© 2023 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Conservative Wins Make Liberal Egyptians Wary


Roughly one-third of Egyptians voted in that country's first round of parliamentary elections, the first since Hosni Mubarak's ouster last spring, and Islamist parties scored big wins. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, considered Egypt's mainstream Islamic party, announced today it won 40 percent of the votes, while the ultra-conservative Salafists surprised many by winning about a quarter of the vote. Those victories and that of the Salafists in particular leave many liberal Egyptians and foreign observers deeply worried.

If you have questions about the way ahead in Egypt, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ed Husain is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, just returned from Egypt and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

ED HUSAIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And a piece you wrote in The Atlantic this weekend with the line democracy can be bitter.

HUSAIN: That's right. I mean, I think we most recently learned that with the 2006 election results in Gaza, where Hamas won, and it now looks as though, here in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will win. And we all know that the Muslim Brotherhood has many strands within it, but there is a strand within it that sympathizes with al-Qaida's aims, not necessarily its methodology.

So the challenge then is for the broader Muslim Brotherhood that wants to be part of the civilized and free world to then contain its more radical extremist elements within it.

CONAN: Yet you also wrote in The Atlantic that the Salafist vote was a wakeup call. Who's hearing the alarm bells?

HUSAIN: That's right. I think the Muslim Brotherhood and even the liberal/secular elite in Egypt were taken by a huge surprise. I mean, I saw that on their faces. I heard that in the discussion that I had with people across the board, that their basic question was where did these Salafis come from? I mean, where Egyptians would be in this country for - you know, since birth. And all of a sudden, in the public space and in the election results, you know, tens of thousands of people have voted for Salafis, and Salafis are, all of a sudden, the talk of the town across Egypt.

CONAN: And if you say the Muslim Brotherhood includes strands that support the ideology, if not the methodology, of al-Qaida, the same can be more broadly said about the Salafis?

HUSAIN: Precisely right. The numbers of people who would more or less be in line with what al-Qaida wants to achieve, not necessarily how it wants to achieve it, are available in greater numbers within Salafi movements than they are within the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those within the Muslim Brotherhood are there such as Mahdi Akef, for example, the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood that I met with, interviewed with earlier in the year. I mean, his basic contention is the al-Qaida is a figment of the West. Al-Qaida, if it exists, is nothing other than a (unintelligible) sincere genuine Muslims. But he is still part of the Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of him being with the brotherhood now for, you know, 60, 65 years.

So it's more of a social movement for those people who are of the al-Qaida sympathy mindset within the brotherhood, whereas those within the Salafi movement actually have intellectual as well as creedal convictions that al-Qaida's worldview of trying to create some kind of elusive caliphate is one that's, A, noble and, B, religiously obligatory.

CONAN: And there is a challenge to the big party winner, the Muslim Brotherhood, from the Salafis, no? They have important disagreements.

HUSAIN: They have vital, important disagreements, yes, over the kind of Egypt that they want. To the Muslim Brotherhood's credit, though, it's gone out of its way, since the elections and in the run-up to it, to emphasize that it doesn't want to create an Islamic state, but a civil state, that it wants to ensure that women and religious minorities have involvement in political life, that it wants to tackle corruption and it wants to address questions of Egypt's economy and high unemployment records.

In contrast, the Salafis have emphasized constantly on social issues such as women must be veiled, that outsiders coming into the country ought to adhere to a certain religious dress code that they wish to impose, alcohol will be banned, women going into university campuses must cover their hair - in other words, you know, issues that are irrelevant to the bread-and-butter issues of Egypt, but irrelevant to the rigid literalist, confrontational mindset that most Salafis adhere to.

CONAN: And do Salafis, even though they're winning adherence at the polls, do they fundamentally believe in democracy?

HUSAIN: Well, several of their leading voices have come out in public and said that democracy is un-Islamic, but it's the least of the two evils available out there. And therefore, they will use democracy to advance their aim of creating an undemocratic society. And that's the real problem, that calling democracy what they called kufar(ph) which is very sort of a derogatory term to undermine democracy, saying it's un-Islamic and yet the hypocrisy in using it.

But the good news in all this is that the most recent elections contested in Alexandria, the results show that as a result of this kind of extremism in the public domain, one of the leading Salafi voices, Abdel Moneim Shahat, was voted - in the runoff, people came out to vote against him and voted for anyone but the Salafis in order to ensure the Salafis didn't get into parliament in large numbers.

And my contention is that we still got several election cycles to run in Egypt. It might well be the case that this kind of international outrage as well as Egyptian awakening against the Salafis might lead to them being further marginalized.

