In Egypt’s post-revolutionary political scene, Islamist forces have predominated. These groups can roughly be split into two main factions: the Muslim Brotherhood, with its Freedom and Justice Party; and the Salafi factions with the Nour Party at the helm. In the country’s recent parliamentary elections, Egypt’s Islamist parties ran under two main alliances or blocs, the Democratic Alliance (including the Freedom and Justice Party and eight others), and the Islamic Bloc (including the Nour Party and two other Salafi groups). Together, the two alliances won nearly 75% of Egypt’s parliamentary seats. With its long history of organizing before the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in winning about 45% of the votes was unsurprising.  By contrast, many reacted with disbelief and apprehension to the success of the Salafi Parties, which won over 25% of the vote.

To understand the significance of these results, one must appreciate the distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, and the reasons behind their respective victories.  The two factions differ in history, ideology, and political platforms.  The Muslim Brotherhood largely adheres to a more mainstream interpretation of Islam, and is, at its core, a pragmatic political group.  The Salafis are more orthodox, subscribing to a literal interpretation of the Quran, and aiming for permanent implementation of the Shariah.

However, for the first time, both factions are functioning as official political parties, a circumstance placing them in a position of scrutiny and exposure they have never before experienced.  With Egyptians eager to see the beneficial effects of fair elections, sessions of parliament aired on national television have attracted wide viewership.  Members of both factions have flooded talk shows and political programs on satellite television channels.  On one end of the spectrum, the Muslim Brotherhood’s pragmatism, their reticence to participate in street mobilization, and unwillingness to criticize the military junta is eerily suggestive of ambitions to occupy the position once held by the National Democratic Party, the ruling party during Mubarak’s dictatorship. On the other end, the Salafis’ disturbing penchant for trivial issues, like the heretic nature of Naguib Mahfouz’s literature and the necessity of banning bikinis in Egypt, suggests they have no real political or economic platform beyond their sanctimonious facade.  In the next five years, it will become clear whether these concerns are well-founded.  In the meantime, examining both groups’ history and decision-making since the revolution can provide a better picture of what to expect in the years to come.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Beginnings and Development

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a school teacher in Ismailia, Egypt.  The group gained popularity as an anti-British movement, and developed a following among the urban lower-middle class, which “had gained some modern education in Arabic as opposed to the elite who educated their children in French.” (51)[1].  The Brotherhood positioned itself as an anti-imperialist organization, rejecting drinking, gambling, and prostitution, which it claimed resulted from Western influences, and promoting a puritan interpretation of Islam.  Upon Britain’s de facto colonization of Egypt during World War II, the Brotherhood formed a secret apparatus that carried out acts of violence against British forces. In 1948, the Egyptian government banned the Muslim Brotherhood, which continued to face government oppression after Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power in 1952.  Tensions between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood remained high. Unlike Nasser and his socialist perspective on reform, the Muslim Brotherhood was deeply committed to the notion of private property, and opposed Nasser’s land reforms. While the group tried to gain influence during the 1952 Revolution that deposed Egypt’s ruler, King Farouk, Nasser acted quickly to limit and repress the group’s influence.  Tensions increased even further after a member of the Brotherhood tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954.  In the aftermath, the regime instituted a crack down against the Brotherhood, arresting thousands and sentencing some to death.

In the 1970s, the Egyptian government allowed the Brotherhood to function with more freedom, though it was not permitted to form an official political party.  When Sadat assumed power in 1970, he favored the relative growth of the Brotherhood, in order to quell Egypt’s leftist factions.  Since then, the Brotherhood has functioned as an extra-governmental force, and has maintained its popularity through grass-roots social welfare programs.  With the group still banned from running as a political party, in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Brotherhood members ran as independent candidates, winning nearly a quarter of the seats, more than any other ‘official’ opposition party.

Salafi History in Egypt

The term ‘salafi’ comes from the Arab word salaf which means ‘that which came before,’ and refers to the notion that Salafis follow the practices of Islam’s early founders.  Although they are not a uniform group, the Salafis generally subscribe to a more literal interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah, the teachings of the prophet.  The growth of Salafi groups in Egypt has ambiguous roots.  Some argue that the Salafis’ rise began in the 1970s, with the onset of Sadat’s open door policy.  During this period, millions of Egyptians immigrated to Saudi Arabia as laborers, where they were influenced by Salafi ideology, which they brought back to Egypt.  Others argue that the movement developed organically, resulting from widening class gaps and the threatening influx of western culture. Nevertheless, even if Egyptian Salafism was an import, domestic factors like poverty and neocolonialism sustained the ideology’s growth.

With the onset of satellite channels like El Nas, which debuted in 2006, Salafi ideology and culture was introduced to Egypt for the first time on a large scale.  The Salafis were, however, never overtly political before the Revolution.  This does not mean they lacked political ambitions. Rather, the Salafis believed that opposing the government would be inefficient and remained within the boundaries of preaching and religious instruction.  For the Salafis, preaching was an effective method of teaching ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ and inculcating people with the group’s specific ideology. Moreover, speaking against the government would have been acknowledging it, when, for Salafis, the government lacked legitimacy.  It is unsurprising, then, that the Salafis would rise to the political scene after the Revolution and the fall of the government.  This move was likely pragmatic and strategic, and not necessarily a ‘break’ in practice.  In short, with the shifting political winds, the Salafis used different means to advance their agenda.

