Egypt's ultraconservative Islamist party has reached out to rival secular and liberal political factions in an unusual, behind-the-scenes attempt to unify their ranks and counter the Muslim Brotherhood's power in the country's new parliament.
An alliance between the salafists and nonreligious parties would be very difficult to reach and even harder to maintain, given the large differences in their ideologies. But the talks highlight the growing worries that the Brotherhood, fresh off its election victory, is starting to throw its weight around to dominate Egypt's politics and sideline others.
The talks, which took place over the past week, also show the strange bedfellows that can be brought together with Egypt's politics deeply in flux ahead of the convening later this month of the first parliament since the Feb. 11 fall of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
As a consequence, parliament may not be controlled by a unified Islamist front, but a divided one making choices on political considerations not purely religious ones. The Brotherhood and the salafists are both Islamist movements, but there have been frequent frictions between them during the election campaign.
The Salafi talks with liberals are startling because the movement is considerably more conservative than the Brotherhood and more aggressive in its vilification of secularism. salafists call for a strict, literalist implementation of Islamic Shariah law in Egypt and practice a Saudi-style segregation of the sexes. During the election campaign, some Salafi sheikhs railed against secular parties, telling Egyptians that voting for them would be un-Islamic.
With Egypt's multistage parliament elections almost finished, the Brotherhood is on track to win just under 50 percent of the legislature's seats. The alliance led by the main Salafi party, Al-Nour, holds about 20 percent, while multiple liberal, leftist, secular parties along with independents and remnants of Mubarak's regime make up most of the rest.
Talks between the Al-Nour Party and the two main liberal groups, the Free Egyptians and the Wafd Party, came in response to fears the Brotherhood is moving to monopolize key legislative positions including the parliament president, deputies and heads of its 19 committees, said Essam Sultan, a leading member of the Al-Wasat Party, which hosted the talks.
Parliament is also supposed to also create a 100-member panel to write Egypt's new constitution. In an interview with the Al-Ahram daily, senior Brotherhood official Ahmed Abu Baraka laid out what he called the group's vision for the panel's makeup — raising alarm that the Brotherhood was seeking to run the process. The group's leadership quickly distanced itself, saying Abu Baraka was expressing his personal viewpoint.
Such unilateral moves by the Brotherhood, ahead of the scheduled convening of parliament on Jan. 23, put other parties "under heavy pressure," said Sultan. "The minute I proposed these meetings, everybody agreed to come."
The head of the Salafi Al-Nour, Emad Abdel-Ghafour, confirmed the meetings but declined to comment on the possibility of striking alliances. "We look for wide national reconciliation because its not possible anymore to isolate any political faction or to run parliament through 50+1 majority," he said.
During the talks, Al-Nour leaders sat at the table with unveiled female members of the Wafd Party, Sultan noted. He also said they engaged in "very successful talks" with the Free Egyptians party, whose founder is Christian Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is on trial on charges of showing contempt for religion after a Salafi party official complained over a tweet in which he posted a cartoon depicting Mickey Mouse with the beard of an Islamic conservative and Minnie Mouse in a black Islamic veil.
Sultan said that over four days, the parties agreed on general principle that parliament must not be run by a single party, distribution of positions should be based on the proportional weight of each party and parties with small representation should not be neglected.
They also talked about "what brings them together not what separates them apart. The priorities should be on laws related to health services, education, security and improve quality of life," he said.
"We want an end of dictatorship. We don't want to reinvent the old regime through a new dominant ruling party," Sultan said in an oblique reference to the Brotherhood.
He said the liberal parties also aired their concerns over the salafists' view of civil rights. Christian Wafd member Margaret Azer "talked to them (the salafists) about all her worries, and they responded to everything," he said. "It was very positive meeting."
Some liberals fear the Brotherhood and salafists could join forces in parliament to push through a heavily Islamic agenda. But there is also considerable distrust between the two groups. Brotherhood leaders say they do not want to lead alone and want a broad participation.
Mahmoud Ezzat, a prominent Brotherhood figure, commented on the Salafi-liberal meetings, saying, "Everybody is free to do what they want."
He dismissed the possibility of a Brotherhood-Salafi alliance with unusually harsh comments on the salafists. He described them as a movement with a wide spectrum that includes "remnants of the former regime and horrible personalities along with the moderate Islamists."
"Some of those who ran under the Salafi parties, when you look at their CV, they have nothing to do with salafists and now they are lawmakers," he said. "There are sane people ... but there are the fanatics."
The Muslim Brotherhood has been involved in politics since its foundation years in 1928, and even though it was banned under Mubarak's regime its candidates ran as independents in parliamentary elections. The salafists' first political experience came only after Mubarak's fall when the movement formed at least four parties, chief among them Al-Nour. Early in the election campaign, the two tried to form an alliance to run on the same candidate lists, but the salafists broke away, complaining that the Brotherhood was trying to dominate the partnership.
The Muslim Brotherhood and salafists share an ideological background that views Islam as not only a faith but school of governance. But their priorities differ, and the Brotherhood is seen as more pragmatic.
At the same time, the salafists deeply oppose secular parties. Some salafists used mosques to rally voters, some of them branding rivals as "infidels", and warning voters not to back the Egyptian Bloc, an election coalition led by the Free Egyptians Party, because it was backed by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Sultan said it is too early for the talks to turn to a political alliance.
"I call this coordination, not alliance yet, since nobody signed anything yet," he said, and added, "It is not about getting how to divide the cake of parliament among us but we hope to revive the national unity that was in Tahrir Square during the revolution."