The Making of Egypt Islamists\' Foreign Policy
By Abdelrahman Rashdan.. It is important to understand the differences within the active Islamic movements to be able to understand the shape of the upcoming realities in the Middle East. What the foreign media used to clump together as the enemy are now political systems in power and no more to be reckoned with as merely angry faces with beards living on the other side of the planet.
Sometimes one would find instances of mixing up the ideologies of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in some news reports, while others would corner its audience to believe that the only "good" Islamic movements out there are the Sufi ones; and the sarcasm goes on. It goes without a surprise then that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, would laud Aljazeera as providing "real news" in her testimony in front of the US Senate a year ago. Aljazeera staff was simply listening to people while US media was blinding its audience. It seems that Clinton and the Obama administration are good audience of the latter.
Islamic movements carry a lot of diversity and identify with the global human values and principles. However, they are faced with many hurdles in implementing ideologies that they have been carrying for a long time. This article will try to simplify the foreign policy frame in which the Egypt's Islamic movements act through discussing four main points: ideology, agreements, internal and regional challenges.
Egypt is an active hub for the interaction of a large number of Islamic movements. When the January 25th revolution took place, two main groups had their ideology and organization together and were ready to fill in the gap that the Mubarak's dictatorial regime left vacant. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafi movement were able to secure about 70% of the parliament seats (al-Ahram) and 83% of the Shura seats (Carnegie Endowment) in the two recent elections.
The sweeping majority helped the Islamic movements to vacate the opposition seat they held for several years, and took up the position of leadership at one of the most central and influential countries in the Arab world and the Middle East. It is clearly understood that such political weight for the two Islamic movements can not be surpassed in the process of forming the foreign policy of the country either by the executive or any other branch in the government. Until this point in time, only the legislative branch is under the control of the two Islamic movements, yet it is expected that such influence will extend to most of the other branches of the government soon.
Ideology and Organization
Without any prior notice, the revolution came to put the ideology and beliefs of the Islamic movements into a fundamental test. On daily basis now, both movements are forced into weighing between interests and values; the former regime was clearly leaning on the side of interests — which it defined to be that of the ruling regime and not the country and people. Yet for Egypt's Islamic movements, the big challenge is - and will remain to be- how to hold steadfast to the beliefs, values and ideology while at the same time work to achieve the best interest of Egypt.
It gets more complicated when considering the fact that the Salafi movement was kept — or kept itself — away from politics for long time, and this may have hindered its ability to interact with the Islamic text (Quran and Sunnah) in a contemporary and meaningful way in the field of politics. The number and depth of books about politics that were published before the revolution by members of the Islamic movements revealed either a detachment from reality or a big deal of interaction with political realities while disregarding or shallowly adhering to the Islamic text.
However, in a remarkably short period of time, the two Islamic movements, the Salafis and the MB, were able to prove that they are able to comprehend the new political realities, while sticking to the dictates of the Islamic texts and formulating their interactive processes within the framework of Sharia'h. The ability of each movement to do that depends on its level of maturity; it is important to note here that the MB was established as a movement in the 1920s while the Salafi movement in Egypt dates back to the 1970s.
On the side of the Salafis, who are concerned with going back to the early understanding of the text by the Prophet Mohamed's companions and the few centuries that followed for a strict interpretation of the sacred text, there is a clear increasing attention given to politics and it is done through the traditional Salafi method of learning which revolves around the book and the sheikh (teacher). The debates are hot and productive which is creating up a new revival in the literature of the long deserted field of Islamic politics.
As for the MB, because the movement has been involved in the political game for a long time, its attention is more diverted to the management of the turmoil that Egypt is going through, while having in the background some well-established thinkers and literature that represent the continuation of schools like that of Imam al-Ghazali.
Such circumstances that have forced the two Islamic movements together into one pot are in fact giving birth to a new Islamic trend. A trend that would gain from the scholarship of Salafis and the political and social experience of the MB to create a mature Islamic current that can present a new model of politics in the Middle East.
