhood will carry on consolidating its organisation.

Since Friday a new factor has also entered people's calculations.

When a protest was called in Tahrir Square late last week, it was known the Islamists would dominate it. But the numbers brought in by the Salafists far exceeded even those the Muslim Brotherhood could muster.

The Salafists favour an Islamic state, with Sharia law, as soon as possible, whereas the Brotherhood has emphasised the separation of state and religion - at least for the time being.

Hundreds of thousands of Salafists came to the square - many waving the flag of Al Nour or "The Light", the party they have established to contest the elections.

One Westernised Cairo woman who was shocked by this show of strength said to me "I think I will have to leave Egypt".

Having been in the square during the demonstration, I would say that the striking thing, apart from the numbers of bearded Salafists, was their discipline and the friendly reception they gave us. This seemed to project a confidence about the future.

Whatever the real support for these strict Islamists across the country - and I have seen estimates ranging from 10%-20% - it seems clear that if they combine with the Brotherhood they might easily command majority support.

It is too early of course to predict the result of elections planned for November. But recent events suggest the Islamists are far better organised, and more able to mobilise mass support, than parties with a more Western agenda.

The rise of the Salafists could also allow the Muslim Brotherhood to position themselves as centrists and king-makers rather than the extremists that Egypt's military rulers portrayed them as for so long.