Egypt’s Islamists Tread Lightly, but Skeptics Squirm

Shariah law would provide the principles on which the country’s legal system would be based, he acknowledged repeatedly. When he was sworn in last month, the Arab world’s biggest country gained an unabashed Islamist as its leader for the first time, arousing alarm here and abroad.
Since then, however, the new government has not publicly made a single Islamist move.
“For 80 years, hundreds of thousands of books and articles were published about what would happen in case a Brotherhood president made it to power in Egypt,” wrote Ahmed Samir, a columnist in the daily Egyptian newspaper El Masry El Youm. “It was said that veils would be required, banks would be closed, a war would be declared, and bathing suits would be banned. Today we discovered what happens when a Brotherhood president holds power. Simply nothing.”
Such a definitive pronouncement could be premature. The Brotherhood has often taken the long view, preferring incremental change to sweeping gestures. And Mr. Morsi’s power has been severely circumscribed by the military, which still holds most of the cards; a rash move by Mr. Morsi could provide a pretext for the military to crack down further on the fledgling government.
On the surface, however, Mr. Morsi seems to have gone out of his way to allay fears that Islamists would radically change Egyptian society. He promptly fulfilled a campaign promise to resign from the Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, and chose a prime minister, Hesham Kandil, who is a religious Muslim but known as a technocrat rather than a hard-liner.
Mr. Morsi met early with the acting Coptic pope, Anba Bakhomious, though during the election campaign he had said he did not believe a Christian or a woman could ever be president of Egypt. He went out of his way to praise the role of the military as guarantors of Egypt’s new democracy, and word was that the choice of a defense minister in the new government would be left to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Significantly, he has refrained from taking any action on hot-button social or foreign policy issues, or even discussing them.
The sale and consumption of alcohol remain legal, a concern of the important tourist industry, which has been on the rocks since last year’s revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak from power. No one in ruling circles is calling for the government to make wearing head scarves obligatory, ban pop music or review the peace treaty with Israel.
Not that it could. The new Parliament, where Islamists hold a majority, has been dissolved by the courts and has been able to meet only once since then.
Mr. Morsi’s public positions so far are a far cry from the Brotherhood’s reputation and even its history as a conservative, Pan-Islamic party, founded in Egypt but long banned from Egyptian political life. The Palestinian extremist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, for instance, and in the past Mr. Morsi called for opening the border between Egypt and Gaza to relieve the pressure on Hamas of an Israeli blockade.
Yet when the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal visited Egypt this month, Mr. Morsi took care to receive the mainstream Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, first — and never raised the issue of opening the border, at least publicly. The Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniya, visited Cairo last week and similarly left empty-handed, although he professed confidence that Egypt’s Islamists would come through for Hamas eventually.
“The Brotherhood is not in any position to make any bold moves on foreign policy right away,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Hamas, he said, “is bound to be disappointed.”
Despite such efforts, Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies have had little luck placating secular and other opponents. The Brotherhood remains reviled and feared by secular activists and many Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population and remember when Brotherhood ideologists talked about assessing the jizya, a tithe on Christians in Islamic-ruled states that goes back to the conquests of Christians by early Muslims.
Many secular and Christian Egyptians, even some who participated in the revolution, have come to see the military as a guarantor against Islamist excess, a role the military has claimed for itself. Just two weeks ago, the leader of the ruling military council, which has controlled Egypt since Mr. Mubarak was ousted, vowed that the army would not let Egypt “fall” to “a certain group,” a not-so-veiled reference to the Brotherhood.
“Since Morsi won, the Muslim Brotherhood adopted more of a conciliatory tone and made an effort to reach out to non-Islamists,” Mr. Hamid said. “The question is if it has worked, and I would say it hasn’t. It’s deep-seated. Neither side trusts the other.”
Hisham Kassem, a publisher and political commentator in Egypt, said people had quickly lost trust in the Brotherhood, which reneged on a promise not to run a candidate for president this year. They concluded it was willing to say anything to secure power. “They basically feel any lying is done for the love of God, so it gives them license,” Mr. Kassem said. NYT