CONAN: But getting back to the - and that may yet prove to be the case. Getting back to the nature of this movement though, there have been what some people would say bogeyman raised in the West. That this is a fundamentally dangerous group. This is a - no, this is a fundamentally dangerous group. Are the Salafis, some would say, are - well, fundamentalists yes, but fundamentally not dangerous?

HUSAIN: Well, I'd like to believe that analysis, but my difficulty with that is if we continue to shift the goalpost and say that even among Salafis and Salafis themselves, if they're not a problem, if they're not radical, if they're not extreme, if they're not fundamentalists, then my question is this: Who are the fundamentalists? Who are the extremists that produce al-Qaida and al-Qaida sympathizers? Because we've gone further along the spectrum to say well, no, it's not Islamist. No, it's not the Muslim Brotherhood. No, it's not Jemaah Islamiyah in the Indian subcontinent.

And then to even go further as far right as the Salafi movement and say, well, actually, it's not even the Salafi movement, then it begs the question of where does all the extremism, terrorism, radicalism and the bombings come from? And it's got to be set openly, I think, and with conviction that the fundamental problem lies with Salafism as a movement but Salafi ideas of takfir, i.e., excommunication or Salafi beliefs in hakimiyyah, which is creating God's government or Salafi beliefs of Al-Wala wal Bara, which means hatred for Muslims - for non-Muslims and loyalty only to Muslims.

These are the kind of ideas underpinned by jihad or violent struggle to bring about these ideas in the real world that create what we call al-Qaida terrorism. So the - if the blame has to be apportioned anywhere, to my mind at least, it must be put thoroughly at the doors of the Salafi movement globally.

CONAN: You also conclude in your piece that the current elections will lead some Salafists - though they will not win a majority, we don't think, they will persist in their efforts to achieve their aims through the ballot box. Others, you say, though, will become disillusioned with that path.

HUSAIN: That's right. But I must caveat my answer to this by saying that, yes, Salafi is broadly an ideational problem, but there are Salafis who've gone against that trend, people such as Salman al-Ouda in Saudi Arabia have proven to us that they can also shape democracy and freedom but within their own scriptural reference points. So there's good news that there are some Salafis who have gone the other way in terms of moving towards more pluralistic progressive pathway.

But yes, the examples in, say, Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Algeria and also Saudi Arabia illustrate to us that whenever we're seeing Salafi literalism and scriptural rigidity on the rise, there are always their jihadist cousins who become impatient who say that the Salafis aren't being literalist enough and then they talk jihad as a methodology to fight others. That's exactly what Osama bin Laden did. That's exactly what Ayman al-Zawahiri and others have done.

So the precedents in these other countries would lead us to believe that perhaps in Egypt - as we saw in the past, let's not forget that Egypt also gave birth to jihadists in the 1980s and the 1970s. That - there is a possibility that if the Salafi experiment in the ballot box goes miserably wrong, then some of them will turn to what they were most comfortable with previously, i.e., jihadist violence.

CONAN: Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, co-founder of the of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-radicalization think tank. He's the author of the memoir, "The Islamist." He's with us from our bureau in New York. If you have questions about the way ahead in Egypt, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Matthew, and he joins us from Portage in Michigan.

MATTHEW: Thank you, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MATTHEW: I was wondering, because the Muslim Brotherhood has - from the first release of the results, has said that it wants to form a more liberal coalition government with other parties, why is the West treating these results with such weariness?

HUSAIN: Well, I think there's an expectation here in the West, especially here in the United States, that relations with Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament or Muslim Brotherhood-led government may not necessarily be the kind of relations that the West and Israel would like to see. That, I think, is at the helm of the concerns to be blunt with you.

And to be fair to the Muslim Brotherhood, they've gone out of their way repeatedly to say they aren't in the mood for war as it were. And the Muslim Brotherhood, with all its problems, isn't necessarily Hamas at this stage. So I share your concerns. And I think some of the weariness about the Muslim Brotherhood's victory may well prove to be premature.

CONAN: Matthew, thank you. We're talking about the way ahead in Egypt. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR news. There is another force in Egypt, and those were the young secularists who were so prominent in Tahrir Square, what, nine months ago as this revolution began. What happened to them?

HUSAIN: Excellent question, Neal. I had the good fortune of meeting many of them during my trip to Egypt. And, you know, they will always - people who are highly educated, liberal, elite and urban, their networks did not extend beyond Twitter and Facebook. Eighty percent of Egypt does not have Internet access. Most Egyptians haven't even heard of Facebook or Twitter. So they were an urban phenomenon and, therefore, the focus was on what was going on within, you know, large cities (unintelligible) Alexandria and Cairo.

