Egypt’s Vote Propels Islamic Law Into Spotlight
To Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s call to apply only the broad principles of Islamic law allows too much freedom.
Sheik Shahat is a leader of the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis, whose coalition of parties is running second behind the Brotherhood party in the early returns of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. He and his allies are demanding strict prohibitions against interest-bearing loans, alcohol and “fornication,” with traditional Islamic corporal punishment like stoning for adultery.
“I want to say: citizenship restricted by Islamic Shariah, freedom restricted by Islamic Shariah, equality restricted by Islamic Shariah,” he said in a public debate. “Shariah is obligatory, not just the principles — freedom and justice and all that.”
The unexpected electoral success of the Salafis — reported to have won about 25 percent of the votes in the first round of the elections, second only to the roughly 40 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — is terrifying Egyptian liberals and troubling the West. But their new clout is also presenting a challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, in part by plunging it into a polarizing Islamist-against-Islamist debate over the application of Islamic law in Egypt’s promised democracy, a debate the Brotherhood had worked hard to avoid.
“The Salafis want to have that conversation right now, and the Brotherhood doesn’t,” said Shadi Hamid, a researcher with the Brookings Doha Center, a Brookings Institution project in Qatar. “The Brotherhood is not interested in talking about Islamic law right now because they have other priorities that are more important. But the Salafis are going to insist on putting religion in the forefront of the debate, and that will be very difficult for the Brotherhood to ignore.”
The Brotherhood, the venerable group that virtually invented the Islamist movement eight decades ago, is at its core a middle-class missionary institution, led not by religious scholars but by doctors, lawyers and professionals. It has long sought to move Egypt toward a more orthodox Islamic society from the bottom up, one person and family at a time. After a long struggle in the shadows of the Mubarak dictatorship, its leaders have sought to avoid potentially divisive conversations about the details of Islamic law that might set off alarms about an Islamist takeover. But their evasiveness on the subject has played into long-term suspicions of even fellow Islamists that they are too concerned with their own power.