Ahead of historic election, tension builds between Brotherhood and Salafis

On the eve of Egypt’s anticipated presidential poll, tension is mounting between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, after the latter have declined to back the Brotherhood’s presidential nominee and opposed its calls to bring down the Cabinet.

After months of appearing to have an unbreakable political pact, the feud between the nation’s two largest political groups has gone public. Sunday’s full-page column by a Brotherhood spokesperson published in the group’s official daily stands as the latest episode in the terse exchanges. 

In his piece, Mahmoud Ghozlan reprimanded the Salafi Dawah and its political arm, the Nour Party, for questioning the credentials of Brotherhood nominee Mohamed Morsy in the media. 

The piece ruthlessly criticized Salafi preachers, accusing them of contradicting themselves by endorsing moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh for president. Ghozlan cited previous statements made by the same ultra-orthodox preachers questioning Abouel Fotouh’s faith due to his full support for democracy. Abouel Fotouh, who used to lead the moderate camp within the Brotherhood, was sacked from the organization last summer for breaking its previous ban to not field a candidate for president.

Invoking the Prophet’s sayings and Quranic verses, Ghozlan blamed Salafis for throwing their support behind a candidate who does not stand as the most likely to benefit Islam.

“It is beyond doubt that you want an Islamist candidate, but you have chosen a candidate who says unequivocally that he is not an Islamist candidate but calls himself a conservative or a liberal,” wrote Ghozlan in reference to Abouel Fotouh.

Why Abouel Fotouh? 

Nader Bakkar, a member of the Nour Party's High Board, objected to Ghozlan’s comments.

“We are not selecting a caliph. Then, you cannot accuse me of going back on what we said in the past,” Bakkar told Egypt Independent, referring to previous Salafi statements questioning Abouel Fotouh’s commitment to Islamic law.

While acknowledging ideological differences between his party and Abouel Fotouh, Bakkar said Salafis made their decision because they realized that the 60-year-old doctor was the only nominee capable of defeating ideological polarization between secularists and Islamists, and hence achieving “stability.”

“This man is the most suitable candidate who can make Egyptians rally around his ideas,” said Bakkar, in reference to Abouel Fotouh. 

“We understand that political polarization is very high and this does not help the country. We realized that by backing Morsy, things will get more complicated,” he said, explaining that Morsy’s role in the Muslim Brotherhood would exacerbate the animosity between liberals and Islamists if he is elected.

“Dr. Morsy cannot make Egyptians rally around him easily," concluded Bakkar. 

However, he said, the Nour Party’s position would not have necessarily been the same had Khairat al-Shater been the Brothers’ official candidate. 

Some Nour Party leaders had reportedly approached the Brothers to convince them to field Shater in March. However, such a move could not be understood without considering Nour’s attempts to find a candidate capable of defeating Salafi lawyer-turned-preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. 

In the lead-up to the presidential nomination period, Abu Ismail had attracted many Salafis for his unequivocal stance on implementing Sharia and his revolutionary, anti-military discourse. His popularity worried Salafi preachers, who disagreed with Abu Ismail’s confrontational tone and consistently avoided tension with Egypt’s political establishment.

Yet the preachers could not dissuade their rank-and-file from backing Abu Ismail unless they were presented with an equally conservative and charismatic candidate. Shater was seen as lifeline for the Dawah and Nour Party, given his Salafi affinities and less incendiary tone on the military. However, following the disqualification of both Shater and Abu Ismail, the equation changed significantly.

“Shater is an exceptional case. He has been known to the people. There is a huge difference between him and Morsy. Plus, many people have been sympathizing with him because he was jailed before the revolution,” said Bakkar. 

An alignment of convenience

The relationship between the Nour Party and the Brothers has witnessed several ebbs and flows since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Although both groups come from similar ideological convictions, their interests sometimes clash. Such clashes challenged the assumption that Islamists always act as a monolithic bloc.

The first clash dates back to the fall, when Nour refused to pursue an electoral pact with the Muslim Brotherhood in ahead of parliamentary elections. Back then, Nour leaders complained that the Brothers wanted to acquire the lion’s share of lists in any electoral alliance. Nour, along with other smaller Salafi parties, withdrew and formed their own electoral bloc. 

After Parliament was sworn-in, both factions united to stand up to secularists in the debate over the Constituent Assembly. Together the two blocs, which hold more than 60percent of parliamentary seats, monopolized the selection of the assembly’s members. Shortly after it was formed, a court disbanded the assembly, saying it was unconstitutional.

“They agreed over the Constituent Assembly because the idea of drafting an Islamic constitution brought them together,” said Kamal Habib, an expert on Islamist groups and former leader of the now-disbanded Egyptian Islamic Jihad. 

“Their agreement over some matters is the exception, but the rule is that Salafis perceive themselves as completely independent from the Brothers,” added Habib.  

However, the Salafi-Brotherhood honeymoon did not last for long. Tension erupted last week after the Abouel Fotouh endorsement.

“It should not be said that I instill divisions within the Islamist bloc every time I take a different position than you over political matters,” said Bakkar, in reference to the Brotherhood. 

Salafis also refused to join the Brothers in their fight against the military-appointed Cabinet under Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri. For over two months, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party accused the Cabinet of being inefficient and pressured the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to sack the body. The Nour Party opposed the FJP demand to dismiss the Cabinet and was content to recommend a minor reshuffle. 

Competitors, not allies 

By abandoning the Brothers and aligning themselves with the military over the Cabinet issue, Salafis have aroused some suspicions that they have been employed by the SCAF to counter the Brothers.

“I am afraid that the SCAF may be working on deepening the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. This is what Mubarak did,” said Habib.

Under Mubarak’s rule, Salafis were used to counter the Brotherhood, which was the largest opposition bloc.Salafi satellite channels were given leeway to broadcast sermons accusing the Brotherhood of compromising religious values to achieve political gains.  Furthermore, some skeptics say Nour’s decision not to endorse Morsy is part of a Salafi-military pact.

However, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, spokesperson for the Salafi Dawah, denied these allegations in a press conference last week.

“I am not convinced that the SCAF had pressured them to back Abouel Fotouh,” said Ashraf al-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo who is an expert on Salafis. “It is a genuine decision. The Salafis fear the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood.” 

In the meantime, Salafis look to benefit from the decreasing popularity of the Brothers, who have been recently portrayed in the media as troublemakers driven by their own vested, rather than national, interests.

Salafis have proven to be “more rational and pragmatic” and keen about national interests, added Sherif. With such a distinction, Salafis are hoping to make more electoral gains in the future, argued Sherif.

“Salafis are betting that the Brothers are losing popularity and hope to attract people whom the group will lose,” said Sherif

For years, Salafis and the Brotherhood have fought over similar conservative constituencies in Egyptian society. Since the 25 January revolution, fighting over followers has turned into battles over votes.

But another round of Salafi-Muslim Brotherhood rapprochement may be on the horizon.

Sherif expects Salafis to align themselves once again with the Brothers over questions related to the role of religion in politics while the constitution is being written. But Salafis would distance themselves from any battle over the distribution of political power or the role of the military, because such feuds would entail a standoff with the generals, added Sherif. 

“The Brothers are clashing because they want the Cabinet or a share of executive power,” he said. “But Salafis do not want power now, they want it in the long run after their religious message is well-propagated in society.”

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