Egypt: Islamists vs. Islamists

By Mohamed Elmenshawy | Director of Languages and Regional Studies, Resident Scholar | Dec 13, 2011

*This Opinion first appeared in the Huffington Post on December 13, 2011

The first free and by all accounts fair elections in Egypt mark a major turning point in the country's long history. In what is likely to be a tenuous and trying transition to democracy, Egypt's Islamists won a resounding victory, gaining two-thirds of the vote in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections. While many in the West fear that the Islamist victory in this first election will radicalize Egypt, in reality, the situation is far more complex and nuanced.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who received about 36 percent of the vote, will soon confront the Salafis, who earned more than 20 percent of the vote and are introducing a more fundamentalist tone to the new arena of political Islam in Egypt. Once in parliament, these two groups will compete to control the Islamic agenda and there is an emerging fear that the Salafis will push the Brotherhood to adopt a more fundamentalist political agenda to allow them to match the religious appeal of these hard liners.

Thus far, the Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it will pursue a moderate form of governance. Allaying widespread suspicions that it would work to radicalize the Egyptian public, the Brotherhood has promised that, in a position of power, it will honor all pre-existing international treaties, especially with respect to Egypt's relationship with Israel (provided Israel does the same in return), and seek and strengthen ties with the West based on mutual interests. A known entity in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood, for the most part, is no longer a symbol of extremism.

In fact, the Brotherhood has moderated many of its views in recent months and years. The Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice" party championed the rights of free market economy and political and social diversity. Indeed, the group's most loyal supporters are not the fervent extremists they are made out to be in western media, but are well-educated and predominately middle-class Egyptians. In addition, the Brotherhood is highly selective, requiring prospective members -- who may be male OR female -- to be recommended by an active Brother or Sister, provide numerous references, and pass a probationary period before they can officially join the group. If anything, it is not the Muslim Brotherhood that threatens to radicalize Egypt, but rather the Salafis movement that is likely to push the Brotherhood towards a more conservative stance.

Comprised of several individual parties, the Salafis bloc is an unknown socio-religious entity that aims to implement a pure vision of Islam in daily life based upon Saudi Wahhabist teachings. The rise of conservative and fundamentalist Islam in Egypt over the past 40 years is well known and documented: a popular anecdote among many Egyptians that evidences this trend is to compare the style of dress worn by their mothers (almost always western and uncovered) to that of their wives and sisters (Islamic in style and entirely covered by the veil or hijab). The growth of the Salafis movement in Egypt can be traced to Saudi Arabia and the Oil Boom of the 1970s, as Saudi-backed proponents of Wahhabism poured into the country and millions of impoverished Egyptians found work in the rapidly developing Kingdom, returning with full pocketbooks and new fundamentalist religious outlook. Long fearful and submissive to the Mubarak regime, the Salafis movement hung in the shadows and resisted calls to become more politically involved under his reign. After his fall, the Salafis surprised many with their swift and bold demonstration of political power and prowess. Whereas the Brotherhood is a familiar entity that has moderated its stance as its power has grown more widespread, the Salafis are an unknown force, deeply committed to implementing the tenets of Islam in every facet of Egyptian life.

Though fragmented among individual Sheiks who lead groups of anywhere between a hundred to several thousand followers and across three main political parties -- Hezb an-Noor, or Party of Light, Hezb al-Fadeelya¸ or Party of Virtue, and Hezb al-Asl, or Authentic Party -- the Salafis bloc is united demographically and politically. Whereas the Brotherhood draws its support from educated middle-class Egyptians, Salafis supporters are overwhelmingly poor, and under- uneducated, and accustomed to following orders as members of the more traditional and patriarchal segments of Egyptian society. While the Brotherhood is extremely selective, the Salafis bloc is far more accessible and anyone is welcome to join and participate. Suggesting the potential for a future power struggle with a comparatively more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis have underscored their commitment to fundamental Islam at each and every turn and pledged to outlaw anything and everything considered Haram, or forbidden, by their interpretation of Islam.

During the electoral campaign, both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis parties used the same slogan to incite voter enthusiasm and garner electoral support: "Islam is the Solution." Although their plans, policies, support-bases, and philosophies of governance vary greatly from each other, both Islamic blocs competed intensely in the first round of elections. While some anticipate a potential union of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, a collision is more likely as the two groups battle to exert political control and chart a new course for Egypt. The Islamists' strong showing in the Egyptian elections introduces new, important considerations for the political equation inside Egypt and its relations with the international community.

First, the Salafis' strong performance means that Westerners, once fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood, will now see it as an alternative to what they feel is the radical and unknown political entity represented by the Salafis bloc. Second, regarding Egypt's relations with the United States, many conservative American congressmen appear stuck between a rock and a hard place: the House and Senate, which once pledged to cut all funding to Egypt (the second largest benefactor of US military aid) should the Muslim Brotherhood take power, are now confronted with an even more conservative and fundamentalist political reality embodied by the Salafis.

What is clear in the aftermath of the first phase of the election is that the United States has no choice but to preserve its strong relations with the new, democratically-elected leaders of Egypt regardless of the overwhelming presence of Islamists in the Parliament. Cultivating strong relations with an Egypt governed by Islamists does not require a large cognitive leap; the United States already maintains extremely close ties to the Arab World's most conservative and fundamentalist society, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a region of great geostrategic significance in the world, where the political equation has been forever changed by a year of chaos, unrest, and revolution, the United States' largest Arab ally is now more important than ever. For a variety of reasons steeped in the twin concepts of soft and hard power, the United States cannot afford to lose a now democratic Egypt as its most important regional ally, let alone one guided by an increasingly moderate and pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood.

It is critical for the West to recognize that its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood could very well fuel the group's shift towards fundamentalism. The recent elections have proved that the traditional dichotomy between liberals and Islamists will no longer suffice to explain the political landscape of the post-revolutionary Arab world. Amongst Islamist parties, fundamentalist creeds are competing with more moderate views for the support of the Egyptian public. Like the man waiting in line with me to vote just week ago, the belief that it is the Islamists' turn to manage the country is accepted by a great majority of the country. The West's rejection of relative moderates such as the Muslim Brotherhood will serve to encourage a shift towards fundamentalism, rather than pressure them to grow more moderate.