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The Salafi-Brotherhood Feud in Egypt

Khalil al-Anani writes about the tensions between the Salafi Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
A boy stands next to an electoral slogan of the Salafi political party Al-Nour that reads, "Together hand in hand we build the country through religion" outside a polling station in Toukh, El-Kalubia governorate, about 25 km (16 miles) northeast of Cairo January 3, 2012. Egyptians voted in the third round of a parliamentary election on Tuesday that has so far handed Islamists the biggest share of seats in an assembly that will be central in the planned transition from army rule. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The ongoing quarrel between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi’s Nour Party comes as no surprise. Indeed, I would have been worried if they didn’t clash, given their increasing politicization and strong tendency to grab as much power as they can.

While many stories and conclusions can be drawn from the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi, the most striking aspect, however, is the obscene language and mutual accusations and allegations between both sides that overwhelmed the local media over the past few days. They reflect what I called elsewhere “desacralization of Islamism,” where Islamists’ indulgence in politics decreases their credibility and appeal. And the more they do, the less they can maintain their symbolic and moral power.

Nevertheless, the crucial question is: Why the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi, the two major Islamist forces in Egypt, have clashed now? Apart from the theological and ideological differences between both currents (which they have deliberately sought to avert after the revolution), the political conflict between Salafi and Brotherhood is an old and rooted one.

It dates back to the end of the 1970s and the outset of the 1980s, when both groups attempted to dominate the public sphere, particularly in mosques, universities, and charity organizations in Egypt by the end of Anwar Sadat’s reign. Moreover, this conflict turned into violent clashes between the followers of both sides in 1980 when the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to prevent Salafists from disseminating their ideology at Alexandria University. Since then the relationship between the Brotherhood and Salafi was never mended or changed to be friendly.

However, the recent fight between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists came after the dismissal of Khaled Alam Eldin, one of President Mohammed Morsi’s advisors who belong to the Nour Party, under allegations of corruption and abusing his office. It was a charge that provoked the Nour Party’s leaders and was forcefully denied by Alam Eldin, who is now asking for an apology from the presidency.

Nonetheless, putting it in the larger picture, this fight is nothing but a new episode in the bitter power struggle between the Brotherhood and the Salafists. It reveals the increasing tendency of Islamists to acquire as much power as they can in order to fill the immense political vacuum that was left after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.

Over the past two years, Salafists, particularly the Nour Party, have been keen to preclude the Muslim Brotherhood from consolidating its grip on power. This started during the 2011 elections when the Brotherhood undervalued the political weight of the Salafists and disregarded their political aspirations.

“Morsi (who by then was the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party) treated us as novice politicians who shouldn’t seek power. He had contempt for us,” a Salafi leader told me last year, in reference to negotiations with the Brotherhood over distributing constituencies and candidates during the last parliamentary elections, which ended with both contesting against each other. After the Salafists’ abrupt victory in the elections — they won around 24% of parliamentary seats — the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to contain Salafis and defuse their political rise while the latter became more politically unruly and aspired for more gains.

Emboldened by their political achievement, Salafists have attempted to thwart the Brotherhood’s path to power. The Nour Party and its patronage the Salafi Call (Al-Da‘wa Al-Salafiyya) in a striking move decided not to support the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in Morsi during the first round of the presidential elections that took place last June, before returning to support him in the second round under the banner of “protecting the Islamic project”.

Furthermore, after Morsi took office, the Salafists became even more apprehensive and suspicious of the Brotherhood’s intentions. They sought on the one hand to enhance their political sway in Egypt’s politics, and on the other hand to compel the Brotherhood to respect (and accept) their power aspirations. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted a more shrewd strategy with the Salafists that is twofold: co-opting them, and employing them at the same time.

The bargain or the trade-off between the two sides was simple: The Salafists would have a much greater role in drawing Egypt’s new constitution and in return they would line up with the Brotherhood in the face of secular and liberal forces, and resisting any external pressure or calls for genuine democratic reforms. It is a bargain that enabled Morsi to survive street pressure that followed his “autocratic” constitutional declaration and helped the Brotherhood to pass its controversial constitution. This was until the Salafists realized the growing attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood to marginalize and exclude them after the ratification of the constitution.

As opposed to what might appear on surface as a “holy” alliance against secular and liberal forces, the inherited mistrust and divergence between the Salafists and the Brotherhood is enormous. Over the past few months, the conflict between both sides has turned into a cat-and-mouse game. Where Salafists attempted to benefit from the mounting resentment against Morsi and the Brotherhood in order to achieve more political gains, the latter sought to encourage internal divisions among the Salafists.

The Nour Party issued a political initiative to end the standoff between the National Salvation Front (NSF), a loose alliance of secular and liberal forces, and Morsi. The step was perceived by the Muslim Brotherhood as an attempt by Salafists to strengthen their political clout and image before the parliamentary elections planned for spring. In addition, by escalating the conflict with Morsi, the Salafists are attempting to dismiss the accusation of being a subordinate and lackey to the Muslim Brotherhood. Not surprisingly, Salafi leaders have recently asserted that the Nour Party “will never ally with the Muslim Brotherhood”.

In short, the current crisis between the Brotherhood and the Salafists reveals that power, and neither religion nor ideology, is the ultimate goal of Islamists, and their bid to grab it might usher in a new era of intra-Islamist conflict with unpredictable consequences.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar of Middle East Studies at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). He can be reached at: On twitter: @Khalilalanani

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