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Egyptian army must stop shrine vandals-religious affairs ministry

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(A resident looks at damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine at a mosque in Qalyoub, north of Cairo April 3, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Egypt’s religious affairs ministry has called on security forces to strike with “a hand of steel” to stop the vandalism of Sufi shrines targeted in attacks blamed on ultra-orthodox Muslims. An increase in attacks on shrines in Egypt is fuelling concern about the role that Islamists will play after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, who suppressed Islamist groups that he saw as a threat to his rule.

Scores of shrines have disappeared or were burnt down on the outskirts of Cairo weeks after Mubarak was toppled from power. The attacks have awoken old tensions between Sufis, followers of a mystical Islamic tradition to whom shrines are an important part of religious practice, and ultra-conservative Salafists, who see them as idolatrous.

“It (the vandalism) violates the spirit of the Islamic sharia and whoever does this is corrupting the land and seeking to incite chaos and strife in the nation and to shake national security and its stability,” reported official state news agency MENA, citing a ministry statement on Wednesday. According to Egypt’s penal code, people who violate the sanctity of graves or destroy property considered holy could be jailed for up to five years and fined.

Established Salafist groups in Egypt have denied any link to the attacks. Witnesses have attributed them to Salafist youths apparently acting independently. Some accuse the media of exploiting a handful of cases to scare-monger — playing on fears of Islamists suppressed by Mubarak to strengthen the case of conservatives seeking a return to the authoritarian ways of his regime.

Hardline Islamist campaign against Egyptian Sufi shrines focus fears

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(Residents inspect damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine at a mosque in Qalyoub, north of Cairo April 3, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Wielding crowbars and sledgehammers, two dozen Islamists arrived at the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine in the middle of the night aiming to smash it to pieces. Word spread quickly through the narrow, dirt roads of the poor Egyptian town of Qalyoub. Within minutes, the group were surrounded and attacked by residents who rallied to defend the site revered by their families for generations.

“They say the shrine is haram (something forbidden in Islam), but what they are doing is haram,” said Hussein Ahmed, 58, describing the shrine attackers as Sunni fanatics, at least two of whom witnesses said were then badly beaten.

In the new Egypt, Gama’a Islamiya steps out of shadows

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(Tahrir Square in Cairo February 18, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has allowed an Islamist group that took up arms against his administration to step out of the shadows for the first time in years. The Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) this week held its first public meetings in 15 years, said Assem Abdel-Maged, a leading member of the group who has spent half his life in prison for a role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

That would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago when Mubarak was still in power. Mubarak spent years suppressing Islamists he saw as a threat to his rule and survived an assassination attempt by militant Islamists in 1995.

Abdel-Maged, who once shared a cell with Al Qaeda no. 2 Ayman al-Zawahari, says the Gama’a wants a new start in relations with the state. The group remains committed to non-violence and a truce it declared in 1997, he said.

Tide turns in favour of Egypt’s Brotherhood in revolt

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(Essam El-Erian, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, at a news conference in Cairo February 6, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

The first time Essam el-Erian went to jail, he was 27. Last Sunday, he left prison for the eighth time at the age of 57. The medical doctor’s crime for each incarceration was belonging to the Muslim Botherhood, Egypt’s most influential and best-organised Islamist opposition movement and long feared by President Hosni Mubarak, Israel and the United States.

Egypt’s courts have repeatedly rebuffed the Brotherhood’s requests for recognition as a party on the grounds that the constitution bans parties based on religion.

Muslim-Christian unity at Tahrir Square

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(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Muslim-Christian unity was one of the themes on Tahrir Square, focus of the Cairo protests against President Hosni Mubarak, on Sunday. Members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority said mass in the square and many of the placards combined the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross. “Hand in hand” was a common chant.

From “Protesters in Cairo square settle in for long stay

For more on Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt, see:

Copts say Egypt regime change trumps Islamist fears (Feb 1)

Egypt’s Islamists well placed for any post-Mubarak phase (Feb 1)

Egypt sentences Muslim to death for Coptic shooting (Jan 16)

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Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them

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(Hamas supporters hold up copies of the Koran at a protest in Gaza City December 26, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Part of the problem trying to figure out what Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda party would do if they got into any future power structure in their countries is knowing what kind of Islamists they are. The label “Islamist” pops up frequently these days, in comments and warnings and (yes) news reports, but the term is so broad that it even covers groups that oppose each other. Just as the Muslim world is not a bloc, the Islamist world is not a bloc.

I sketched out a rough spectrum of Islamists in an analysis today entitled  Concern about Islamists masks wide differences. This topic is vast and our story length limits keep the analysis down to the bare bones. But the overall point should be clear that any analysis of what these specific parties might do that ignores their diversity starts off on the wrong foot and risks ending up with the wrong conclusions.

Can Arabs learn from Turkish model of Islam and democracy?

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(Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, December 2, 2008/Umit Bektas)

If President Hosni Mubarak bows to the clamor of the street and goes, Egyptians and other Arabs seeking to turn a page on autocratic government may look at Turkey for some clues on marrying Islam and democracy.

Relatively stable, with a vibrant economy and ruled by a conservative and pragmatic government led by former Islamists, Turkey has often been cited as a model Muslim democracy and a linchpin of Western influence in the region.

Copts say Egypt regime change trumps Islamist fears

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(Egyptians rally at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo February 1, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

For Rafik, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, the myth that President Hosni Mubarak is the community’s best defense against Islamist militants was shattered by an Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Day. He and other Copts continued to demonstrate alongside at least 1 million Egyptians on Tuesday, saying their desire to end Mubarak’s three-decade rule was for now more pressing than any fears that a change of power might empower Islamist groups.

“After (the Alexandria) bombing the Copts for the first time started to demonstrate against Mubarak. He was telling us that ‘When I’m in power, you’re safe.’ Well, obviously, when he’s in power, we’re not safe,” the 33-year-old dentist said as he stood amid thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Egypt’s Islamists well placed for any post-Mubarak phase

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(Anti-Mubarak protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 1, 2011/Suhaib Salem)

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the Arab world’s oldest Islamist movements and Egypt’s largest opposition group, is well placed to play a prominent role as President Hosni Mubarak’s rule teeters on the brink of collapse.

The movement is active in the protest movement massing in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities on Tuesday in an attempt to persuade Mubarak that after 30 years it is time to go.

But decades of severe repression have taught the Brotherhood to move cautiously, and the movement is anxious to preserve the impression that the protesters are part of a broad-based movement of which the Islamists are just one part.

Major Muslim TV preacher Amr Khaled heads for Cairo

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One of the world’s most influential Muslim television preachers said on Friday that he was traveling back to his native Egypt, which is in turmoil amid mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak.

Amr Khaled, whose TV shows promoting Islam are widely viewed throughout the Middle East, told Reuters he was leaving the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland to head for Cairo. He would not say whether he would join the protests.

“My message to all Egyptians now is that our country is precious and the future needs a government that listens and respects young people,” he said in a telephone interview.