Religion's mysterious role in Egypt

The situation in Egypt is moving very quickly. We've had many days of protests and the conditions are dramatically different now than even yesterday. Protesters, police and military are on the streets of cities throughout Egypt, despite a curfew and unbelievable crackdown on communications. News outlets are reporting that their staff are being beaten up, arrested, or thwarted in their attempts to get the news published and broadcast. There was a surreal moment when Al Jazeera was broadcasting while police were trying to shut them down. Reuters reports that more than 400 have been wounded, some with bullets.

I'm not sure Hosni Mubarak will even be in power by the time I finish writing this post but let's look at the religious angles of what appears to be happening in Egypt.

The picture above, which I found here, shows people being hosed down by police as they pray. The New York Times ran a piece addressing some of the religious angles here, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest organized opposition group in the country and a wildcard in how these protests will turn out. At this point, the protests involve a wide variety of people who simply want Mubarak out -- should he leave, there will be a power vacuum. The reporters note that demonstrators have protested against rising prices, stagnant incomes and police brutality. Religion has not played a major role:

That may be about to change.

With organizers calling for demonstrations after Friday prayer, the political movement will literally be taken to the doorsteps of the nation's mosques. And as the Egyptian government and security services brace for the expected wave of mass demonstrations, Islamic groups seem poised to emerge as wildcards in the growing political movement. ...

Heightening the tension, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest organized opposition group in the country, announced Thursday that it would take part in the protest. The support of the Brotherhood could well change the calculus on the streets, tipping the numbers in favor of the protesters and away from the police, lending new strength to the demonstrations and further imperiling President Hosni Mubarak's reign of nearly three decades.

"Tomorrow is going to be the day of the intifada," said a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood here in Egypt's second largest city, who declined to give his name because he said he would be arrested if he did. The spokesman said that the group was encouraging members of its youth organization -- roughly those 15 to 30 years old -- to take part in protests.

But Islam is hardly homogeneous, and many religious leaders here said Thursday that they would not support the protests, for reasons including scriptural prohibitions on defying rulers and a belief that democratic change would not benefit them. "We Salafists are not going to participate in any of the demonstrations tomorrow," said Sheik Yasir Burhami, a leading figure among the fundamentalist Salafists in Alexandria.

It's nice to have it explained why Sheik Burhami opposes the protests but it's also a bit confusing since the Muslim Brotherhood has also self-identified as Salafist and the term can be used broadly. And the other big thing I wish we knew more about is whether Copts have also joined the protests. AsiaNews has an interview with a Coptic Christian priest that conveys that Christians are joining with Muslims in the protests

Christians and Muslims are united in the demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Churches and mosques are places of congregation for demonstrators. However, people are not moved by religion but by the absence of social justice, by the corruption, the high cost of living, the lack of democracy. . . . These problems touch everyone, Christians and Muslims alike. ...

Right now, the demonstrations are not against Christians. Patriarch Shenouda has called for calm. But many Christians and non-Christians told him, that this is not the time for calm, because Christians are also affected by the crisis. In fact, for Christians the crisis is even worse because they suffer discrimination and have a hard time finding jobs. In case of promotions, they are passed over in favour younger Muslim employees. If a Christian opens a shop, fewer people buy from him.

The interview has much more interesting context about the role of religion in the protests that are rolling through the region. It's not just Egypt. There's Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria where we're seeing unrest.

At this point, media coverage will focus more on the fallout to these protests. It's a bit old but this Atlantic Monthly piece about who is waiting in the wings to succeed Mubarak is helpful. It suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are poised to make gains because of significant advances they've made in recent decades.

It's good to see that heavy hitters such as the New York Times are paying particular attention to the role of religion in these protests. Hopefully other outlets will continue in the same vein.

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