WASHINGTON — In one of the many bizarre twists of Egypt’s recent political convulsion, hardline Salafi parties look poised to replace the Muslim Brotherhood as the most important Islamist players in the political process.
It’s a situation ripe with irony: For years, the Brotherhood represented the "good guys" of the Islamist world — a movement that other parties could deal with — while the Salafis were irreconcilable zealots bent on establishing an Islamist state by any means necessary.
But with former "bad guys" redeeming themselves by siding with the opposition in the weeks preceding President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster, they now have a shot at becoming the standard-bearers for Islamist politics in the Arab world’s largest nation.
The Nour Party, the largest Islamist organization, joined in the opposition’s call for Morsi to step down, claiming that he and the Muslim Brotherhood were attempting to monopolize power. But it did not participate officially in the street protests against the Brotherhood, and has been sitting on the fence ever since, criticizing the military’s transition roadmap and its constitutional proclamation, and declaring that their members would neither join the transitional government nor oppose it.
Salafist participation, however, will come at a price and there’s no guarantee that Egypt’s new rulers will want to pay it. The military officers that deposed Morsi, along with the parties and personalities now trying to ride their coattails into power, are facing a difficult choice: Should they include Islamists in the new system? Or should they seek to push them resolutely to the margins, as Hosni Mubarak and a succession of previous governments did?
It’s not clear that this decision has been made yet. Officially, the military and its civilian appointees now argue that Islamists must be included in the political process. In practice, however, the actions of the military and its allies tell a different story: Muslim Brotherhood leaders are being rounded up in growing numbers, Islamist television channels have been shuttered, and dozens of Morsi supporters have been shot dead on the street by the police and army.
At the same time, the new leadership has made a huge concession to Salafis by including in its July 8 constitutional proclamation some of the most controversial clauses of the suspended 2012 constitution. Article 1 of the proclamation proclaims Islam to be the religion of the state and the principles of sharia the main source of legislation. It was the Salafis, particularly members of the Nour Party, who insisted on including these stipulations in the constitution.
There is no guarantee, however, that the Salafi parties can coexist in the long term with their new secular allies. Tamarod, the "rebel" movement that spearheaded the June 30 demonstrations, was incensed by references to sharia in the constitutional proclamation and is opposed to Islamist participation in the new government. Many of the so-called liberals in the National Salvation Front and in the business community also call, at least privately, for the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party — and do not hide their desire to see a ban on all parties with a religious orientation in the new constitution. Indeed, a major secular-Islamist battle is brewing over the writing of the new constitution.
No matter what the new constitution says about the legality of parties based on religion, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have been drummed out of the political process for the time being. It is unlikely to participate in the parliamentary election that should take place in early 2014, as it still insists that Morsi is the duly elected president of the country and that he must be reinstated. That will leave its voters with nowhere else to turn but the Salafist parties, which will be the last players on the Egyptian political scene explicitly calling for a strong Islamic reference in government.
Salafis did not come to political participation easily. Until the overthrow of Mubarak, they had shunned political activity, concentrating instead on proselytizing and building their own community. The decision to enter the political sphere was a sudden response to the events of January 2011 — Salafis saw an opening, and were able to take advantage of it by mobilizing their social and religious networks for political ends. Their success was startling: They went from having no political organization in January 2011 to capturing a startling 25 per cent of seats in parliament by March 2012, besting secular parties that had been in existence for years.
Because the Salafis’ rise was so sudden, it was not accompanied by a corresponding ideological transformation. Salafi parties had few discussions about the implications of participating in a pluralistic political system — they simply decided that the goal of building an Islamic state, previously set aside as premature, was worth pursuing right away. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, had been discussing the implications of political participation for decades and had modified its positions in response, accepting the notion of pluralism and a civil state. The transition was still incomplete and contested, but it was a start.
Differences between the Brotherhood and Salafi organizations were particularly evident in the discussions of the 2012 constitution. Salafis were uncompromising, insisting that the constitution should embody references to sharia in its Sunni interpretations, rejecting explicit references to gender equality and to hiding their end-goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood accepted the idea of a civil state and generally showed greater flexibility.
The inclusion of Salafis as representatives of the Islamist trend would thus come at a high price for the country’s new rulers. The constitution would have to include many of the same clauses concerning sharia and Islam as the state religion as the 2012 constitution — as was already made clear in the latest constitutional proclamation. Any constitution acceptable to Salafis, moreover, would have to soft-pedal issues such as gender equality and the equality of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens — thus raising the ire of secular forces.
But the cost to Egypt if Salafi parties joined the Muslim Brothers in shunning political participation would be just as high. At this current tumultuous moment in Egyptian politics, Islamists will not quietly withdraw from politics and concentrate solely on religious affairs. The Muslim Brotherhood is already openly calling for defiance of the regime, and the Salafis could follow suit. The Mubarak regime only managed to repress Islamists by arresting thousands of them and rigging elections — any regime seeking to limit Islamist participation would have to do the same, and probably on an even larger scale. The exclusion of Islamists, in other words, also means the exclusion of democracy.
Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
— Foreign Policy