Egypt’s Islamic fringe takes the plunge into politics

Publicly, many shed symbols of zealotry, but critics fear it’s a show; "The situation is extremely dangerous," says Nagib Gabra'il.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R) (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R)
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Egyptian Islamists are discarding their traditional long robes and large white caps – the outwards signs of extreme piety – in favor of business suits and campaign buttons as one-time jihadists began throwing their hats into the country’s political ring this week.   
While the Muslim Brotherhood and its political offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party, has attracted the most attention and fear among Egyptian liberals, the Islamic end of the political spectrum is growing crowded with fringe movements announcing bids to run in the parliamentary elections come September.
RELATED:Muslim brotherhood to contest half of Egypt parliament'Egypt referendum may empower Muslim brotherhood'
"The situation is extremely dangerous," Nagib Gibra'il, a Christian lawyer and head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization, told The Media Line. "According to polls, Islamist parties will receive more than 50 percent of the votes in the elections and form the next government. This will jeopardize the revolution and the country itself." 
The votes will be the first – and perhaps only – crossroads for Egypt, as it chooses whether to go down the road of Western-style democracy or opt for a state governed by Islamic mores. In a poll published by the New York-based Pew Research Center earlier this month, Egyptians were found to be almost evenly divided between those who “sympathize” with Islamic fundamentalists and those who don’t, with about 30% of respondents siding one way or the other.
But even with polls showing broad sympathy among voters for their aims, the Islamic parties are taking pains to present themselves as moderates.
The Safety and Development Party, which was created by former members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement, will be led in the elections by Kamal Al-Said Habib, who spent 10 years in prison for his involvement in the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Nevertheless, the party declared that it would allow Coptic Christians and women to join.
Tareq and Aboud Al-Zumr, two cousins who belong to the Islamist Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, announced their intention to form a political party ahead of September's elections. Released from prison only in March after serving three decades for plotting to kill Sadat, they sought to alleviate the fears of Egypt’s liberals of an Islamic takeover by saying their party wouldn’t run a candidate for president.
"Islamists do not seek to dominate," Tareq Zumr told a press conference on Tuesday.
Those kinds of reassurances don’t do much to assuage critics, who argue that the moderation is a façade that would quickly come down once the Islamists hold power. Both Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad are considered terror organizations by the U.S. and still officially outlawed in Egypt.
The Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm echoed those anxieties this week, reporting 
that the founding members of the new party, many of whom hold doctorates, preferred to use the religious title of "sheikh" rather than "doctor." The newspaper also noted a change in dress once party leaders thought they were out of sight of journalists.
"Strangely, following the conference some members of the group changed back from their suits to white robes; forced to change near their cars for lack of room inside the conference hall," the daily reported. 
Egypt's Islamic movements were relentlessly persecuted by the regime of Hosni Mubarak, whose toppling from power in February has set the stage for upcoming elections. Not only did they kill Mubarak’s predecessor, but they staged terrorist attacks against tourists throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The ideology of overthrowing Egypt's secular regime and replacing it with an Islamic Caliphate was viewed as an existential threat by Mubarak, who was himself targeted by the organizations during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995.   
Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, said it is unclear whether the new parties would be allowed to register, since even under Egypt's new political parties law, religious parties are banned. September’s election will be the first and free vote ever in Egypt, but the country still lacks a new election law.
"It's hard to imagine these groups convincingly presenting themselves as secular parties," Zarwan told The Media Line
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group, launched its own Freedom and Justice Party last week and said that it will vie for half of the 454 seats being contested in the People's Assembly.
Zarwan said the Muslim Brotherhood is more palatable to Egypt's new election committee, which is now staffed entirely by judges rather than politicians. While many still suspect the Brotherhood of more extreme views, it has for many years now publicly supported democracy and has named a Christian as deputy head of the party.
Gama'a Islamiyah and Egyptian Jihad have a very small but vocal following in Egypt, Zarwan said, adding that they were more popular in the countryside than in the country's large cities.
"Before the revolution they had a quietist role and were barely heard of," Zarwan said. "Now that the lid has been lifted, they want to be more active."
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a watchdog entrusted with the protection of minority rights in Egypt, welcomed the integration of former Jihadists in Egypt's political arena, saying that political participation could steer these movements away from violence. But the parties still needed to convince Egyptian society that they don’t intend to change Egypt if they come to power and turn it into an Islamic caliphate, he said.
"These movements still need to reassure society, and especially minority groups such as Copts, women and liberal movements, that they will respect the constitution and laws even if they become a political majority," Ibrahim told The Media Line. "So far, they have failed to do so."
Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said the Islamist movements in Egypt have traditionally been weak because of their inability to unite around a common political program.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
"This disunity is often caused by differences over minor issues," Kazziha told The Media Line. "This weakens them and prevents them from acting in unison."     
Meanwhile, rumors that Egypt's tiny Shiite minority was also planning to create a political party have infuriated Egyptian Salafis, or Sunni Islamic fundamentalists.
"We will call on people to fight the supporters of this movement," Salafi leader Gamal Al-Marakby told the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm Tuesday. "We have received information indicating that the Shiite sect plans to form a party and publish a newspaper supported by Iran from within."