How far Egypt's Brotherhood-Salafist rivalry will go

Hicham Mourad , Friday 10 May 2013

If Egypt's Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood are increasingly at each other's throats, it is only because the liberal opposition has resoundingly failed

The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist El-Nour Party that dominated almost three-quarters of the seats in the People's Assembly (the since dissolved lower house of parliament) and more than 80 percent of the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament now invested with full legislative powers pending the election — expected in October — of a new lower house) have been locked in a power struggle that is increasingly defining a fractious political scene.

The leaders of El-Nour Party, an offshoot of the “Salafist Call”, the most powerful Salafist organisation in Egypt, are portraying themselves as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their upcoming visit to the United States is an opportunity to present their credentials to the West as a possible replacement for the Brotherhood, which is in trouble and under fire from critics since late November 2012 when the President Mohamed Morsi tried to place his decisions above judicial scrutiny.

The "divorce" between the Salafist El-Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood was affirmed when the first presented on 30 January an initiative to resolve the country's protracted political crisis based on the conditions set by the liberal and secular opposition, grouped in the National Salvation Front (NSF). The goal of El-Nour was, among other things, to "break" the hegemony exercised by the Muslim Brotherhood on the institutions of the state.

The Salafists, who had supported by Islamist affinity the FJP in several major political issues, expected to take their share of the pie once the Brotherhood was installed in power. But they were disappointed by the share of power reserved for them by the Brotherhood.

Rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists is not new and does not date back to the uprising of 25 January 2011, which saw the emergence of Salafists as a political force. In fact, relations between the two currents were, at least since the late 70s, marked by a struggle for religious and political influence in mosques, charities and universities.

While the Muslim Brotherhood feared the rise of the Salafists, the latter opposed attempts by the Brotherhood to marginalise them. This competition turned into an open brawl between supporters of the two camps in 1980 when the Brotherhood tried to prevent the Salafists from acquiring a wider audience among students at Alexandria University. This second largest city of Egypt is now a stronghold of the Salafist Call, created in the early 1970s.

This rivalry between the two was partly responsible of the decision of the Salafists to enter politics after 25 January 2011. Having disdained politics and preferred to focus on proselytism to Islamicise society, they decided to create their own party, El-Nour, in May 2011, after the founding of the Brotherhood's FJP 30 April. Besides seeking to implement their vision of an Islamic society and state, their goal was to prevent the Brotherhood having a free hand in its efforts to monopolise the "Islamic project" and marginalise thereby Salafists through its hold on power.

But faced with a common enemy — the liberal and secular forces that fiercely oppose the blurring of politics and religion — the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have formed and coordinated positions togther at key moments, as in the March 2011 referendum on constitutional amendments that led to the holding of legislative elections before the drafting of a new constitution. This cooperation has enabled them to defeat the political programme of the liberal parties. However, latent rivalry between the Brotherhood and Salafists came to light shortly after the coming to power 30 June of Egypt's first Islamist president, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The disappointments of El-Nour have since multiplied. While it came in the second place during the first post-revolution parliamentary elections with 24 percent of the seats of the People's Assembly after the FJP at 47 percent, El-Nour was dissatisfied with the share of power decided for it by the Brotherhood.

Moreover, it found itself under attack and gradually marginalised by the Brotherhood who also played a role, as stated by the Salafist Call and several leaders of El-Nour, in the dissent that hit the party, causing the split that saw party chairman Emad Abdel-Ghafour and about 150 other members form a new Salafist party, Al-Watan, on 2 January. For Al-Nour, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to weaken the Salafists by encouraging divisions in the current.

The Brotherhood has also sought to expand its domination of the religious field and diminish the strength of El-Nour by extending its influence in the Islamic Association for Rights and Reform — an Islamist umbrella group, and the second largest after the Salafist Call — through the participation of Khairat Al-Shater, strongman and deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is considered by many Salafist leaders as very close to Salafism. He belongs to the Qutbist Brothers who adhere to the radical ideas of the Brotherhood ideologue of the 1960s, Sayed Qutb. The Association for Rights and Reform supported the Brotherhood and granted guardianship to the new Al-Watan Party, the El-Nour dissident. Three Salafist figures from the Salafist Call resigned late February from the association, accusing it of partiality to the Brotherhood.

Since early 2013, El-Nour launched a growing campaign of criticism and accusation against the Brotherhood similar to that of the liberal opposition while taking over the reins of the NSF's national reconciliation initiative. Its aim was to increase pressure on the FJP, to force it to make concessions limiting its grip on power, though so far without much success.

The FJP-El-Nour rivalry is expected to continue and even intensify progressively as legislative elections approach, which auger to be a major test of popularity for both Islamist movements. The scope of this power struggle, however, is dependent on the strength or the threat posed by the secular opposition to Islamist forces. Salafists still regard the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their ideological and political differences, as part of the Islamic project. The continued weakness of the liberal opposition will result in the intensification of inter-Islamist rivalry, while a possible rise of the opposition will push El-Nour and the Brotherhood to constrain their power struggle and coordinate to defeat the liberals.

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