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Egypt’s Islamists: A Growing Divide

The divide between Egypt’s two most powerful Islamist groups appears to be deepening five months after the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s oldest Islamist organization, now faces a growing challenge from the younger and ultra-conservative Salafi movement...

The divide between Egypt’s two most powerful Islamist groups appears to be deepening five months after the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s oldest Islamist organization, now faces a growing challenge from the younger and ultra-conservative Salafi movement.

After President Hosni Mubarak resigned in January 2011, the Brotherhood and the Salafis initially took common positions on several issues. Political or doctrinal differences were put aside in favor of working towards common goals as a plethora of parties scrambled to define a new order. By mid-2011, however, signs of growing tension began to be visible.

The Salafis assumed new importance in the summer as they mobilized supporters in the new parties, a dramatic reversal after a longstanding policy of staying out of politics and government. The Nour Party became the largest of three Salafi parties. All three initially joined the Democratic Alliance, a coalition led by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But the alliance quickly crumbled.

In the fall of 2011, the Salafi parties split from the Alliance to form their own Islamist Bloc coalition to contest the parliamentary elections. "We hate being followers. They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision... There might be a consensus but ... we will remain independent," Nour Party leader Emad Eddine Abdel Ghaffour told Reuters.

Despite political inexperience, the Islamist Bloc won roughly 27 percent of the vote in the multi-phased elections that concluded in January 2012. The Nour Party won 111 of the 508 parliamentary seats, making it the second largest party in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament. In contrast, the Brotherhood’s party—formed more than 80 years ago—won just over 40 percent.

The split then deepened, as both the Brotherhood and the Salafi parties declared that they had no interest in creating an Islamist alliance in Egypt’s parliament. Both parties are now vying to lead the broad range of Islamist sentiment in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

With the largest party in parliament, the Brotherhood may be the most vulnerable. It has not translated its new legislative power into tangible action to ameliorate harsh day-to-day realities of Egyptian life—which have grown far worse since the uprising began in January 2011. Its ability to affect real change has been complicated by the fact that real power remained in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri.

Recent media coverage has also portrayed the Brotherhood as dishonest and self-serving, particularly following the-last minute decision to field a presidential candidate after promising for more than a year not to contest the position.

Although they are political newcomers, the Salafi movement has been jockeying to increase its share of influence on Egyptian conservative society. The Nour Party has taken some pragmatic decisions, such as pledging to honor all of Egypt’s international treaties, including the Camp David accords with Israel—at least for now. And they gamed the presidential race, backing Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh—a former Brotherhood leader expelled after he decided to run for the presidency. It was a politically savvy move because the Brotherhood ran its own candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who trailed Aboul Fotouh in virtually every poll.

The tensions were reflected on May 6, when the Brotherhood’s official newspaper ran a full-page attack on Nour’s endorsement of Aboul Fotouh. It claimed the Nour endorsement was a direct attack on the Brotherhood candidate. Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan accused Nour of jeopardizing Islam’s future role in the Egyptian government for political reasons and supporting a candidate the Salafis had previously disavowed.

“It is beyond doubt that you want an Islamist candidate,” Ghozlan wrote, addressing Nour Party leaders. “But you have chosen a candidate who says unequivocally that he is not an Islamist candidate [and] calls himself a conservative or a liberal. It is a confusing position that one cannot understand.”

The growing divide also plays out on sensitive social and economic issues, including what the new government should do about tourism standards, often irreverently referred to as “booze and bikini” debates. Prominent Salafis have repeatedly said they oppose the use of alcohol and exposure of women’s bodies, even by foreigners at tourist destinations. The Nour Party platform advocates increasing cultural tourism, at the expense of more profitable resort tourism. In contrast, the Brotherhood members have distinguished between Egyptians and foreigners traveling in the country.

But the rivalry between Egypt’s two largest Islamist groups may be most important on the future role of Islam in the new political order, notably implementation of Sharia law. The Brotherhood favors government according to the principles of Shari’ a law. Most Salafis, however, advocate governance according to the judgments of Sharia. “We want democracy, but one constrained by God’s laws. Ruling without God’s laws is infidelity,” explained Yasser Burhami, a leading figure in the Salafi Dawa.

The distinction could mean the difference between a form of rule based generally but not strictly on religious ideals and governance based on strict, literal interpretations of Islamic laws and centuries-old judgments.

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