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What are the ingredients and social backgrounds of political Islamists? - Daily News Egypt

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What are the ingredients and social backgrounds of political Islamists?

Political Islamist movements, at their heart the Muslim Brotherhood, embody sections of society that are mostly found in its middle class. These are also known as “intermediary classes” which usually fall between the upper and lower classes. Remarkably, people belonging to these classes are not socially homogeneous, meaning they are not at the same position …


Farid Zahran
Farid Zahran

Political Islamist movements, at their heart the Muslim Brotherhood, embody sections of society that are mostly found in its middle class. These are also known as “intermediary classes” which usually fall between the upper and lower classes. Remarkably, people belonging to these classes are not socially homogeneous, meaning they are not at the same position in the production process, jobs or income. Political Islamists include merchants, professionals and artisans, but we will not find all of the members of the previous categories.

The explanation for this phenomenon is in addition to belonging to intermediary classes, they share a cultural background. The majority of the political Islamist movement is urbanites of the intermediary classes, who have rural backgrounds. Those rural immigrants find “urban values” culturally shocking and it pushes them to hold on to their religion, considering it is the last sanctuary to escape the cultural seduction of the city. They find these values confusing, and capable of disrupting their conservative mannerism. Therefore it is not shocking to find that the political Islamist movement developed in the popular and middle-class neighbourhoods of cities, especially the small ones, away from rural areas, which have remained until recently a stronghold of Sufism.

There are also other factors that helped develop the political Islamist movement, which fortified its position in certain geographical areas, like the Coptic presence in cities such as Minya and Assiut, which helped develop the movement and in more radical ways. One explanation is that the traditional urban manners of young Copts seemed like a Christian rather than urban demeanour to the young immigrants from Upper Egypt, who come from rural cities inhabited by mostly Muslims.  Hence, the reaction to this demeanour took a radical religious turn, and it quickly led to political Islamist movements which seem hostile to “the other” in general and to Copts specifically. Therefore, we can add the geographical-sectarian aspect to the cultural and social ones in explaining the development of this movement and its strength.

Yet before we go any further, let us ask, why was the political Islamist movement’s way of thought appealing to those from intermediary classes?

Some of the international literary work, especially leftist,  explains this by saying that intermediary classes, also known as middle classes or petite bourgeoisie,  get involved in political life when the two main classes are unable to administer the country, and are in constant conflict that cannot be resolved. In most cases, the petite bourgeoisie become a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie classes to create what is known as Bonapartism or fascism, with a nationalistic social communist flair. It steals the slogans of the working class and reiterates them in a demagogic way in order to eliminate the working class movement and its parties.

However, this theory which explains the rise of fascism in Europe cannot be entirely applied to the Egyptian reality, which only witnessed during its intermittent experience of modernity a traditional capitalist society. In this society, people were divided into bourgeois and proletarians. In addition, the fascist conflict that appeared in Egypt during the 1920s and 1930s was not only an expression of these conflicts in the West, but it was also a social conflict that reached a dead end. This conflict was not the same as the one in Europe, as it involved different political entities, not only the bourgeois and proletarians.  According to Saad Zahran in his book The Origins of Egyptian Politics, the major parties involved were the palace, the nobles, and the empire ruling the region. The summoning of the Muslim Brotherhood was usually done by the palace, the empire, or the nobles, not to include them in this triangle of power, but to express their refusal of including a fourth party. This was despite efforts by the Al-Wafd Party and the leftist movement to be included as well.

Including a fourth party meant the actual inclusion of the middle class in the division of power and wealth,   allowing it to acquire a much bigger share than it was getting at the time.  The constant summoning of the Muslim Brotherhood added a fascist quality to the power triangle. This allowed the power triangle to minimise the threat of other political parties. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Misr El-Fatah, or Young Egypt, appeared at the same time on the political scene. However, secular thinking was unable to compete with the Islamic one; the Muslim Brotherhood explained their fascist flair with sacred religious speech, which led to the retreat of Misr El-Fatah, which tried to clone nationalistic communism without any local perspective that would have enabled it to continue.

Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength amplified with the passage of time, especially with the support of shaky ruling powers, who tried to use them to solve certain crises, starting with the palace and Nukrashi Pasha, whom they rebelled against, passing by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat and ending with Hosni Mubarak. During all these stages, the Muslim Brotherhood was the fascist and backward alternative, used to justify the ruling party’s actions in social crises. At the same time, they were used by rulers for their own agendas. Abdel Nasser formed alliances with the Brotherhood to confront the student movement during the 1970s, whose slogan was “democracy to all people… entire dedication to the homeland”. Later on, Mubarak formed alliances with the Brotherhood to get thousands of young political Islamists involved in Washington’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It is not a secret how they rebelled against Abdel Nasser as they did with El Sadat and Mubarak later on.

Therefore, we conclude that the political Islamist movement started by the intermediary classes or petite bourgeoisie due to their capability of being socially exploited. This was in part due to their social status which does not qualify them for forming a complete and harmonious visualisation concerning the country’s administration. In addition, these classes are attracted to “popular” speeches and get fed up with any cultural dialogue. In return, they value decisiveness, which explains their tyrannical nature, and their violent tendencies.

If we are to consider these classes the heart and even body of the political Islamist movement, then its mind is not far from the ruling circles, which seem to always be in crisis. The muscles of this movement and its fatal blow, or rather its militias, with which it intimidates its opponents, are these intermediary classes’ youth who are capable of employing the youth of the marginalised slums, or what the West calls “Lumpenproletariat”. If we review militant Islamist groups, we will find that their leaders mostly belong to intermediary classes, while their followers mostly belong to those people who come from marginalised slums.

However, what is the social map of these different groups inside the political Islamist movement? Maybe this can be the title of my next article, God willing.

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