Tolerant, tech-savvy young Islamists may reshape Egyptian politics

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 18, 2011 

CAIRO — Ahmed Fatehelbab and his young Islamist friends used to speak in code to evade Egyptian authorities as they planned gatherings over the phone. With the overthrow this month of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, however, the old cover of "a doctor's appointment at 4 p.m." is obsolete.

"Now it's, 'Hey, we're meeting at my place at 7,' " Fatehelbab, 24, said with a laugh.

The collapse of Egypt's authoritarian government has opened unprecedented political space for Islamist movements, which the old regime portrayed to Western allies as extremist groups that threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Today's Islamist youth activists, far more tolerant and technology-savvy than their parents' generation is, seek to dispel that stereotype.

Fatehelbab and thousands of other young Islamist-leaning revolutionaries are at the vanguard of the new Egypt, meeting daily to form parties and lobby groups while still nursing wounds from clashes with Mubarak's authorities. The youths who fought alongside secular, Christian and other non-Islamist peers not only helped to unseat one of the world's longest-serving autocrats, they're also rewriting the rhetoric of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and other established Islamist blocs.

The voice they found during the anti-Mubarak protests could just as easily be raised against the traditional Islamist leadership if the old guard doesn't conform to their demands for a more democratic Egypt, several activists said.

"The obstacle against them is removed, so it's showtime," said Fatehelbab, whose arm was broken in the recent violence. "Will people in the Islamist movement seize the opportunity in front of them and present themselves as a mature political force pushing toward stability and freedom?"

Egypt's Islamists cover the spectrum of Muslim devotion, from mystical Sufi orders to literalist Salafis. Across the board, defiant young activists joined the protests against the edicts of many sheiks, who were either in the pay of the Mubarak administration or concerned about internecine bloodshed leading to a civil war.

One of the most significant youth rebellions is still under way at al Azhar University, whose centuries-old reputation as the center of Islamic scholarship was tarnished by the Mubarak regime buying off clerics and quashing dissent. Hundreds of Azhar students, distinguished from other protesters by their robes and head wraps, are extending calls for reform to their own institution, demanding elected administrators and financial independence from the government.

They'd also like to require public-awareness courses for senior clerics, whom they describe as largely oblivious to the harsh realities of Egypt's impoverished population of 80 million. The goal, students said, is to shed Azhar's image as an aloof, state-backed body.

"When my eye was bloody and bandaged, people from all groups would kiss my forehead and tell me, 'This is the role of Azhar that we respect,' " said Anas Sultan, 22, an Azhar student who fought Mubarak-allied mobs alongside other protesters and received four stitches for a head wound. "I felt indescribable pride, but also an enormous responsibility."

Young Islamists were sharply aware that their appearance at the demonstrations could give the impression that the revolution was religious in nature, so they spread out in the crowds and didn't let too many bearded men congregate in one place at the protest camp in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.

They kept their chants and slogans focused on the collective demands of the protesters: a civil state with regular and fair elections, fewer restrictions on political candidacy, higher wages for workers, an end to emergency law and the freeing of political prisoners.

This mingling with other young Egyptians exposed the Islamists to the ideas of their more secular peers and helped them dispel fears that their movement sought to turn Egypt into a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia or Iran. They're happy to work with the United States on issues of mutual interest, they said, but they reject any government that acts as a Washington proxy in the region.

Such discussions unfolded during long nights in the square, where youth activists from all backgrounds played guitar and traded anti-Mubarak jokes. Christian protesters formed a cordon to protect Muslims as they prayed.

"When the others got to know us, they saw we weren't scary. They would say, 'You smile just like everybody else!' " said Muhammed Seada, 30, who first joined the protests without the approval of the Salafist sheiks he follows. "The youth want to be more integrated in society, to go out in the street, to meet other people and get involved in the political scene."

Islamist clerics and politicians who supported the protests from Day 1 earned loyalty and high praise from the youths, who could play a kingmaker role in coming elections. The elder statesmen of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most widely known and best-organized opposition group, are losing popularity as a reform-minded, youth-backed wing gains ground.

"They should have a political party that's separate from the religious group. It should be civil and include other movements as an example that the Brotherhood is ready to engage everybody and isn't trying to take over," said Sondos Asem, 24, whose father and mother are senior Brotherhood figures.

The Brotherhood is the historic Islamist group whose radical offshoots include Hamas and other militant groups. In Egypt, however, the Brotherhood is widely seen as a moderate group with a nationwide social-services network and a longtime disavowal of violence. Officially banned by the state, the Brotherhood was relentlessly persecuted during Mubarak's 30-year regime, with its members arrested en masse and tried before military courts under Egypt's infamous emergency law.

Many of today's most visible youth activists grew up in Brotherhood households, exposed to the struggle as children who witnessed their parents hauled off by Mubarak's security forces in the middle of the night.

The new generation appreciates the sacrifices of its elders, but many are reluctant to swear allegiance to the Brotherhood, which is viewed in some Islamist circles as outdated and reactionary. While some activists are eager to see a progressive, diverse political party emerge from the Brotherhood, others prefer that the organization focus on its social services and human rights campaigns.

In the midst of Egypt's turmoil, the Brotherhood issued statements saying it wouldn't field a presidential candidate and was committed to the country's treaties, a reference to Egypt's longtime peace agreement with Israel. Now, several young activists said, the Brotherhood should revisit its controversial stance that no women or non-Muslims will rule Egypt.

"Very soon, and it's happening already, there will be no such thing as the Muslim Brotherhood anymore. The organization will be there, but it will have been transcended," said Ibrahim el Houdaiby, 27, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were supreme leaders of the Brotherhood.

The government banned el Houdaiby from travel at age 24 after he gave talks in the United States that "defamed Egypt's image abroad," according to the charges against him. In reality, he said, his lecture had lauded Turkey as an example of a modern, democratic Muslim state. He left the Brotherhood the next year, and he now focuses on reform work with his two closest allies: an Arab nationalist and a socialist.

Like most other Islamist-allied activists, el Houdaiby bristles at labels. The revolution, he said, made young protesters rethink their identities. Clear-cut differences among Egypt's main political trends — Islamists, Arab nationalists, socialists and liberals — melted away as the protesters stood shoulder to shoulder in the square.

In the week since Mubarak's ouster, proposals for political parties, business alliances and nonprofits have bombarded el Houdaiby and other prominent activists. They spend their days in meetings on how to turn the friendships forged in Tahrir Square into strategic partnerships that address the original demands of "bread, freedom and social justice."

"The revolution is only starting. It's not over," el Houdaiby said. "Mubarak is gone, but his political system is still there. We have to represent the demands of more people, change the rhetoric and prevent people from calming down."

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