Esposito: Can the Islamists lead?
Newly elected speaker of the Egyptian parliament, Saad al-Katatni, of the Muslim Brotherhood, addresses the first Egyptian parliament session after the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, January 23, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.
February 3rd, 2012
02:55 PM ET

Esposito: Can the Islamists lead?

Editor's Note: John L. Esposito is University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He recently spent time interviewing people in Tunisia and Egypt. 

By John L. Esposito - Special to CNN

After meeting with Egyptians from across the political spectrum and after reviewing poll results, I noticed one common belief a year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak: The revolution is just beginning.

Egyptians are disillusioned by the slow pace of change.  But they also feel empowered. This sense was reinforced by free and fair parliamentary elections and wider freedom in the media, across civil society and on the street. Despite the obstacles and concerns about the military, people across the political spectrum say when things go wrong, the people’s voice will be heard in a return to Tahrir Square.

A recent Gallup poll reflected this sense of empowerment and responsibility:  “Today 90 percent say that if there is a problem in their community, it is up to them to fix it. And after an election seen as fair by most, the percentage of Egyptians that think they have not only the responsibility but also the power to make change surged from 55 percent in September to 74 percent in December 2011.”

There is anger, particularly among activists, at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for using violence to suppress protests and for continuing to arbitrarily arrest members of civil society. Activists demand that the SCAF either hand power to the parliament or call for early presidential elections so that the new president would take the lead and the "temporary" military rule after the revolution would end.

While the public, unlike activists, still retain faith in the SCAF, the majority favor the military playing no role in politics after the presidential election. The majority of the public favor an expedited presidential election.  Indeed, most say delaying the election for the top executive position would be “bad for Egypt”.

What about the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists?

The extent of the Islamists sweep of parliamentary elections, especially the strong performance of the Salafists, which surprised all, has raised concerns about their dominant roles in parliament and its implications for Egypt’s new constitution.

Far from monolithic, both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis today incorporate diverse currents - ideologically, politically, and socioeconomically. The Muslim Brotherhood as deep divisions between the more conservative older generation of official leadership and the youth.

After dismissing a large number of activists who work for Abdel Moneim  Abolfotouh's presidential campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership eventually realized that it is incapable of stopping its youth from joining his campaign and it stopped trying. Abolfatouh, a long time leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, espoused a more independent and inclusive position than its more conservative leadership. This vision proved more attractive to some younger activists and others outside the ranks of the Brotherhood.

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is open to  more progressive members and currents of thought, it retains and asserts its hierarchical structure. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership struggles to both assert newly found political clout while not wanting to confront or alienate the military.

Their refusal to support major demonstrations and marches against SCAF has brought criticism from many Arab Spring activists. They decided to focus on elections and were trying to avoid confrontations with SCAF that would escalate to the 1954 scenario when former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the organization and imprisoned and hanged its leaders.

Many in Muslim Brotherhood senior leadership will be challenged to move beyond the organizational elder-dominated hierarchical authority of the past. Though reinforced as a survival technique during the Mubarak regime, it will need to engage in greater power sharing within the Brotherhood and across Egyptian society. It will need to support more progressive and often younger representatives in their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Implementation of the FJP platform with an emphasis on a politically and religiously pluralistic civil government based on equality of citizenship and gender equality will be critical both for the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility vis-a-vis other sectors of Egyptian society and to avoid defections within the ranks of their organization.

Only twelve women, (three appointed and nine elected, including four FJP women) are in the new parliament.  The under-representation of women was due to the fact that political parties put them very low on their lists, which greatly diminished any chance of winning.

Political parties were obliged to put at least one woman in their electoral lists, and ironically many did just that. This is in stark contrast to Tunisia, which used a more proportional representation approach that resulted in a Constitutional Assembly that was 25% elected women, 85% of whom were members of the Ennahdha Party, which is moderately Islamist. This constitutes the highest female representation in the Arab world.

Municipal elections in Egypt in a few months might be a good opportunity to include women and youth who were not empowered enough during the parliamentarian elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood is well aware that its electoral success is both an opportunity and a challenge in the coming months.  It needs to deliver on key issues as seen by majority of Egyptians. These are economic and political - not theological.

The Muslim Brotherhood and so-called liberal parties can agree upon economic development, jobs, equality of citizenship and political and religious pluralism, stability and security, freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly women’s rights and religious tolerance in a new constitution.

