The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in Egypt are flexing their growing political muscle. They control the legislative agenda in parliament, and in recent weeks introduced controversial proposals to curb social freedoms and legal rights.
Islamist lawmakers also handpicked a 100-member panel that began meeting this week to write a new constitution, which is widely expected to enshrine Islamic law.
Even so, Islamist leaders say they want Egypt to remain a secular state. But many secular Egyptians are not convinced.
Salwa Gerges is one of many Egyptians at an outdoor clothing market in Cairo nervous about the Islamist politicians’ plans.
The 46-year-old Coptic Christian housewife says she has a hard time believing the politicians embrace secularism and diversity. She points to one Islamist lawmaker who recently proposed adopting punishments prescribed by religious law, such as cutting off limbs.
Fellow shopper Mona El Shazly is also annoyed with what she sees as the mixed messages coming from the Islamists.
The nursery school owner and conservative Muslim complains that Islamists have done nothing to fix Egypt’s deteriorating economy and security. Instead, she says, the Islamists come up with misguided proposals like stripping foreign-language instruction from Egyptian primary schools.
Islamist lawmaker Mohammed El Kordy introduced that measure last month. In a televised session, he argued that teaching foreign languages leads to Egyptian children embracing the West.
A Headache For Moderates
Creating a more conservative Islamic identity for Egypt is also at the root of other legislation introduced in parliament during its first 60 days. The measures include getting rid of a law allowing women to initiate divorce and banning access to Facebook and porn sites.
None of these proposals has been approved so far. But such ideas have proved a headache for leaders within the main Islamist parties who want to portray a more moderate image of their movements.
Amr Darrag is one such leader.
“I can assure you, these are not the priorities that we are going to have in terms of legislation or issues to be raised,” he says.
Darrag heads the Giza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds just under half the seats in parliament.
“We don’t want to get into anything that will incur any disputes regarding ideological issues or things like that,” he says. “We are looking for things that unite the Egyptian people.”
Emad Abdel Ghaffour agrees that consensus is key. He heads the ultraconservative Al-Nour Party, which holds the second-most seats in parliament. It was a Nour Party lawmaker who introduced the suggested foreign-language ban.
Abdel Ghaffour says the party rebuked that lawmaker for speaking out of turn, though he adds the lawmaker meant well.
Controversy Over Constitutional Panel
But many secular Egyptians believe the Islamist agenda is neither inclusive nor benevolent.
“The only thing they say to placate public opinion is that ‘we understand, we are not going to do this suddenly, we will take it step by step,’ and beneath this placating language, in my mind, is a huge condescending attitude toward Egyptian society,” says Khaled Fahmy, who heads the history department at the American University in Cairo.
He and others say the condescension is evident in the ongoing battle over the panel created by Islamist lawmakers in recent days to draft Egypt’s new constitution.
Some two-thirds of the panel members are Islamist or allied to them. Only a handful of women and Christians were selected to take part.
More than a dozen secular panelists, including economist Ahmed Elnaggar, have since quit in protest.
“If they take the decision to make a religious regime, they have the majority to make it in this committee,” Elnaggar says.
Ghaffour denies that’s their goal.
He says the main change he and other Islamists are seeking is to balance control of Egypt between the parliament and future presidents.