Since the Revolution: the Constitutional Referendum

Since the Revolution, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have vied for power.  Neither faction supported the protests on January 25th, though they quickly joined ranks upon witnessing the growth of the movement.  Both groups supported the constitutional referendum in March 2011, which favored the holding of parliamentary elections before the drafting of the new constitution.  Because these groups were the most structurally organized and ideological, their support for the referendum reflected the advantages they had in the upcoming elections – the youth parties, by contrast, had neither the time, legitimacy, nor the funds to prepare for parliamentary elections.  In supporting the referendum, the Islamist groups attempted to hide their political opportunism by arguing that the new constitution should be opposed for excluding Article 2 of the old Constitution, which declared Egypt to be an Islamic state.

The division between Muslim and non-Muslim, perpetuated by the Mubarak regime, and more importantly, the idea that Islamic political parties gained their legitimacy from God helps explain the results of the referendum.  Among the most popular videos from the referendum vote is that of an older woman filmed at a voting booth.  When asked why she was voting ‘Yes’, she said she was “voting Yes for Islam.” This kind of attitude has, perhaps, been the most unsettling aspect of Egypt’s post-revolutionary Islamist surge. The referendum and its results – 76% in favor of the referendum and 24% against – foreshadowed the results of the parliamentary elections to come.

Over the past decades, there has been a tangible increase in visible displays of Islamism in Egypt.  With more people sinking into poverty, and others intimidated by the influx of Western culture through satellite channels and social media sites, religious groups’ appeal has risen considerably.  For a long time, the Muslim Brotherhood had been the only opposition force with some integrity.  It reached out to subjugated groups in Egypt in ways that the government had not, through social welfare programs, distributing food products, and offering scholarships. The Salifis also mobilized in areas like slums and reached out to the disenfranchised through their acts of charity and through promises of a better afterlife.  With regard to the parliamentary elections, a small business owner in Alexandria, a Salafi stronghold, reported that all of his employees voted for the Nour Party.  When he asked them why, they told him a party member came to speak to them and posed a simple question, “How will you stand before God on Judgment Day if you don’t vote for someone who will implement God’s law on Earth?”

While the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved a contented state of power and privilege since Mubarak was ousted, the Nour Party has been more publicly critical of the military council throughout the past year.  Although neither group has been supportive of most protests carried out since the ousting of Mubarak, when they have officially joined the protests, they have tried to impose their own specific agendas.  One of the few times the Muslim Brotherhood supported demonstrations against the military was on November 18, 2011 when both the Brotherhood and Nour party, along with the liberals, came out to Tahrir Square to protest the Selmy Document.  This document contained super-constitutional clauses that guaranteed the privileged status of the Egyptian military and prevented the upcoming government from interfering with the military’s budget.  While the protests initially saw Islamist factions coming out in large numbers, when violence broke out in Mohamed Mahmoud Street between protestors and the police only days later, these masses were nowhere to be found.  Similarly, when the infamous ‘blue bra’ woman was disrobed by the military and beaten in Tahrir, leading figures from both groups came out against the protestors and questioned the woman’s presence in Tahrir.  When I participated in the women’s march in Alexandria that followed this incident, chants were directed not only against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), but against the Islamist parties as well.

In many cases, youth from the Islamist parties have broken away and participated in protests opposing their party’s official position.  The Tayyar Party, a political party formed by youth from the Muslim Brotherhood, is one example of the younger generation’s disillusionment and disgruntlement with Islamist leaders.  The Tayyar Party ran for parliament as part of the ‘Revolution Continues’ coalition, a left-leaning electoral alliance consisting of five parties dedicated to pursuing the goals of the Revolution. The Nour Party’s stance on protests and public mobilization has largely been similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, except that the Nour Party, and particularly its leader, Hazem Abu Ismail, has been more vocal about criticizing the SCAF.  Generally, however, both parties believe that, at this juncture, pursuing the Revolution’s goals must come through work, stability, and the new political system.  During the latest protests on February 2 and 3,2012, which followed the massacre in Port Said, the rift between the Islamic parties and those on the street reached a peak.  Footage from Egyptian parliament showed representatives from the Freedom and Justice and Nour parties calling the protestors ‘thugs’ and shouting down liberal MP Mohamed Abu Hamed when he displayed empty cases of birdshot used against protestors by the police.

Conclusion

As the dust settles on Port Said and the country approaches presidential elections, Egypt seems to be approaching a lull in popular mobilization.  In the political arena, the tug-of-war between the Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood is substantial.  At the core of this, a critical question remains: can either party address the country’s political, social and economic concerns with integrity? On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood’s detachment from street mobilization and unwillingness to oppose the SCAF suggests that the group is able to turn a blind eye to real social concerns and military transgressions to secure its place in power.  On the other hand, while Salafi figures like Abu Ismail have been able to speak out against the SCAF, their political positions and their invocation of God and Shariah as their source of legitimacy is troubling. Will the Nour Party continue to offer cosmetic reforms that fail to address the real issues rocking the country?  Will the Muslim Brotherhood strike a symbiotic relationship with the SCAF in order to ensure their political power? For now one thing is sure: with the Freedom and Justice and Nour parties in power, these groups are now in a position of responsibility that requires them to respond to popular concerns and sentiments, or face political destruction.

 


[1] Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World. (Palgrave Macmillan:2009)