What must be placed under the radar is the frequency and nature of disagreements and fractures, if any, inside both movements as they delve more into politics. Because the political decision is usually debatable, political moves taken by the leadership of any of the two movements can easily give rise to opposition inside from within, which can have its impact on the strength of the movement. A clear example of such was the decision of the MB to form a political party, which caused a lot of debate and some disagreements inside the party.
The MB's well organized hierarchal structural scheme has, on one side, helped the movement to manage hold control over its members, but at the same time it can create a political disconnect in a sense that the essence of democracy will be lost in the deep mud holes of bureaucracy entrapping the movement, thereby creating more frustration among the members.
The Salafi movement however is neither as organized nor hierarchal, which gives it the advantage of dynamism and evolution yet harms the movement if such opposition is strong enough to defeat the original founding beliefs of the movement.
Another main factor that frames the foreign policy of the Egyptian Islamic movements, beside ideology, is about the international and bilateral agreements that Egypt signed with other countries. Both movements have clearly made it clear in their media "interrogations,", if one may call it as such, that they are committed to all agreements that Egypt has signed.
This commitment was confirmed even in the darkest moments when the public was pressuring in the opposite direction. A clear example of this is the reaction of both movements after the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo as retaliation to Israel's shooting of Egyptian soldiers on the borders; both movements made it clear that they are committed to the Camp David agreement and it is only up to Egyptians to revise it through the legitimate process.
Internal and Regional Challenges
Both movements have made it clear that they are committed to all agreements that Egypt has signed, including the Camp David.
Beside the legal boundaries of the agreements that the two movements found themselves in, they are also facing an internal front that is boiling and regional changes that are unpredictable.
The Mubarak regime worked as hard as it could to deform the image of the Islamism or Islamic trend in society. Media has always dealt with it as the other minority in society, and this has rendered it being either portrayed negatively in movies and soap operas or featured as a punching bag in debates or media reports. Islamic movements are now slowly reversing this negative mental image through some improvement in their interaction with media, yet still mostly in a defensive position.
Going past this and uniting the politically fractured internal front is a challenge that the two movements need to address to be able to interact in a constructive manner with the foreign powers. There is no doubt that the direction of the pressure played on both movements has now changed from being up-down to be down-up. Being in the position of power, it is an obligation on both movements to be inclusive and let the other political spectrums join in the decision making.
The direction of the pressure played on the MB and the Salafis changed from being up-down to be down-up. Being in the position of power, it is an obligation on both movements to be inclusive...
In this turbulent stage that Egypt is passing through, a foreign policy agenda that helps in rebuilding the country can only emanate from an internal agreement on the policy priorities; something that is usually lost in a stage filled with conflict. There are enough signs now to show that both movements understand their role as inclusive powers.
The current negotiations about the formulation of the group that would write down Egypt's new constitution is a good illustration. In their proposals that were presented to the parliament, the MB stated that only 40 percent of the group members should be from the parliament – which is dominated by Islamic movements – and 60 percent should be picked out of the different groups and syndicates in the country. The percentage was 60 to 40 percent in the proposal presented by the Salafis.
The regional challenge also represents a main obstacle against a constructive foreign policy for Egypt. Some of the Arab neighbours that Egyptians considered friends are standing in a neutral — if not hostile — position against Egypt after its revolution. Rich Gulf States were expected, as some of them promised, to help financially in the rebuilding process of Egypt, yet they have not fulfilled their promises. The other unfinished Arab revolutions do also represent a challenge to the rulers in Egypt. For Egypt to rise up to meet the challenges of its traditional regional leadership, it has to get the help of its "Arab brothers," which is not granted in the time being.
Such four foreign policy determinants: ideology, agreements, internal and regional challenges govern the actions of two of the most powerful Islamic movements in the region. The kinds of tools that can be used by those movements in a post-Arab Spring era to achieve Egyptian foreign policy goals are wide and open. The region is becoming friendlier to the Islamic movements than before, which provides a good ground to manoeuvre with the foreign powers. The Arab world is soon assuming a position where it will be a proactive rather than a reactive power.
Abdelrahman Rashdan is a Middle East political analyst with a Master's degree in International Affairs. Along with several years of experience in the region, he holds a Certificate in Middle East Studies from Columbia University.
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