One year after the failure of their first democratic presidential experience, Egyptians are now witnessing a bitter second episode amid an atmosphere of frustration, trepidation and a loss of confidence.
This instability has been caused by the waves of terrorism, human rights violations, continued economic and political deterioration and a state of polarization resembling that of two years ago. Amid this, the situation of the Islamist current has shifted dramatically. They are in exceptional and unprecedented circumstances, facing loss of popularity, complete exclusion from the political process, and the persecution of their leadership by security forces. The one exception to this remains the Salafi-leaning Nour Party, an ally of the July 3 movement and a main partner in its transitional roadmap.
The Islamist current can be divided into three parts based on their stance on the presidential elections: first, the Muslim Brotherhood camp (including their allies the Jama'a al-Islamiyya, as well as some non-organized jihadist and revolutionary Salafi groups); second, the Nour party which represents organized Egyptian Salafists, and finally the groups loyal to various independent Salafi 'ulema.
The Brotherhood members of this first camp likely realize that taking a step back is inevitable after the failure of all attempts to overthrow the transitional authority through internal disruption and external harm. They realize that the passage of time is not in their interest given the steps laid out in the transitional roadmap. They also know that the presidential elections will follow the course of the previous constitutional amendment referendum, with the likely result of the election of former army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president. The new reality will be cemented even more so than in the past and the group will need to understand this or this historical moment will pass, leaving the Brotherhood in Egypt consigned to a painful history.
The Brussels Charter, in which the Brotherhood called for dialogue with other parties and called on the military to step back from politics, for the first time since June 30 abandoned the illogical demand of returning the ousted president Mohamed Morsi to the presidency, is just the first in a series of steps planned by the group. The Brotherhood is slowly moving back, but not through its leadership of Morsi or even Khairat al-Shater or Mohamed Badie. Rather, according to younger members of the Brotherhood who have broken away from the group, the organization fears a long-delayed massive internal upheaval that some mid-level Brotherhood leaders are waiting for the right moment to announce.
The Brotherhood announces its boycott of the presidential elections but at the same time will likely send their base to vote for the only other candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, even though they know his chances of winning are low and despite their open hostility towards each other. Their goal is to minimize Sisi's margin of victory while at the same time preparing for the real fight in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
From an intellectual standpoint, the Salafi current is characterized by a rich variety of religious interpretations within a single school – a trait with both positive and negative implications. The current includes independent members of preachers who prefer to completely withdraw from the scene around them, as well as scattered groups of Salafis. They will not vote for any of the candidates. The reality is that this current, despite having many opportunities during the past three years, has known nothing but upheavals and massive political and social changes that exceed the ability of any political or ideological group to comprehend, much less cope with. The group's newness to political activity helps explain the state of its confusion and frustration. Within this current, the Nour Party is the largest segment and the only organized entity within the Salafi spectrum (the Salafi Da'awa). I believe that this is one of the few parties that moved up the political and social learning curve over the last three years.
The Nour Party's philosophy since July 3, and continuing today, is an attempt to manage the Islamist current's losses on one hand while also helping to stop the spiral of civil war on the other. Extrapolating from many contemporary experiences, the party was expecting that, regardless of the costs, the Brotherhood would not stop their clash with the state (supported by a large segment of Egyptian society), and this is something that conflicts with the Nour Party's ideology.
The Salafis were faced with four choices regarding the presidential elections, one of which carried a huge political cost that would impact not only the political future of the Salafis but could also impact their social acceptance for a long time to come. Further, it is not realistic to make any choice that ignores the nation's current context and changing international circumstances, in addition to ignoring the impact of the year that Morsi spent in power. The choices were: boycotting the elections, supporting Sisi or
Sabbahi as candidates, or leaving the party base free to make one of the first three choices. Boycotting is the worst of the four choices because it would not impact, in any practical manner, the balance of power and also carries a political price; thus this choice would stigmatize parties taking this route.
As for giving the choice to the base, this is ultimately an admission of weakness or fear of taking a political decision and puts the responsibility on the public, and thus reduces the influence of the parties making this choice (the leftist-affiliated Egyptian Democratic Party is alone among Egyptian parties taking this step).
The choice was therefore down to whether to support Sabbahi or Sisi, and democratic voting within the biggest decision-making committees in the Nour Party led to a decision to support Sisi over his opponent by a wide margin.
The Nour Party's voters' reluctance to support Sabbahi can be understood in light of several points. Most important of these is the complete contradiction between the party's political and economic ideology with Sabbahi and fear of the leftist current's hegemony over the levers of power, as the Brotherhood attempted previously. Indeed, the party chose a man like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the candidate the Nour Party endorsed in 2012, that was not from the same school as that of the Salafis, but at the same time was not blatantly hostile to their orientation. Rather the candidate represented a middle ground between liberals, leftists, and Islamists that can lessen the degree of political polarization and ideological conflict. This is something that Sabbahi lacks. Indeed, the failed Morsi experiment in power was fresh in the minds of those opposed to supporting Sabbahi because they wanted to avoid repeating the same unfortunate scenario where the deep state was reluctant to work under a man without any prior leadership experience and with unknown bona fides outside individual stances of struggle. They were reluctant to repeat the same clash between the leftist current and the institutions of the deep state at a time when the country cannot withstand any new conflict.
Sabbahi's political discourse was not sufficiently convincing for the Nour party. It seems that Sabbahi himself was more interested in electoral one-upmanship and raising the threshold of electoral competition than in attracting as many political currents as possible to support him.
The choice of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by the largest segment of Egyptian Salafis in the Nour Party was broadly consistent with the party's position from July 3 to the present. In choosing between the two candidates, the Nour party leaders decided to go for the "most suited" rather than their "preferred" candidate.
This "most suited" candidate is capable of dealing with the list of dangers, both current and potential, and passing through them with the least possible damage. In the party's view, Sisi's election as president reduces the chances for two dangers – state breakup and state failure – and there is no doubt that he is the most able to avoid these two risks. This is because his political genes are convergent with those of the state and its institutions, who do not consider Sisi a foreign body to be expelled; rather it is expected that the state, under his administration, will see harmony and coordination between the president and state institutions, and bring the presidency (backed by the army and intelligence) into the predominant position among state institutions, which will be closer assistants to Sisi than anyone else. And thus we avoid the danger of security, economic, and social state failure.
Nader Bakkar is a co-founder of Egypt’s al-Nour Party and the chairman’s assistant for media affairs. This article was published in Atlantic Council on 25 May 2014