Similarly, I believe supporters of Islamists are no more likely than other Egyptians to oppose a peace treaty with Israel. So too, both are open to closer bilateral relations with the U.S. and with the European Union but based on partnership and national interests.


The Salafis are also quite diverse politically (many are apolitical) and ideologically.  Many Salafis were surprised at how ell they did in recent elections. As one member of the Al-Nour Party noted, “Quite a few Salafis voted for the Muslim Brotherhood because they did not expect Salafis to do well enough as to make their vote significant.” Future Salafi strategy includes regaining these votes while chipping away at the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Islamic credentials” and support.

The Salafis are open to political alliances but will challenge the religious authenticity and Islamic credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, while the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party can agree on many political and economic issues, political Salafis espouse a more ultra-conservative religious ideology and interpretation of Shariah, which they believe should be implemented.

As one Salafi put it, “We can agree on many economic and political issues but we represent a different religious voice, our language is more that of a dawa organization.” More hardline Salafis demand Shariah now, as well as what has come to be characterized as "bikini issues": bans on Western style bathing suits and prohibition on alcohol.  Others are content to wait years seeing it as long term strategy.


A cross section of Egyptians remain committed to a peaceful political transition. Most share a common desire to curb the military government and move quickly toward civilian government. Tahrir Square remains a living symbol and place to mobilize opposition to the military in street protests.

The first anniversary’s massive protests became a way to recommit to realizing the goals of the revolution and reaffirm the importance of national unity. At the same time, the stunning victory of Islamists raises questions about whether they will demonstrate a willingness to pursue and build a democratic, pluralistic political system and effectively address pressing economic issues.

While the platform of the FJP and its initial attempts to signal an inclusive political approach by supporting non-Muslim Brotherhood members for senior government positions, there is greater concern about the Salafists who are new players in Egyptian politics.

In Egypt as in Tunisia, a widespread concern and question is whether the U.S. and EU really accepted the winds of change. Ironically, many Egyptians were asking the same question that many in the West asked about Islamists, “Do they double speak?”

Egyptians like Tunisians remain concerned if not convinced about possible U.S. and European interference in their political affairs. According to the Gallup World Poll, about two-thirds of Egyptians think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.

To build trust and strengthen our relationship with newly empowered Arab societies, the U.S. and EU must continue to stand for democratic principles - not political parties or individuals.

The primary focus of American attention and concern should not be religion or Islamists per se but rather political, social, and economic change where Muslims live.

As we watch the emergence of new governments and the continued struggles for regime change or democratic reforms, we must move beyond a now discredited narrative and support new emerging Arab governments. We must also stand back and not intervene in the political process as they exercise the very freedoms our country was founded upon.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of John Esposito.

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Topics: Egypt • Politics

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. AJAX

    The US should support the rights of the people and democracy. Military crackdowns will only strengthen the more radical voices and isolate the moderates. The military needs to stand down.

    February 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  2. Hahahahahahaha

    You lost me at Islamist and lead. Hahahahahahahaha

    February 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • lool

      You were trying to be funny?

      February 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  3. George Patton

    The Islamists can lead only as long as the right-wing thugs in say they can if they don't refuse to take orders from Washington. Remember what happened in Chile back in 1973 when that leader didn't take orders from Washington D.C.???

    February 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • Rabat

      You meant taking orders from Isreal !!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Egypt's political system resembles a huge construction site. A squatted, decrepit building has been torn down. The owner has hired fledgling workers to build a new house. They all have to agree how it should look like and be constructed. The squatters are lurking round the corner and don't want to go away.

    February 4, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      This period of transition from decades of autocratic rule to self-determination is a tortuous path for Egypt's Islamists, winners of the elections. They have to adopt an trial and error approach to reach stability in their country.

      February 4, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply

    Russia and china interests , embassies and economic departments will be under attack in the middleast and any where in the world
    as they defend the killers in Syria and iran those evil must be dealt with on grass root level and must be hit hard before we hit bashar al asad of Syria, the resistant are working hard now to find the targets inside Russia and Russian targets inside middleast .,..wait and see ... bashar al asad killed 9345 almost 10,000 people already as his father before him who killed 30,000 in one week, those killers must be hanged, Saddam was hanged because he order to kill 40 spies, so al asad must be hanged 40 time over and over again

    February 4, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply

    أكد وزير الخارجية التونسي رفيق عبد السلام اليوم السبت أن حكومة بلاده اتخذت قرارا بطرد السفير السوري في تونس، فيما أعلن الرئيس التونسي أن بلاده سحبت اعترافها بشرعية حكم الأسد، وذلك في وقت دعا فيه رئيس البرلمان العربي سالم الدقباسي الدول العربية لطرد السفراء السوريين المعتمدين لديها.

