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Political Islam Without Oil

Thomas L. Friedman Photo by: Josh Haner/The New York Times

By Thomas L. Friedman : The New York Times | Cairo | 10 Jan 2012

With the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the even more puritanical Salafist Al Nour Party having stunned both themselves and Egyptians by garnering more than 60 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, we’re about to see a unique lab test for the Middle East: What happens when political Islam has to wrestle with modernity and globalization without oil?

Islamist movements have long dominated Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both the ayatollahs in Iran and the Wahhabi Salafists in Saudi Arabia, though, were able to have their ideology and the fruits of modernity, too, because they had vast oil wealth to buy off any contradictions. Saudi Arabia could underutilize its women and impose strict religious mores on its society, banks and schools. Iran’s clerics could snub the world, pursue nuclearization and impose heavy political and religious restrictions. And both could still offer their people improved living standards, because they had oil.

Egypt’s Islamist parties will not have that luxury. They will have to open up to the world, and they seem to be realizing that. Egypt is a net importer of oil. It also imports 40 percent of its food. And tourism constitutes one-tenth of its gross domestic product. With unemployment rampant and the Egyptian pound eroding, Egypt will probably need assistance from the International Monetary Fund, a major injection of foreign investment and a big upgrade in modern education to provide jobs for all those youths who organized last year’s rebellion. Egypt needs to be integrated with the world.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is called Freedom and Justice, draws a lot of support from the middle classes and small businesses. The Salafist Al Nour Party is dominated by religious sheiks and the rural and urban poor.

Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, told me: “We hope that we can pull the Salafists — not that they pull us — and that both of us will be pulled by the people’s needs.” He made very clear that while both Freedom and Justice and Al Nour are Islamist parties, they are very different, and they may not join hands in power: “As a political group, they are newcomers, and I hope all can wait to discover the difference between Al Nour and Freedom and Justice.”

On the peace treaty with Israel, Erian said: “This is the commitment of the state — not any group or party — and we have said we are respecting the commitments of the Egyptian state from the past.” Ultimately, he added, relations with Israel will be determined by how it treats the Palestinians.

But generally speaking, he said, Egypt’s economic plight “is pushing us to be concerned about our own affairs.”

Muhammad Khairat el-Shater, the vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood and its economic guru, made clear to me over strawberry juice at his home that his organization intends to lean into the world. “It is no longer a matter of choice whether one can be with or against globalization,” he said. “It is a reality. From our perspective, we favor the widest possible engagement with globalization through win-win situations.”

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Al Nour, insisted that his party would move cautiously. “We are the guardians of Shariah,” he told me, referring to Islamic law, “and we want people to be with us on the same principles, but we have an open door to all the intellectuals in all fields.” He said his party’s economic model was Brazil. “We don’t like the theocratic model,” he added. “I can promise you that we will not be another dictatorship, and the Egyptian people will not give us a chance to be another dictatorship.”

In November, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an independent Salafist cleric and presidential candidate, was asked by an interviewer how, as president, he would react to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach? “She would be arrested,” he said.

The Al Nour Party quickly said he was not speaking for it. Agence France-Presse quoted another spokesman for Al Nour, Muhammad Nour, as also dismissing fears raised in the news media that the Salafists might ban alcohol, a staple of Egypt’s tourist hotels. “Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol,” he said. “Forty million don’t have sanitary water. Do you think that, in Parliament, I’ll busy myself with people who don’t have water, or people who get drunk?”

What to make of all this? Egyptian Islamists have some big decisions. It has been easy to maintain a high degree of ideological purity all these years they’ve been out of power. But their sudden rise to the top of Egyptian politics coincides with the free fall of Egypt’s economy. And as soon as Parliament is seated on Jan. 23, Egypt’s Islamists will have the biggest responsibility for fixing that economy — without oil. (A similar drama is playing out in Tunisia.)

They don’t want to blow this chance to lead, yet they want to be true to their Islamic roots, yet they know their supporters elected them to deliver clean government, education and jobs, not mosques. It will be fascinating to watch them deal with these tugs and pulls. Where they come out will have a huge impact on the future of political Islam in this region.


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