Islamism less linked to calls of change

By Michael Slackman

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Jan. 22 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

CAIRO — Egypt's most powerful and proscribed opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has decided that it will not participate in an antigovernment demonstration this week for a curious reason: The protest conflicts with a national holiday honoring the police.

"We should all be celebrating together," said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of the group, offering an explanation that seemed more in line with government thinking than that of an outlawed Islamist organization, whose members are often jailed.

That type of calculation, intended to avoid a direct confrontation with the state, is helping build momentum, many here say, for a political evolution — in Egypt and around the region — where calls for change are less and less linked to a particular ideology like Islamism. Instead, analysts and activists say the forces that brought people to the streets in Tunisia and excited passions across the Middle East are far more fundamental and unifying: concrete demands to end government corruption, institute the rule of law and ease economic suffering.

This is a relatively nascent development in a society like Egypt, which has been depoliticized over the past three decades of President Hosni Mubarak's one party, authoritarian rule, experts said. But the shift seems to be striking fear in the country's leadership, which has successfully pacified opposition by oppressing those it cannot co-opt, but which remains anxious about the prospect of a popular revolt, political analysts and activists said.

"Ideology now has taken a back seat until we can get rid of this nightmare confronting everyone," said Megahed Melligi, 43, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who said he quit the group three years ago out of frustration. "This nightmare is the ruling party and the current regime. This is everyone's nightmare."

In 1979, the Iranian revolution introduced the Muslim world to the force of political Islam, which frightened entrenched leaders, as well as the West. That ideology still has a powerful hold on people's imaginations across the region, which continues to feed fighters to jihadist movements. But like Arabism and socialism before it, the political Islam of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and the radicalized ideology of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden have failed to deliver in practical ways for the people across the Middle East who live in bastions of autocratic rule.

That failure — and now the unexpected success of Tunisians in bringing down their government — appears to be at the heart of a political recalculation among some about how best to effect change in the Arab world. The Tunisians were joined together by anger at oppression and corruption rather than any overarching philosophy.

Even before the Tunisian revolution, Egyptian activists from the both sides of the political spectrum had been increasingly pointing not to Iran's revolution as a model, but to Turkey's method of governance, where an Islamic party runs a modern, democratic and accountable state.

One of the groups planning to demonstrate on Police Day, which calls itself the April 6th Youth Movement, emphasizes its absence of ideology in its description on its website: "Nothing brings us together except our love for this country and the desire to reform it."

Abdel-Halim Qandil, a leader in another protest movement, which calls itself Kifaya, or Enough, said: "People in the West are talking about the religious 'threat.' They don't understand what kind of hell we are in right now. The country is congested and people are unable to confront the regime."

While Tunisia is a far more secularized society than other Arab states, its citizens' demands are the same as those being heard in many nations in the region, even those rich in oil wealth like Kuwait. There are many places thick with disillusionment over the failure of formal political parties and organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm in Jordan and the traditional opposition parties in Egypt, which have failed to deliver change.

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