An Islamist threat?

Rather than being the day of national unity it was billed to be, last Friday belonged to the Salafis. Still, it’s wrong to assume it reflects the genuine spirit of the 25 January revolution; Egypt is bigger than any sect or political movement.

For anyone who has taken part in previous Tahrir protests, last Friday was different. During the revolution, slogans like “The People Want to Bring Down the Regime” and “The Army and the People are One Hand” echoed in the square. Egyptian Copts were able to conduct their rituals in the heart of Tahrir, with the protection of their fellow Muslims. On Friday, however, we heard slogans like “Islamic State, Islamic State” and “The People Want the Implementation of Sharia”.

The Salafis, who were a majority in the square, made two mistakes for which they’ll pay dearly in the coming period. First, they broke a pledge made with non-Islamist groups in the lead up to the rally not to raise controversial slogans. Second, they insisted on flexing their muscles to appear as the biggest political power with a remarkable ability to rally supporters. The prospect of clashing with other political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, did not seem to bother the Salafis.

To make sense of what happened Friday, we must remember the chronology of events leading up to the day.

The Salafis took the initiative to organize this mass rally to demand the implementation of Sharia Law and express support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Some secular voices began calling for a counter protest under different slogans. This worried several political groups who saw that the event would be divisive, and so they called for a united protest that would bring together all political forces and emphasize common demands: speedier trials for ex-regime officials, an end to military trials for civilians and justice for the families of the martyrs. Salafis leaders took part in the meetings that preceded the rally and signed a joint statement announcing all sides’ commitment to the unified demands and pledging not to use controversial slogans. But the outcome on was very different, as Salafis dominated the rally with their slogans and stages.

Many are rightfully worried after Friday’s rally, however some of their concerns are exaggerated or, even worse, unfounded. It’s true the rally proved the Islamists’ ability to mobilize large numbers and coordinate action at critical stages in Egypt's transitional process. But should this be seen as a menace to the establishment of a democratic regime?

The consequences of the “Islamist threat” largely depend how other political powers, which claim to be more democratic, choose to respond. Instead of blaming Islamists for their strength, Egypt’s secular-oriented groups would do well to examine their own weaknesses and address them.

The fears that brought many Islamists to Tahrir are groundless. Many came under the impression that Egypt’s Islamic identity is being threatened and the authority of the Armed Forces is being doubted. Neither is true. Egypt’s Islamic identity is not under attack, and the Armed Forces enjoy widespread support and appreciation.

Some will claim, wrongly, that Friday’s rally proves that political Islam is naturally opposed to democracy and that Islamists cannot be trusted. They will call for the formation of a democratic front to confront conservative religious forces. Such a response would be misguided.

The current state of political polarization in Egypt threatens to widen rift between Islamists and secular political forces. This should not be allowed to happen. Right now, we need genuine efforts to achieve reconciliation between all political players that are serious about reform. We need cooperative mechanisms to guide Egypt through the remaining part of the interim period. Only then will we be able to bring down the remaining elements of the old regime, set a time frame for elections, and build the institutions necessary for a peaceful handover of power by the SCAF to a civilian government.

Translated and abridged from the Arabic Edition.

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