The Egyptian scene has caused us a lot of confusion! We can no longer differentiate between the Islamists and the Liberals, between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, in the same manner as we could in the past.
It seems we will be preoccupied for some time learning the new concepts and names in Egypt, and this is just after the first year of the Arab revolutions. This is part of the positive action that has taken place, namely the open discussions that everybody is taking part in about taking future positions based upon information and awareness. Some people may take false positions in order to win elections, but public opinion is now aware of this tendency. This is something that all politicians around the world do to some extent; politics is not a dogmatic profession, but rather positions vary according to the prevailing circumstances.
Salafists in Egypt, like Salafists elsewhere in the Islamic world, are concerned about social affairs, and deal with such issues based upon strict religious guidelines. The Salafists are the true “fundamentalists”, in the original sense of the world, meaning they seek a return to the “fundamental” ideas and principles of the faith, as they see them. Women’s issues are one of their controversial priorities, and they are concerned with controlling all aspects and details of women’s lives. However despite their strict interpretation of Islam, Egypt’s Salafists took everyone by surprised when allowing a female Salafist al-Nour Party parliamentary candidate to appear on a party poster.
Insaf Khalil, a female Salafist al-Nour Party candidate running for a parliamentary seat in Egypt’s coastal city of Ismailia would previously promote her electoral campaign with posters of flowers, rather than posters bearing her own image. However the Salafist party leaders have asked her to put her own picture on the party posters, and following this, her popularity amongst ordinary people has more than tripled, according to the candidate herself. Whilst one of the Salafist al-Nour party leaders, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Nour, who is running in the second phase of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, issued statements reassuring everybody that if the al-Nour party wins they will not shut down the banks or the beaches. More than this, he even told the Salafist supporters that the liberals are Muslims, just like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists!
Here, the Egyptian Salafists are putting forward a model that represents the extreme Islamist right-wing on social issues in a society where controversy always accompanies elections. However politically, the most right-wing are groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Rashid Ghannouchi’s al-Nahda party in Tunisia. However following the al-Nahda party’s electoral victory, Ghannouchi immediately flew to Washington, not Mecca. He even visited one of the most strategically pro-Israeli thank-tanks in America, and reportedly assured the audience that the Tunisian constitution and politics will not be anti-Israeli. He also reportedly expressed his support for a Muslim having the right to change his religion if he so wishes, and also said that he was in the process of negotiating with Tunisia’s secularists, in order for them to join the government. When asked about Palestine and Israel, he underscored that Palestine is the least of his concerns, as he is more worried about finding jobs for more than one million unemployed Tunisians.
Of course, ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali would never have dared to issue any such statements or make such promises during his presidency, whilst nobody today has criticized Ghannouchi’s statements in this regard.
No doubt we are living a new era that is full of talk and rhetoric, and we do not know if such talk will prove to be empty promises or concrete pledges until we see the new reality on the ground. Do the Salafists in Egypt truly believe that women have the right to work and participate in social life in an equal manner to man? Do they accept that women, instead of staying at home with the kids, should run for parliament? Will they truly not shut down Egypt’s banks and beaches? Are the Islamists priorities now focused on securing employment for their people and not going to war to liberate Jerusalem?
From my experience, I believe that the best thing is to wait and see. We should follow the principle of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We might have misunderstood or misjudged these “fundamentalists” who were previously prevented from reaching power under the pretext of their extremist views; or they might be cunning as the fox.