    وقال عبد السلام في مقابلة مع الجزيرة، إن قرار الحكومة التونسية جاء احتجاجا على المجازر التي جرت وتجري اليوم في حمص وفي غيرها من المدن السورية، وأوضح أن وزارته ستقوم بتنفيذ القرار في القريب العاجل وستستدعي سفيرها في دمشق.

    وتوقع الوزير أن تحذو معظم الدول العربية حذو بلاده في هذه الخطوة، وخص بالذكر مصر والمغرب ودول الخليج، وقال "نحن ننسق مع شركائنا في الدول العربية".

    February 5, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply


    fuc najaf and karbala and all the shiie3a and all the wahabies and all muslims iraninas are thugs killers terrorists , dont allow muslims to come here to usa and canda speciallay iranians , we must attack iran , QUM, KARBALA AND NAJAF NOW , ATTACK HIZBOALLAH ALL THOSE ARE TERRORISTS ALLIED WITH EVIL IRAN AND BASHAR AL KALB, QUM GRADUATE KILLERS AND MOT3A PEOPLE, KUS OMAHATKUM KELAB KHAWANA SHIIE3A ESHROOG MANAWEEK,

    February 6, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  8. iran is evil along with syria

    Retired businessman Christopher Tappin had said he was leaving the UK feeling he had fewer rights than a terrorist.

    Mr Tappin, 65, from London, is being flown from Heathrow Airport to El Paso, Texas, escorted by US marshals.

    British judges say the extradition is lawful and the European Court of Human Rights has refused to intervene.

    Mr Tappin, of Orpington, south-east London, has fought against extradition through the British courts after being charged in the US with conspiring to export batteries which could be used in Hawk air defence missiles.

    He faces a trial in El Paso and a possible 35-year jail sentence – but says that he is the victim of entrapment.

    Mr Tappin's lawyer, Karen Todner, said it was "very likely" her client would now enter into a plea agreement to reduce a sentence.

    Lawyer Karen Todner: "He will be wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs"
    "If Mr Tappin does not enter into a plea agreement and is found guilty he will have to serve the whole sentence in America, which may actually effectively be the rest of his life, rather than serving a sentence in the UK, therefore I think it's very very likely that he will enter into a plea agreement," she said.

    Last week the European Court of Human Rights refused to intervene in his case. Mr Tappin, a former president of the Kent Golf Society, was ordered to present himself to Heathrow Airport to be taken to the US for trial.

    He was seen departing from his house around 08:00 GMT and arrived at Heathrow police station accompanied by his wife Elaine.

    Shortly after 10.30am, Mr Tappin's lawyer said British extradition officers had taken Mr Tappin to a plane where he was being handed over to US marshals. The flight was due to land in Texas around 16:00 local time (23:00 GMT).

    "He will be arriving in El Paso this afternoon. He will be appearing in court on Monday morning, so he will be in custody over the weekend." The earliest he could be granted bail would be Thursday or Friday, Ms Todner said.

    She urged Home Secretary Theresa May to help Mr Tappin intervene with the US authorities to ensure they did not object to bail being granted.

    Ms Todner later wrote on Twitter: "Mr Tappin has left for America. Was v distressing when he said goodbye. The extradition treaty is inhumane."

    Arriving at the airport, Mr Tappin told reporters it was "a shame, a disgrace" that he was being extradited.

    Continue reading the main story

    February 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  9. Gusti 'ajo' Ramli


    February 25, 2012 at 6:36 am | Reply

    دبي-الشرقية 28 فبراير: كشفت لجنة النزاهة في محافظة ذي قار عن قيام اشخاص مرتبطين بمتنفذين في الحكومتين المحلية والمركزية بسرقة وثائقَ مهمة تتضمن فسادا اداريا وماليا بمليارات الدنانير العراقية.واكد متحدث باسم لجنة لنزاهة في ذي قار اَن هناك من يقوم بتسريب كُتب اللجنة الى الأشخاص المعنيين بالكِتاب ليساعدَهم في ترتيب أوضاعهم قبل ان تُباغتَهم اللجانُ المختصة.وأوضح المتحدث ان اللجنة طالبت مجلسَ محافظة ذي قار باتخاذ قرار ينص على معاقبة المسؤولين عن التسريب وتشكيل ِلجنة لتقصي الحقائق.

