CAIRO -- The meteoric rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Egyptian politics has drawn attention, rather unfairly, away from another Islamist group with a real bent for innovation and ideological revision. Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group) is a formerly militant group that has renounced violence and attempted to merge into the political mainstream, all the while maintaining its distinct character.
For now, it's still too early to know exactly where Al-Jama’a fits in the Islamist political spectrum, between the two poles of extremism and moderation. It has long been engaged in a process of soul-searching, beginning with its famous non-violence initiative in 1997. The process has intensified since the revolution as two factions – revisionists and militants – grapple with fundamental questions about the group’s mission and its strategies in the new Egypt.
The revisionists, led by veterans Najih Ibrahim and Karam Zohdi, champion self-critique and political re-orientation. The two leaders are responsible for much of the group’s non-violence literature in the last decade and a half. Since their release from prison in 2002, Ibrahim and Zohdi have scaled up their activities. Although they are weaker than the militants, they do retain some control over the group’s presence in the Islamist public sphere.
The Al-Jama’a website, administered by Ibrahim himself, has become one of the most sophisticated Islamist forums in Egypt, featuring discussions – with both Islamists and non-Islamists – about issues like Copts, women, cooperation with secularists, and arts and literature. Ideologically, Ibrahim and his followers are pioneering some of the most far-reaching revisions to Islamist doctrine in ages, heralding self-critique as a forgotten Islamic duty. Topping their agenda are things like institutional legalization, the creative revision of spent doctrines and a move towards gradualist, peaceful activism. Ibrahim cautions against traditional Islamist failings, like fanaticism, improper proselytizing and the wrongful application of Islamic sacred texts.
Al-Jama’a revisionists are quickly moving towards the center of the Islamist political spectrum, not far from Muslim Brotherhood reformists. They are eager to cooperate with other Islamists and have a keen interest in learning from the Turkish AK party’s experiences in government and economic development.
But the revisionists’ ideas do not hold much sway within the wider Al-Jama’a base (which numbers anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 according to unofficial estimates). Many among the rank and file continue to find the approach of the more orthodox militants more reassuring. Except for their decision to renounce violence, the militants have shifted little since the 1990s. Their confrontational “old-style” of politics has proved quite appealing to Al-Jama’a members uneasily searching for a role in the unfamiliar political terrain of post-revolution Egypt.
Leading voices in the group's militant wing include Essam Derbala, the leader-elect; Safwat Abdel-Ghani, an increasingly popular figure among the group’s grassroots; and Al-Gama’a spokesperson Assem Abdel Maged. Their reservations about Ibrahim and Zohdi’s leadership style over the last few decades have occasionally prompted them to question the merits of the non-violence initiative, though never abandoning it wholesale.
Like the revisionists, the militants support political participation. But their unsavvy political language walls them off from the Egyptian revolutionary mainstream. Over the last few months, many have chosen to play the game of ideological polarization that has left Egyptian politics deeply divided between Islamists and non-Islamists.
Overall, Egypt's Islamists are closer to reform than revolution. In the long run they will be most concerned with issues like the relationship between religion and state, the reform of Al-Azhar (Egypt’s leading Islamic institution), and re-structuring the religious public sphere. These are all important issues that Islamists will begin to take up as the revolutionary dust settles and the transitional period draws to a close. In the process, Egyptian Islamists are likely to engage in new revisions. Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya will be no exception.
Read the full version of the article in Al-Masry Al-Youm
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Ashraf El-Sherif teaches at the American University in Cairo. He is a specialist on political Islam.