Since the revolution, there's been a huge vacuum in Egypt for leadership, and that vacuum has filled by the traditional power structures that have flourished under Mubarak despite him banning the Muslim Brotherhood. And it seems that, you know, the liberal elite was successful in the revolution but not successful in the election. And with huge amounts of money, resources, messaging, political networks, the Muslim Brotherhood and its various Islamist organizations have successfully filled that vacuum that the revolution has created.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Dakah(ph), Dakah with us from Minneapolis.

DAKAH: Hi. My name is Dakah, and my question for you is what about Wahabism because I haven't heard you discuss that? And I hear over the news, Islam is Islamist. Islamist is to believe in Islam, and by attacking terrorism and negative groups and fundamentalist Islamist makes almost us feel like we're guilty of something.

HUSAIN: Yeah, I mean, with all respect, the difficulty in this is Islam is not Islamism, and I know that the word Islam appears in the tag Islamist and, therefore - and I, too, am a Muslim. Muslims tend to feel this, you know, agitation. But the bottom line is that those who advocate extremism and terrorism do so wrongly, granted wrongly, in the name of our religion, and they themselves call themselves this, Islamists. In Arabic, they call themselves Islamiyyin(ph) or Islamiyyon(ph) depending on where it appears in a sentence.

So to be fair to them, it's using the terminology that they use to describe themselves with. And, you know, for all the desires of social scientists and others to find terminology that better describes this phenomenon, there's been a failure, and the bottom line is that they call themselves Islamists. We're talking about Islamism and not Islam. In terms of your question to Wahabism, I mean, Salafis are Wahabis and Wahabis are Salafis. It's one and the same thing. They prefer to call themselves Salafis. They see Wahabism as a derogatory term and, therefore, you know, some of us prefer not to use it to be - not to be derogatory to them.

CONAN: This is the ideology of the religious parties in Saudi Arabia, the dominant religious parties, today.

HUSAIN: That's right, and Egyptians Salafis borrow hugely from Saudi Wahabism. And Saudi Wahabism, or modern Egyptian Salafism is essentially one and the same thing.

CONAN: Dakah, thank you very much for the call.

DAKAH: Thank (Technical difficulty)

CONAN: Let's see. We go to Tommy, and Tommy's with us from St. Louis.

TOMMY: Yeah. Hi there. Great discussion, guys. Just wanted to comment to see if, at all, possibly the secularists in Egypt maybe were caught off guard going up in campaigning against the group that has kind of a built in field program, knowing that everyone goes to mosque, everybody is able to hear that kind of more conservative mentality. I'm wondering if there's any groups internationally that go into areas like Egypt that are transitioning to democracy in order to kind of teach them how to run a campaign because it's quite an undertaking.

And if you're brand new to democracy and don't know about everything from, you know, campaigning door to door if that's even a viable option in an area like that or even, you know, retail politics, I mean, everything that goes along with a campaign. Just wondering if there's any groups like that that go into an Egypt and teach them, help them kind of compete against a group that kind of has built in, you know, authority. So I'll listen off air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks, Tommy.

HUSAIN: Thanks, Tommy. Great question. To the best of my knowledge, thus far, there haven't been international groups doing that. But, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood was taught these tactics either. I think it's fair to say a couple of things on this point. First thing, here in the West, we may laud secularists and secularism as being something positive. It's got to be borne in mind that nobody in their right mind would be going to door to door in Egypt advocating secularism just by virtue of the word in Arabic or even in order to have a negative connotation. So even Egypt's secularists refer to themselves as liberals because that has less of a negative connotation.

The second point is this, that there's been a huge problem among Egypt's liberals or secularists in defining what they stand for. It's been counterproductive thus far that they've, more or less, gone - attack and constantly in the offensive in saying, we're not Islamists. We're against the Muslim Brotherhood. We don't want more religion in the public space. But that's not a coherent policy in terms of what you stand for and what you offer. So thus far, the problem's been that they've been against something rather than what they stand for. And for as long as they don't have their message and their resources and their networks in place, they're not really in the position to either go door to door or mosque to mosque or hospital to hospital or trade union to trade union as the Muslim Brotherhood's done.

Now, the one thing the Muslim Brotherhood can possibly be criticized for - because all these things are political sort of strategies and, you know, good luck to them for doing that, and it rests in the secularists to up their game. But even on election day, we saw Muslim Brotherhood people outside polling stations campaigning for the Muslim Brotherhood. And I think that does go against the grain of democracy and free and fair elections, that only one group, whether it's right or wrong, allowed or not, was outside those polling stations at the expense of other groups being there.

CONAN: Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Quilliam Foundation, thanks very much.

HUSAIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales join us to talk about their series on the economy, Hard Times. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.