    March 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply

    Here's my take on the Iranian Nuclear

    Q: FIRSTLY, are we willing to trust Iran with Nuclear weapons?
    A: No way! Else risk having a volatile ME brimming with nukes in tha hands of unstable Islamic radical regimes!
    and they will send the nuc to syrian thugs and killers and we saw what the shiia killers can do as they kill there own people

    Q: Can we let diplomacy go on right until the point Iran gets nukes?
    A: No way, we need to stop them right at their tracks! we must attack iran and syria now and keep israel and middleast safe and keep the world safe from the evil shiia and iranian thugs

    Q: Is a war in the ME now more disastrous than after Iran has developed nukes?
    A: Clearly NOT!

    Q: Will a war with Iran now cause major upheaval, increase terror against Americans all over the world incl. terror right here in America from homegrown Islamic radicals?
    A: No . But it may just be necessary to prevent potential major catastrophe or even a WW3 later on. iran is a paper tiger they do have more than 45 opposition groups we can use them to attack iran from the inside among them the arabestan province , the sunni in iran, the kurdish in iran, the lures and turks, the assyrians, the stuudents and women movments, the bahaii and persians egtc.....we must help the iraqi sunni to destroy the iran interests behind the lione.

    Q: Is war the only answer to stop them?
    A:yes! as diplomacy will never work with iran and syria or any shiia , they are an evil liers, they call lies taqeya, there god called ali and hussain!!!
    dont allow iranians to come to usa canada or any where for any reason that include the iraqi shiia and syrian shiia thuygs.

    Q: Is it time to strike Iran?
    A:yes 100% as the arab spring rising and the sunni arabs will help to attack the shiia interests, saudi arabia and gulf states will pump more oil 3 time more to offset iran oil problem so no worry about oil flow and price.

    Q:What do we mean by Iranian compliance?
    A: STOP enrichment beyond 3.5% and surrender in a verifiable manner all stocks of enriched Uranium above 3.5%


    Until we do all these the world can never be safe from ISLAMIC NUCLEAR BLACKMAIL !!!!!

    March 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  12. iran is a terrorists state

    يشار أن لأذربيجان -الجمهورية السوفيتية السابقة الواقعة على الحدود مع إيران- علاقات ودية مع الولايات المتحدة وإسرائيل وقد تزايد التوتر بينها وبين إيران في الأشهر الأخيرة.

    وفي الشهر الماضي اتهمت طهران باكو بمساعدة المخابرات الإسرائيلية في عملية اغتيال العالم النووي الإيراني مصطفى أحمدي روشان الذي قتل في انفجار قنبلة ثبتت في سيارته.

    كما تدهورت العلاقات بين البلدين في يناير/كانون الثاني بعد أن اعتقلت أذربيجان رجلين للاشتباه في قيامهما بالتخطيط لمهاجمة أجانب، بمن في ذلك السفير الإسرائيلي في باكو وأحد الحاخامات، وقالت السلطات الأذرية إن المشتبه بهما كانا يتلقيان المساعدة من رجل إيراني على صلة بأجهزة المخابرات الإيرانية.

    وتقول السلطات الأذرية أيضا إنها أحبطت خطة لعملاء إيرانيين وحزب الله اللبناني لتفجير سيارة ملغومة قرب السفارة الإسرائيلية بأذربيجان قبل أربع سنوات، ومؤامرة كانت تستهدف السفارتين الأميركية والبريطانية في العام 2007.

    كما تنظر طهران حسب مراقبين بارتياب متزايد لجارتها بسبب علاقاتها التجارية المتنامية مع إسرائيل، التي كان آخرها توقيعهما اتفاقا بمليارات الدولارات الشهر الماضي لتزويد باكو بمعدات دفاع صاروخي، في حين تستورد منها تل أبيب أكثر من ربع احتياجاتها النفطية.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  13. don smith

    it would seem until those in ther arab world allow christians to worship then there is no hope. Look at Afghanistan islam will put to death any christian who has converted from islam. In the end this will be the seed for the demise of islam.

    March 27, 2012 at 11:29 am | Reply
  14. transporte internacional

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    August 29, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply

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