Founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 at a time when Egyptians were trying to shake off Britain's colonial yoke, the Muslim Brotherhood became ideologically radicalised under Abdel Nasser. Under the leadership of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Brotherhood sought to establish an Islamic state, which for him was the only way to re-impose Islam's true values on Egyptian society. But Nasser would have none of it and he ruthlessly repressed this radical current.
It reappeared in 1979 when political Islam emerged. That year several events at the international level favoured Islamist radicalisation: the Iranian revolution, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Red Army, and Egypt's move to the Western camp as a result of the Camp David Accords.
For Abû 'Alâ Mawdûdî (1903-1979), an Indo-Pakistani who became one of the movement's main ideologues, Islam constituted a third way between capitalism and socialism. For Islamists anti-system violence, even against an Islamic polity, was justified as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) had argued when he said that violence against those in power was legitimate if the latter's action ran counter to the interests of the Muslim community.
In Egypt Islamic Jihad, a radical Islamist group, carried out the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Trained in Afghanistan in a context in which Islamism was becoming internationalised, Jihadists carried out many attacks against Egyptian police (Asyut) and tourists (Luxor, Cairo). At this time Ayman al-Zawâhîrî, al-Qaeda's future number 2, was a member of the group. Like him some of its cadres came from the wealthy classes, some even highly educated.
As a result of government repression, a more moderate wing eventually emerged in opposition to the radical elements. But both remained equally committed to their views. On university campuses al-jamā'aħ al-'islāmiyyaħ took the relay from militant Islamist student groups, partly favoured by Sadat who was more concerned with countering Marxist groups.
According to moderate Islamists, Egyptian society is not ripe for an Islamic state and must be transformed from the bottom up, by preparing the masses. Their bastion is Asyut and Middle Egypt, but they are also strong in the poorest neighbourhoods of Egyptian cities. Their strategy is to infiltrate neighbourhoods through organised cells, headed by local emirs. Imbaba, a poor Cairo neighbourhood, is a typical example of this kind of "small Islamic republic', with an organisational structure that exists alongside that of the state. Recruitment here appeals to the urban poor, favoured by mass poverty and urban sprawl, as well as private donations and Saudi money.
In the 1990s thousands died as a result of Islamist violence. The Luxor attack in 1997 was the last major attack of this early wave before the more recent spate (Taba in 2004, Sharm el Shaykh and Dahab in 2008), which all seem to bear the hallmark of al-Qaeda. However, the movement's influence has declined as a result of harsh repression by the state, which has granted security forces unlimited powers under a state of emergency regularly renewed since 1981.
Starting in 1999-2000 Egyptian society has experienced another form of Islamisation, which researcher Patrick Haenni has dubbed "market Islam", a trend shaped by broader phenomena like globalisation and the generalisation of certain attitudes and behaviour by modern mass media. Today high-fashion hijabs can go hand in hand with tight jeans as women more and more get together to study the Qur'an. Weblogs and Islamic websites have also become the "in" thing.
One of the Egyptian trend-setters who best embodies this shift is Amr Khaled, a popular and fashionably dressed TV Qur'anic preacher, whose cassettes and CDs are all the rage among middle class cadres stuck in traffic. Even CNN has presented him as Islam's new face, an "Islam that enriches Muslims' inner life whilst helping them develop." For him Islam does not need an uprising to impose itself on society. It is much better to change people's outlook, their life and that of their family, help them achieve their potential.
As soft as this version of Islamism may be, with things for example like Mecca-cola in Morocco, it is not as harmless as one might think, at least according to Basma Kodmani, a researcher at the Ford Foundation. Indeed in her opinion, in order to retain its stranglehold over the country's economy and politics Egypt's establishment has somehow abdicated its role in the cultural field and surrendered collective symbols to an Islamic establishment represented by institutions like Al-Azhar University and the Waqf Ministry. This in turn is fuelling the process of Islamisation of social life as the flow of requests for fatwas to a website like islamonline shows. A moralising and bigoted form of Islam, more concerned about what is or isn't halal or haram, is emerging, incapable of reshaping society to meet the demands and answer the concerns of ordinary Egyptians.
One thing is clear; the ideology of political Islam that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s is now dead. In its place a broad religiosity has spread; its proponents interested in bringing certain values to a society that has become disoriented by social and cultural changes. However, this religiosity is not able to help Egypt face its main challenges, which are social justice, education and jobs for its mass of young people.
As we can see, in order to understand the evolution of Islamism in Egypt we must take a closer look at the various currents that are running through that country. An attack here or there or the generalisation of the hijab among Egyptian women are signs that we must learn to decipher.