Religious, Stubborn and Confident Egypt's Islamists Power Through Resistance

Two worlds are colliding in Egypt. While President Morsi wants to force through an Islamist constitution, the secular opposition is holding massive demonstrations in protest. Both sides are unwilling to compromise, and the frustration could spill out into violence on the streets.
Islamist Hassan Saif Abdel-Fatah stands in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's building in Mahalla el-Kobra.

Islamist Hassan Saif Abdel-Fatah stands in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's building in Mahalla el-Kobra.


Mahalla el-Kobra, a working-class city two hours north of Cairo, likes to think of itself as the birthplace of the Egyptian Revolution. Already in 2008, despair and rising food prices  had driven its enraged residents into the streets. That marked the beginning of the "April 6" youth movement that would later join those fighting for more rights at the capital's Tahrir Square.

The first thing ones comes upon these days along the road to Mahalla el-Kobra is a giant billboard bearing the face of a kindly smiling Mohammed Morsi and "The President of Egypt" in large letters. The main street continues to be lined with banners of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The only signs of the "April 6" youth movement are its logo, a balled up fist, spray-painted on the walls.

The Islamists' office is not far from the city's main square. Standing outside in a somewhat well-worn, beige suit is Hassan Saif Abdel-Fatah, a 48-year-old member of the Brotherhood. He is surveying the damage the office sustained on Tuesday evening, when a few hundred angry youths pelted it with stones and Molotov cocktails. The front door's glass panel has been shattered, there are scorch marks on the wall, and a tear runs through one of the Brotherhood's banners.

"I don't understand it," Abdel-Fatah says. "The Morsi opponents previously said that they want revolutionary decisions, but now they're against them. I don't understand it."

The Muslim Brotherhood shows no signs of comprehending why there is a surge of resistance to them throughout Egypt. They cannot fathom why part of the population is outraged over what they say was a power grab.

Liberals Fear a Religious Dictatorship

Last Friday, President Morsi issued decrees  that granted him authoritarian powers and gave the controversial assembly drafting the country's new constitution virtual immunity from the courts. On Thursday, he signed the draft constitution that had been composed by his fellow Islamists after the angry liberal members of the body had withdrawn from it in protest. Egyptians will now vote on whether to accept the draft constitution in a national referendum that must be held within 30 days.

The draft contains several vague, controversial articles that would allow Muslim clerics to make decisions that effect Egyptians' private lives. Liberals, secularists and Christians fear that Egypt could soon become a religious dictatorship. And the fact that Morsi wants to ram it through without making any concessions has only heightened their worries.

"We are getting rid of the Mubarak regime," says Abdel-Fatah, referring to the 30-year dictatorship of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that fell victim to pro-democratic uprisings in early 2011. "The only people criticizing us are the jealous losers."

Like many of his fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel-Fatah views himself as a "genuine revolutionary" and points out that the Mubarak regime persecuted his fellow Islamists for decades. Indeed, President Morsi makes frequent mention of the time he spent in prison under Mubarak. Such stories are meant to lend him credibility among those who might find him lacking in charisma.

The Muslim Brotherhood members view themselves as the good guys. And they write off anyone with opposing views as a backer of the old regime.

When it comes to the courts, there is some truth to their charges. Many seats continue to be held by former backers of the Mubarak regime, and the courts continue to throw a wrench into the process of transitioning power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

In June, the country's Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the elected lower house parliament, which was dominated by the FJP and other Islamist parties, citing a flaw in the election law. First it was the military council that served as Egypt's interim power that usurped legislative power, and now it is Morsi.

The Supreme Constitutional Court was expected to rule on Sunday that the constitution-drafting assembly was invalid. Some, but not all of its justices had good ties to the old regime. But the fact that Morsi openly declared his hostility toward the entire judiciary and unceremoniously declared himself above the law will probably drive an even deeper and more dangerous wedge between the countries executive and judicial branches.

Many Citizens Criticize Morsi's Ruthlessness

"Who was elected?" Abdel-Fatah asks. "The judges or us?" Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood subscribes to a very particular understanding of the law, arguing that the judiciary should be independent of and stand above changing political majorities. "We received 40 percent in the lower house of parliament. We have the majority," Abdel-Fatah continues. Likewise, if you combine their share of the parliamentary vote with that of the party of the ultraconservative Salafists, the figure climbs above 65 percent. Given these results, the Muslim Brotherhood members now believe that they enjoy the support of the vast majority of Egyptians. Indeed, in an interview published on Thursday in the US news weekly Time, Morsi said: "I think more that 80 percent, 90 percent, of the people in Egypt … are with what I have done."

However, asking around in Mahalla el-Kobra paints a different picture. Many criticize what they see as Morsi's ruthlessness. They say that they didn't vote for him and that he won because several moderate and charismatic politicians stole votes from each other. Then, for the final round in the presidential elections, the only men left standing were Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. And even though the latter had been the former prime minister of deposed President Mubarak, Morsi still only won by a slim margin, with 52 to 48 percent of the vote. What's more, they argue, almost half of all eligible voters didn't cast ballots on election day.

However, those who have supported Morsi from the start still have faith in him. "We first have to give him a chance," says one textile worker.

Likewise, the fact is that only a minority of Egyptians are revolting against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Granted, hundreds of thousands of people will probably come together for demonstrations in Cairo on Friday, including many from the educated elite. A few thousand will most likely take to the streets in Mahalla el-Kobra, as well, where there will probably be more stone-throwing, and probably in a few other cities as well. Nevertheless, the rebels still only make up a minority. The majority of Egyptians might not agree with Morsi on everything, but the main thing they are interested in is seeing things move forward again, even if the final destination remains unknown.

No Compromises

Morsi's political understanding doesn't seem to include the belief that compromise and consensus-building are a natural part of politics, that is important to get the opposition on board, especially when it comes to the kinds of far-reaching decisions like the ones Egypt currently faces. Instead, he apparently views democracy as purely a matter of majority rule rather than something concerned with allowing the people as a whole to rule. His winner-takes-all mentality seems to ignore the fact that respecting the minority is also part of majority rule. He gives no consideration to the extreme distrust from the opposition, which itself is hardly willing to make concessions.

In fact, Morsi's response to his demonstrating opponents was to call for even bigger demonstrations. With their massive rallies, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists wanted to show who really represented the majority. This betrays the lack of political experience among the Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt. Mubarak's regime persecuted whoever seemed like a threat. The political arm of the Islamists was repeatedly forbidden and its leaders locked up. Many members are businesspeople, engineers and scientists, because public service was practically impossible for Islamists before the revolution.

In Mahalla el-Kobra, Abdel-Fatah is confident that the opposition will come around to the Muslim Brotherhood after a while. "Just let us do our thing," he says. "We want our actions and not violence to show that Islam is the best religion for everyone."

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