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EGYPT: Historically Apolitical, Sufis Now Side With the State

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 21 2010 (IPS) - Although Egypt’s many Sufi orders have traditionally been known for keeping a safe distance from politics, recent events suggest they are now closer than ever to the ruling regime.

“The Sufi orders have practically become part of the state apparatus,” Abdel Menaam Mounib, head of the Islamic affairs department at independent daily Al-Dustour, told IPS. “Sufis can now be found in all branches of the regime, including the judiciary, the police and the military.”

In late 2008, the death of Ahmed Kamel Yasin, grand sheikh of Egypt’s Sufi orders, ignited a succession dispute between Abdel Hadi Ahmed al-Qasabi, head of the Al-Qasabiya order, and Mohamed Alaa al-Din abu Azaim, head of the Azaimiya order. The grand sheikh is the nominal head of Egypt’s 70-plus Sufi orders.

With the Supreme Council of Egyptian Sufi Orders – by which the grand sheikh has traditionally been elected – locked in disagreement, the dispute languished in court for a year and a half without resolution.

On Apr. 9, President Hosni Mubarak decisively settled the issue by appointing al-Qasabi – a member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) – to the post. Al-Qasabi’s father had served as grand sheikh during the 1970s, making the appointment the first time for the position to pass from father to son.

On the same day, the heads of 20 different Sufi orders urged the president to reconsider the decision. In a letter to the president, they challenged the legitimacy of the Al-Qasabiya order, noting that it was not included on the list of accepted Egyptian Sufi orders issued by president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early 1960s.

The plea, however, fell on deaf ears, and al-Qasabi maintained the post.

According to experts, Mubarak’s choice of al-Qasabi – who is also a member of the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament – was based primarily on the latter’s known loyalty to the regime.

“Al-Qasbi was known to be more loyal to the regime than Abu Azaim,” Diaa Rashwan, deputy director of the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS. “Not that either claimant opposed the government. On the contrary, both are well known for their loyalty.”

“Mubarak also moved to settle the issue because Egypt is entering a period of significant political change, with parliamentary and presidential elections just around the corner,” added Rashwan. “The regime didn’t want to enter this period with the Sufi orders in a state of disarray.”

Mounib agreed that both claimants to the post were “entirely loyal” to the ruling party.

“The dispute between them is similar to that between the old and new guards of the NDP: at the end of the day, both belong to the same party,” he said. “Al-Qasabi just happened to be the more loyal of the two.”

“Abu Azaim was also passed over because he had said good things in the past about Shiite Islam and Iran,” Mounib added.

The Egyptian government has an adversarial relationship with Iran, frequently accusing the Shiite republic – with which it has no diplomatic relations – of attempting to expand its regional influence at the expense of Sunni Muslim states.

While there are known to be roughly 75 different Sufi orders in Egypt, the exact number of Sufi adherents remains subject to debate.

“The Sufis themselves say they have 15 million members countrywide, but this is an exaggeration,” said Mounib. “They are probably closer to three or four million.”

Sufism has historically been described as the “mystic” branch of Islam, which, in Egypt at least, is manifested in a spiritual – as opposed to political – approach to religion.

“Sufism, which first appeared in Iraq in the 9th century, is a means of becoming closer to God by way of asceticism and certain religious rituals,” Gamal Shaqra, head of the history department at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, told IPS. “Although the movement was initially associated with Shiite Islam, it quickly spread throughout the Middle East and soon become associated with Sunni Islam as well.”

“Sufism is marked by rituals based on religious and philosophical thought,” Rashwan explained. “In Egypt, Sufism has tended to be apolitical; a form of ‘social Islam’ as opposed to the ‘political Islam’ associated with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Although formally banned by the state, the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s largest opposition movement – seeks to change the existing political order through political participation.

“People tend to become Sufis for spiritual reasons, not to confront the state,” said Mounib, who himself spent 15 years in prison for being a member of Egypt’s Gemaa Islamiya, which sought to overthrow the ruling regime through violent means during the early 1990s.

“Their numbers have grown because members know they won’t be subject to government surveillance or possible arrest,” he added, “unlike Islamic groups with political goals, such as the Gemaa Islamiya or the brotherhood.”

According to Shaqra, its politically passive nature has made Egyptian Sufism come to be seen by certain “decision-making institutions” in Washington as the “ideal version” of Islam.

“After 9/11, these institutions concluded that Sufism represented the most peaceful and tolerant version of Islam,” he said. “They have even called for promoting Sufism throughout the Islamic world in order to offset what they see as more ‘radical’ Islamist groups.”

But the Sufi orders’ historic aversion to politics, say experts, is largely unique to Egypt.

“In other countries, Sufis have actively opposed the temporal authorities,” said Mounib. “In the late 19th century, the Mahdiya Order in Sudan fought the British; in the early 20th century, Libya’s Senussiya Order fought the Italians.”

“Sufis continue to play political roles in other countries of the region,” Shaqra pointed out, noting that former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan was a prominent member of the Naqshbandiya Sufi order.

Throughout history, however, Egyptian Sufis have not always been so passive vis-à-vis the state. In the Middle Ages, for example, “Sufis in Egypt frequently led opposition against the king or sultan,” said Shaqra.

According to Mounib, attempts to rein in the Sufi orders began with Muhammad Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt in the first half of the 19th century.

“Since then, all of Egypt’s rulers have tried – with increasing success – to co-opt the Sufis,” he said. “And since Nasser’s time, the orders have become extremely close to the ruling party.”

Notably, Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand sheikh of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar religious establishment – appointed by Mubarak in mid-March – is also a Sufi and ruling party loyalist.

Despite their current closeness to the government, last month saw a rare confrontation between Sufis and security forces.

In the last days of April, the interior ministry officially banned late-night Sufi gatherings for the performance of Zikr – a distinctly Sufi ritual devoted to the remembrance of God – at two major Cairo mosques. According to officials from the religious endowments (awqaf) ministry, the decision was aimed at “preserving the sanctity” of the mosques and pre-empting the “boisterous behaviour” associated with zikr gatherings.

The move triggered limited clashes between Sufis and police outside the precincts of the two mosques. No one from either side was seriously injured in the melee.

“Given their relatively large numbers, the state has no choice but to take the Sufis into account on a security level,” said Rashwan. “It’s only natural that the government would be concerned about any large assemblies of people, even if it’s just a zikr meeting.”

“Egypt is a dictatorial regime,” said Mounib. “Therefore, anything with even a remote relation to politics or public mobilisation must be kept under the direct control of the state security apparatus.”

On May 20, independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Religious Endowments Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq had overturned the decision to ban zikr meetings. Nevertheless, he reportedly sent a formal letter to al-Qasabi laying down strict guidelines for the late-night gatherings.

Early this month, at a conference in Cairo devoted to “Sufism and Politics,” the head of the Al-Sharnoubiya Sufi order suggested the establishment of a Sufi political party. The heads of 14 other orders, however, rejected the proposal, refusing to break with the Sufi’s ostensible disdain for political participation.

In any case, said Mounib, the regime would never acquiesce to the formation of a Sufi political party.

“The Sufis have an enormous membership base, and the state only allows the establishment of parties that don’t enjoy any popular support,” he explained. “The government is keen to ensure that the orders don’t begin thinking along oppositional lines.”

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