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Which Islamists?

By Hani Sabra

Ballot counting continues as Egypt's first round of elections, in which a third of the country voted, comes to a close. We now know that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, with the weight of an 83-year old organization behind it, will come out on top. But the real surprise has been the success of the more hardline, ultraconservative Salafi Nour (Light) Party. Nour could capture roughly a quarter of the seats in the first round, and there's no reason to believe that it can't replicate that performance in the upcoming two rounds

Nour's success unsettles many moderate Egyptian Muslims, liberals, and Christians who fret about the potential impact on their personal lives. How will an Islamist-dominated parliament approach banking, tourism, and foreign investment? But Nour has probably unsettled the Muslim Brotherhood too. The upstart Salafis, who until recently did not participate in politics -- many of them still say that democracy is "kufr" (non-belief) -- have encroached on the Muslim Brotherhood's traditional territory. Thus, an increasingly critical question in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt is not how the liberals will fare against the Islamists; that's already been answered. Rather, it is: Who wins the right to speak for Egypt's Islamists? 

There are roughly three main Islamist political trends in Egypt, and together they will form a supermajority in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood represents the right-wing, conservative, pragmatic wing of the movement. The rising Salafis represent the more reactionary, uncompromising wing, and parties like Al-Wasat (The Center), who will be by far the smallest Islamist party in parliament, represent a third trend that seeks to emulate Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The three groups have legitimate reasons to believe they can seize the Islamist mantle and settle the question of who speaks for Islam.

With their electoral success and their unparalleled organizational skills, the Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong, but delicate, position. It remains unlikely that Egypt will have an Islamist-only parliamentary coalition, and electoral success strengthens the Brotherhood's hand with non-Islamists parties, because it allows the Brotherhood essentially to dictate the terms of any parliamentary coalition that excludes Salafis. Non-Islamist parties may dislike the Brotherhood, but they understand that its leadership is essentially pragmatic and unlikely to introduce radical changes that impact the economy or peoples' personal lives in the short term. The Brotherhood leadership has spokesmen who shave their beards and talk up the need for foreign investment. It also includes a senior Christian member.

But the Brotherhood has to move carefully and can ill afford to alienate the Salafis. For rank-and-file Brotherhood members, the line between a Brother and a Salafi is blurry. It's almost certain that potential FJP voters chose Salafi candidates or parties at the ballot box. And more Brothers could jump ship if the Salafis illustrate that they better represent "true Islam."

The Brotherhood is in a complicated position, trying to hew to the right in the provinces, while behaving "moderately" in Cairo and outside Egypt. In some cases, the Salafis and the Brotherhood will collaborate, but it will likely be a more competitive (and unpredictable) relationship. 

Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.

AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images

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