In his speeches, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been sending a series of messages to Egypt under the title, “A message of hope and joy to our people in Egypt.” During the Egyptian run-off elections, jihadist forums published the tenth installment of these messages. Zawahiri called on the “Islamic forces” to “unite” against the “American and secular plans that only wish evil upon Egypt.”
Many have considered that Zawahiri’s message was intended to support the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi. However, Zawahiri did not specify who exactly the “Islamic forces” were. Also, the political program that he put forth represented his vision and that of the Salafist jihadist movement for a new political order in Egypt.
Since the previously-banned Muslim Brotherhood has won the Egyptian presidential elections, it is necessary to go back and examine how Zawahiri views the Muslim Brotherhood and where they may converge and diverge in the future. This is especially important since there have been many concerns in Egypt about “the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood” and their possible attempts to “Islamize Egyptian society.” Where exactly does the Muslim Brotherhood stand with regard to even more radical movements?
The Salafist jihadists have had major disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Zawahiri was among the first to criticize the organization in his writings. One of his most famous books is The Bitter Harvest: The Muslim Brotherhood in Sixty Years, which criticizes the Brotherhood’s direction.
In writing his book, Zawahiri relied on the works and statements of Muslim Brotherhood leaders throughout different historical periods about several topics and people. For example, the Brotherhood maintained good political relations with King Farouk and presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and even Hosni Mubarak.
Zawahiri criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for historically accepting “[man-made] constitutions and laws,” willfully being part of the “democratic” game and believing that Islamic Shariah “does not have to be the only source of legislation.” At the end of his book, as an answer to why the Muslim Brotherhood is criticized when “the country is full of mischief and traitors,” Zawahiri says: “The answer is clear. The Muslim Brotherhood, by recognizing the tyrants’ legitimacy and sharing constitutional legitimacy with the tyrants, has become a tool in the tyrants’ hands to strike jihadist groups in the name of [fighting] extremism and disobeying Shariah. There should be no doubt that we are proud to be outside of this “legitimacy of disbelief,” which the Muslim Brotherhood has accepted and approved.”
It can be noticed that the separation between the two parties are due to the political approaches to change. The Muslim Brotherhood represents change through peaceful and political means, while the Salafist jihadists are in favor of change through jihad. The two sides also disagree on the rule of Shariah and the Islamic state. Zawahiri has set several “demands” for the Muslim Brotherhood: “The Brotherhood should publicly renounce their deviations ... They should declare that these tyrants who do not rule according to Islamic Shariah are murtaddin [Muslims who left Islam] ... They should denounce the tyrants and their infidel laws ... The Brotherhood should declare that [made-made] constitutions and laws, democracy and parliamentary elections are [against Islam].” These are just a few examples.
It should be pointed out that Zawahiri’s book was published more than 20 years ago when he was the leader of the Islamic Jihad. The changes after the Arab Spring, the overthrow of President Mubarak by popular revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover and Mohammed Morsi’s presidential victory are all factors that changed the facts on the ground.
Zawahiri has designated three key types of reform that he believes are needed in Egypt: legislative, political and social.
For legislative reform, Zawahiri means adopting “Shariah rule, whereby Shariah is the governor and is not governed by other laws that grant the Muslim umma the right to choose its leaders and hold them accountable.” Zawahiri considers the second article of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “the principles of Islamic Shariah are the main source of legislation,” to be deceiving. He demands that “Shariah be the source of legislation.”
For political reform, he says Egypt will return “to its leadership role in the Muslim umma, the Arab world and the third world by repudiating the peace treaty with Israel and its subsequent secret and public obligations, cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador from Cairo and immediately lifting the blockade on Gaza.” According to Zawahiri, that would include lifting the emergency laws, stopping military tribunals for civilians and invalidating all of their verdicts. It would also include disbanding the security services, which brutally repress and humiliate the people while treating them like insects.
With regard to social reform, among Zawahiri’s most important demands are “stopping corruption, lifting the suffering of the poor, distributing wealth equitably and subsidizing basic commodities and essential services, such as education, healthcare and housing.”
While reviewing Muslim Brotherhood literature — particularly in regard to their political project after the revolution, as featured in Morsi’s electoral program or the so-called Renaissance Project — it should be noted that the Brotherhood did not put forth a vision of active implementation of an Islamic state. Rather, they put forth a vision of the Egyptian state. It supports Islam, national belonging and genuine democracy. It is is proud of its Egyptian and Arab identity, and believes that the rebirth of the umma will not be accomplished by a faction, group or movement, regardless of what it particularly is. Their program is focused on improving the economic situation and rebuilding state institutions to serve the citizens.
The Muslim Brotherhood may or may not be able to implement their project. However, they will either clash or agree with the Salafist jihadists, depending on the whether their two visions can be in agreement with each other. The Brotherhood and the Salafists may completely agree on what Zawahiri called social reform — improving the economy, fighting corruption and building citizenship — and the two parties may even partly agree on foreign policy toward some Islamic countries. However, the Brotherhood and the Salafists are expected to continue to clash over the treaty with Israel, as the Brotherhood is not expected to abolish the treaty. Even still, the main disagreements will be over the shape of the government, Article II of the constitution and the rule of law. These divisions between the two sides could deepen as the Salafists will use those issues to emphasize the “non-Islamic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood,” recalling the large body of literature criticizing the Brotherhood.
But the jihadists' success in turning the people against the Muslim Brotherhood will depend on whether the Brotherhood can gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian citizens. Specifically, the Brotherhood needs to acquire legitimacy with regard to the economic, political and security situations, as well as provide an alternative to the former regime. If the Brotherhood fails, then their points of contention with the Salafists — Shariah, foreign policy and the treaty with Israel — will become increasingly important.