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The Middle East Channel

The advent of “informal” Islamists

The gray-bearded sheikh has appealed to his presidential candidate counterparts to join him at a press conference to be held in his regular mosque. While his contenders eluded, the sheikh stood amid hundreds of his followers and supporters to protest and chant against the referral of a group of civilians to the military court. Hazem ...


The gray-bearded sheikh has appealed to his presidential candidate counterparts to join him at a press conference to be held in his regular mosque. While his contenders eluded, the sheikh stood amid hundreds of his followers and supporters to protest and chant against the referral of a group of civilians to the military court. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the 51-year-old veteran Islamist, has compellingly captivated his followers by his presidential and charismatic merits, at least rhetorically. Clearly, Abu Ismail’s mosque-show was a shrewd attempt to kick off his presidential campaign. However, it also reflects how the new "informal" Islamists perceive politics. For them, all politics is retail.

The fragmentation of the Islamist scene in Egypt is a hallmark characteristic of the post-Hosni Mubarak era. After stagnation and dominance by one force, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Islamist scene has been drastically reshaped. More than 15 Islamists parties have officially or unofficially emerged after the revolution. Myriad Islamists have overwhelmed the public sphere freely and painlessly. And a parliament dominated by Islamists is in commission. It seems the lure of politics has immersed Islamists.

However, while many are preoccupied by the "rise" of the Muslim Brothers and the ultra-conservative Salafis, "informal" Islamists are stepping into politics vigorously and freely. They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas "formal" Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, "informal" Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework. They vividly operate in the new and expansive religious market that has flourished in Egypt since the revolution.

The umbrella of "informal" Islamists is wide-ranging. It encompasses the full spectrum of religious actors. Starting from the classical Salafi sheikhs, including the popular preachers Mohamed Hassan, Mohamed Hussien Yakub, and Abu Ishaq al-Howini, to the dissents of the MB, such as the well-known Islamist and presidential candidate Abdel Moniem Abuolfotouh, to independent Islamists, such as the Qatari-based sheikh Yussif al-Qaradawi and the lawyer and Islamic intellectual Mohamed Selim al-Awa, "informal" Islamists are dominating the new public sphere in Egypt after the revolution. All are outspoken, charismatic, and influential preachers. Hence their followers and supporters are inestimable.

There are three significant distinctions between "formal" and "informal" Islamists. First, while "formal" Islamists rely heavily on their organizational structures for outreach, "informal" Islamists capitalize on social networks (kinship, friendships, families, etc.) as well as establishing themselves in the virtual sphere (internet, Facebook, the media, etc.) to broaden their audience. Hence they are free from organizational burdens and responsibilities.

Second, whereas the former are pervasive in the low and low-middle classes, the latter are a crosscutting phenomenon. They have followers from different social strata; urban and rural, poor and rich, schools and universities, etc. For them, street vendors are important as well as university professors.

Third, while "formal" Islamists espouse the conventional approach of "bottom-up" efforts to accomplish their agenda, "informal" Islamists reversed the course and seek to penetrate the state. They do not aim to Islamize individuals or reshape society but rather to empower them in the face of power-holders. More importantly, they target the members of "formal" Islamist organizations. Hence, they embody a real concern for "formal" Islamists such as the case of Abuolfotouh with the MB and Abu Ismail with the Salafi al-Nour Party.

However, the most interesting part in the story is yet to come. The next Egyptian president could potentially be an "informal" Islamist. At this point, three such heavyweights are running for the office. Abuolfotouh, Abu Ismail, and al-Awa have launched their campaigns to secure the endorsement of the required 30 members of parliament or 30,000 people in at least 15 of Egypt’s 18 provinces in order to run.

The first is an iconic Islamist leader with a remarkable political presence. His genuine and distinctive discourse has made him one of the most influential Islamists in Egypt over the past three decades. He combines an ideological mosaic of Islamic, liberal, and leftist views that resonate with various spectators. Since he broke with the MB last May, he became more powerful and influential among young Egyptians particularly Islamists who view  him as the "Erdogan" of Egypt, as one recently told me. Moreover, for many liberals and leftists, Abuolfotouh became the "revolution candidate" after the withdrawal of Mohamed ElBaradei from the presidential race.

As for Abu Ismail, he embodies a very significant case of "informal" Islamism. On one hand, he is not officially a member of any Islamist movement. He plays on the divide lines between the MB and Salafists. Thus, he employs his preceding "unofficial" links with the MB to get their grassroots support. At the same time, he utilizes his Salafi appearance and discourse to attract Salafist constituencies. On the other hand, Abu Ismail leapt into politics after the revolution through his antagonistic, yet useless, rhetoric against the military. Moreover, Abu Ismail invests greatly in the Salafi media to reach his supporters. His simplistic and populist discourse resonates with many Egyptians who view religion as vehicle for change.

Nevertheless, al-Awa is the most visible brand of "informal" Islamist. Over the past two decades, he established himself as an intellectual Islamist. He is one of the architects of "wasatiyya," or the centrism school of thought. Hence his discourse reverberates with the middle and upper-middle classes. Until recently he was a highly respected figure among Islamists before he discredited himself by siding with the junta at some occasions. In addition to his oratorical skills, he has an extraordinary political intuition and he can play all cards at the same time. Despite his informal links with "formal" Islamists (e.g. the MB and al-Wasat Party), he is keen to portray himself as an "Islamic" thinker. The appeal of al-Awa originates not only from his appearance as an "elegant" upper-middle class gentleman but also from his intellectual credentials. His outstanding writings on Islam and Muslim issues exemplify a vital source for all Islamists. However, his political stance and tactics are precarious and counterproductive. While appealing to the public, he is bargaining with the military which has put his credibility at stake.

Paradoxically, the relationship among "informal" Islamists is loose and vague. Although they are profoundly rivals, they tend to act as buddies and partners. Each of them is intensely campaigning to get the presidential ticket. Even "informal" Islamists who are not running for the presidency are contesting to get authority over the public sphere. All together they usher a new era in Islamist politics that can be labeled "post-Institutional" Islamism.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. He can be reached at

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