In Egypt, skepticism over religion in politics

Friday - 6/28/2013, 4:06am EDT

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- In a tiny mosque in southern Egypt, the cleric railed in his sermon against opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, comparing them to "the Devil, who rebelled against God and was kicked out of heaven." Among the Muslim worshippers, a 42-year-old civil servant had enough.

Recounting the incident, Nasser Ahmed said he stood up and chanted, "Down with the rule of the Guide," referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative political powerhouse from which Morsi hails. Other worshippers in the el-Lawa Mosque joined the chanting. Some became so angry they rushed the cleric and tried to beat him up, Ahmed told The Associated Press.

The outburst during the Friday sermon earlier this month in the Luxor province village of Bouairat hasn't been the only case of the faithful lashing out at preachers who stray into politics. It was part of growing signs that, after a year of Morsi's presidency and two years of growing Islamist political power in general, religiosity is not the political selling point it once was among Egyptians.

Increasingly, Egyptians denounce "wrapping politics in the cloak of religion," even in rural areas seen as the heartland of the conservative, "piety" voter. Along with anger over Egypt's economic woes and discontent with Morsi's managing of the country, the disillusionment is a factor fueling support for massive protests to demand Morsi's removal, planned for Sunday.

Egyptians are hardly becoming less religious. But more are losing their belief that someone who touts his religiosity is necessarily a trustworthy, clean and effective politician. Even one ultraconservative party, al-Nour, is shifting its stance in response to the new cynicism.

Though not universal, the shift has been fast. In the series of elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, it was a common refrain from voters that Islamists' piety means they will not be corrupt and will work for the good of the people. That helped boost the Muslim Brotherhood and the more ultraconservative movement known as Salafis to win every vote.

Over years under Mubarak, the conservative Muslims' beard and "zabiba" -- a mark on the forehead from prostration in prayer -- came to be seen as signs of a good man. Mubarak oppressed some Islamist groups, giving them the allure of being victims of a corrupt system. Non-political Islamists, who were spared in crackdowns, set up networks helping the poor and filling the vacuum amid Mubarak's neglect of social services.

Now those disillusioned with politicizing religion point to what they call Morsi's failures -- fuel shortages, rising prices, continual instability. But they also say they have been turned off by seeing clerics taking political sides on TV, in mosques and at political rallies. Others are alienated by rhetoric on Salafi TV channels they see as dividing Egyptians into good or bad Muslims -- or branding opponents as "kuffar," or infidels.

They point to lslamists in parliament and in executive posts, many in religious trappings like beards and robes, engaging in the same unseemliness all politicians do: Internal fights, violent rhetoric, planting loyalists in positions, and even the occasional sex scandal.

"The image has been greatly disturbed," said Mohammed Habib, who was once the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood but split and has become a sharp critic. "The people will not make the same choices as before." He said the group's leadership has hurt itself by being "narrow-minded" and showing "lack of vision."

Kamal Habib, a researcher in Islamic movements, said that "politicizing religion has led people to doubt the channels they long trusted and even viewed as sacred."

A spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party argued that religiosity was not why people voted for Morsi. Rather it was because Morsi belonged to a group -- the Brotherhood -- that has a foot in every village and town and has always been close to the people, said Abdel-Mawgoud Dardery.

He blamed private media and Mubarak loyalists for misrepresenting Morsi. Media "tarnished the image of President Morsi, he said, while old regime elements "have been trying to sabotage the economic process of the country."

Indeed, religion was not the Brotherhood's only or even strongest selling point in legislative elections it dominated in late 2011-early 2012 or in Morsi's win. The group boasts Egypt's most powerful organizational network, with cadres to campaign for it nationwide, and a history of charities that helped the poor. That means it would likely still perform strongly in any election in the near-term.