The ‘Islamist’ dilemma

‘Islamist’ is one of those words journalists hate to use but can’t live without.

‘Islamist’ is one of those words journalists hate to use but can’t live without.

Recently, there’s been discussion within media organisations about whether to keep using the term, with some arguing it’s come to describe such a wide variety of groups, views and individuals that it really doesn’t mean much anymore. I agree. In fact I think we should dump the word ‘liberal’ too.

But as a Cairo-based correspondent heading towards the presidential elections, I must admit it left me stumped.

One of the more unfortunate side effects of the Egyptian revolution has been the increasing polarisation of the country.

Today, in post-Mubarak Egypt, you are either an Islamist or not.

The term has been overused (not just in Egypt but in the wider Middle East and Africa) yet we can’t do without it because that is what everything seems to boil down to these days.

Whether we are talking about presidential candidates, political parties or the members of the assembly writing the new constitution.

The sad thing is not only that it inserts a relatively new, sectarian dimension into our political lingo that will slowly creep its way into societal lingo … but also that it deflects us from discussing what really matters – issues, agendas, stances.

Rabab El Mahdy, a professor at Cairo’s American University, in a recent article described the process of selecting members to write the constitution: “The majority party presented a list clarifying the percentage of ‘Islamists’ and ‘non-Islamists’ and mentioning the names of Christians as if this were a sectarian battle … And everyone forgets that conducting the battle this way will not bestow a better constitution upon us but rather will entrench a sectarian nation and military rule.”

Presidential race

By reducing everything and everyone to Islamist and non Islamist (or even Islamist versus non Islamist) you also very quickly lock in the Christian minority, who are already feeling vulnerable and paranoid by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi trends.

I’ve spoken to Copts who refuse to vote for presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (despite his liberal agenda and stand on minority rights) “because he is an Islamist”.

When I ask what exactly in his programme for reform makes it Islamist, I don’t get an answer – it doesn’t matter where he stands on issues, it’s the labels that count in this election.

The result is that this minority, as well as others, is being pushed towards backing the former Mubarak era intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

If Egyptians see this race as Islamist versus non Islamist, there is no better champion of the non Islamists than Suleiman, who cracked down heavily on the Brotherhood during his tenure and is very much the military ruler’s choice.

So, the man who during the revolution people would not accept as vice president, has now become a frontrunner for president a year later – not because he’s proved himself in any way (after urging people to go home during the revolution and saying Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy) but because he’s become the antithesis of the Islamist trend.

It’s a sad scenario which many Egyptians view as a slap in the face to the millions who took to the streets during the uprising.

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