The sheikh president

Even if he cannot run for the presidency, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail represents a new and deep-running trend in Egyptian social and political life – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Khalil El-Anani, 25 April – 1 May 2012.

The Egyptian revolution overturned the political soil in the country and one of the fruits is that dozens, if not thousands, have ventured into the fields of politics. However, the overall harvest of the revolution is still poor, whether because of divisions and divergences created by the conflict over power, or as a consequence of the personalisation of politics in Egypt. 

One of the personalities that the revolution cast into the public sphere is the lawyer (or “sheikh” to his supporters) Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who has become a political luminary par excellence, especially since his bid for the presidency.

When he first entered the political game, Abu Ismail looked like yet another greenhorn riding the revolutionary wave, so no one took him seriously. Few had imagined that this man would become a local political celebrity and a headline maker in both the domestic and international press. But there he is. Within a matter of months he became a major contender in the presidential campaigns, throwing off the calculations of all political players. Before the revolution, the most Abu Ismail could have aspired to was a seat in the People’s Assembly – the Muslim Brotherhood had nominated him for the 2005 parliamentary elections. Today he has his sights set on the highest office in the country.

It all began during one of the “million-man” marches after Hosni Mubarak stepped down. He stepped onto one of the platforms erected for speakers in Tahrir Square and, assuming the character of a budding revolutionary leader, he delivered a fiery speech that succeeded in capturing the minds and hearts of crowds of revolutionary youth with Islamist inclinations. The ambiguity of the Muslim Brotherhood discourse helped him, as did the liberals’ lack of appeal.

Many find the man good-looking, and his unmistakeable charisma does much to compensate for his overly populist rhetoric. His “legitimacy” was certainly not based on a record of struggle against the Mubarak regime, unlike Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh or the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi. It was built on the scaffolding of diatribe against military rule by which means he constructed for himself a revolutionary persona that thrives on the mistakes of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and on the weakness and wavering of other politicians. This is what has extended his appeal beyond Islamist circles and enabled his popularity to spread.

During a quick visit to Cairo, I discovered that Abu Ismail has become more than just a man thirsting for power. He has become a religious and social phenomenon that should be studied and deconstructed in order to better understand the transformations Egyptian society is undergoing in the post-revolutionary phase … //

… Abu Ismail, himself, epitomises the spread of post-formal Islamism. He is not a member of a specific Islamic movement, organisation or faction, although ideologically he tends towards the Salafist school but with a Muslim Brotherhood flavour. His following extends beyond adherents of the Islamist movement in its traditional form. On the whole, it rejects religious partisanship in its political sense and is more inclined to the personalisation of religion. At the same time, however, it is looking for an alternative “trend,” one located in the border areas of the conventional Islamist movements and that plays on their overlapping zones. Thus, you find among its ranks “Salafist-styled” Muslim Brothers and Salafis with Muslim Brotherhood leanings. One might also be surprised to learn that Abu Ismail’s following has extended beyond the poor and middle class to youths from the upper middle class and even some from the upper classes. Also, if secondary school and university students formed the chief component of his support base (during his presidential campaign), he also drew considerable support among university graduates, as well as among people in their 40s and 50s.

During my last visit to Cairo, I met several members of the Abu Ismail camp. Some had never engaged in politics before. Others see the future through the eyes of their “sheikh”. All are determined to see their project through to the end, even if the dream of his presidency is lost. To them, the question has less to do with the presidency than with the religious/political project championed by Abu Ismail, which means, at least to his disciples, that this project will survive, even if Abu Ismail is not awarded the title “sheikh president”. (full text).

(The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University).

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