The Salafists and the Brotherhood: Ideological Disagreements, Political Rivalry

Article Summary
According to Maher Ferghli, the emerging rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt is more the result of political competition than ideological disagreement. Here, he explores how the two movements use ideological nuances to carve out a place for themselves on the Egyptian political scene.

There is a great divide between the world engaged in spreading the call of Islam, and the world of politics and parliamentary elections, which requires that bonds, alliances and [distinct] platforms be formed. This has been covered by the media since the January [2011] revolution. [The media has forecasted] a failure of coordination between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists after the formation of the first post-revolutionary parliament. The media forecasted how [over the course of the elections] the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and other Islamist parties would be able to coordinate their mobilization, yet fail in forming a veritable alliance. [The media was also successful in predicting] the electoral clash that took place between the Salafists and the Brotherhood in most districts [during the elections]. [Conflicts] between the two groups quickly intensified. [Each party] began trying to woo the other’s supporters, and [there were widespread] accounts of one group’s supporters ripping up posters of the opposing candidate. In addition, [the two sides] distorted the image [of the rival party] through new media outlets such as YouTube as well as various social networking sites.

If we begin our analysis with the Salafists, we find that they have outgrown their former stagnant political style. Their new style reflects the evolution (or perhaps the reworking) that the Salafist ideology is undergoing in Egypt. And yet until now, the Salafists have remained prisoners to their traditional approaches. They have viewed politics merely as a vessel for achieve certain [extra-political] goals and objectives. Now, they have to take into account all of the machinations innate to politics, some  of which may conflict with their understanding of Islam. [They have been forced to play a game in which they find themselves in opposition to] the Brotherhood’s ideology, and sometimes even their own.

The language employed in political speeches by Salafist leaders and their nascent parties, such as “the abolition of usurious deals” or “the implementation of Islamic Law,” has made it clear that the Salafists will remain hostages to their traditional moldings. [For the Salafists], importance is given to knowledge that emanates from the study of texts which [deal with ancestral ideas]. They see the implementation of these ideas [as a goal]. It seems that the Salafists will always consider that their legitimacy is tied to their connection with the people, and their endeavors to spread Islam’s calling. [This principle] would also apply to any Salafist regime’s legitimacy - it validates its rule through spreading Islam and practicing its teachings. Were it to fail at this, the regime would lose its legitimacy and be considered deficient vis-à-vis Islam in general. [The Salafists] will continue to view life on earth as a form of suffering, whereby man is harshly tested and must prove his faith. [This kind of rationale results in] the notion that ruling a country is a kind of necessary test, despite being built upon the concept of obedience. [The Salafists believe that one has no duty] to obey anything that goes against the teachings of Islam.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has retained the same mentality and ideology [that it has long held]. Out of all the Islamic factions, [the Brotherhood] considers itself the best-suited to monopolizing the political arena. Its leaders think that the expertise they have accrued qualifies them to lead in the present stage. The Brotherhood’s success since the early days of the revolution proves that other Islamist factions erred by not espousing its methods. Simultaneously, the Brotherhood [thinks that it has] an obligation to shepherd the Salafists and other [Islamic] factions towards the righteous path on the basis of its superiority in numbers, its accumulated expertise and its recent successes.

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From this perspective, the Brotherhood has looked down on the Salafists and their [political] parties. During the elections, it did not deem them influential or sizeable enough to give them a leading role on the electoral lists. The Brotherhood disdained the Salafists smaller on-the-ground presence, and this was the cause of the breakdown in coordination between the two groups. Political alliances were thus drawn up in the absence of ideological harmony between the two parties, and this led to the alliances disintegrating before the elections had even started. Disputes over the configuration of electoral lists took precedence over the national goals for which the alliances were formed in the first place.

This came as the result of a long history between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood which has been bogged down with feelings of superiority, bigotry and inequality. [The rivalry between the two groups turned a shared commitment to] the betterment of Islam into a competition and the cause of trouble. This [ideological] competition led to divisions, and supporters of each side became vested in their own group’s ideological, behavioral and ethical codes. [Each side claimed that it was] more righteous than the other, and that it was the only knower of truth. [A debate emerged] over whether or not only one group should be charged with spreading Islam. Some saw this as necessary and [in their minds] bestowed only their own group with the right to perform this task.

The disputes have all stemmed from the fact that the Brotherhood’s members have long beatified their leadership, while the Salafists also see  their elders as perfect beings. [These kinds of attitudes] have only exaggerated each group’s feelings of superiority and added to the level of suspicion between them. [Indeed], disputes between the two groups were [initially] caused by differences in ideology and orientation. [However], wide rifts between their respective viewpoints have appeared due to the exploitation of marginal doctrinal issues, which each group uses to further their claim of being unique and distinct. [This] has reflected on the prevailing state of rivalry and [split between] the ideological and physical structures of the Brotherhood and the Salafists, on an intellectual and individual level. The reason for this dispute has had nothing to do with the achievement of any [political] goals or proving certain doctrinal [religious] facts, the ambiguity of which led to differences in interpretation, but revolved around the doctrinal [religious] constructs that govern these facts, for the Salafists considered that the Brotherhood’s political behavior was deserving of criticism.

On the other hand, the Salafists’ extreme fundamentalism - which is born out of their heritage - has opened up further points of contention with the Brotherhood. [The Salafists have criticized the Brotherhood’s lack of religious piety] as much as they have their political conduct. Furthermore, while each group’s loyalty [to their own leadership] sometimes leads to them to collide over issues on interest-based political grounds, the ruptures between the two groups are rarely entail [attacks] on the identity or core values of the opposing faction.

The centralized organizational structure [of the two groups] decides on which methods each will use in spreading the call of Islam. [The organizational structure] of the Salafists is primarily based on individual decision-making, where as the Muslim Brotherhood has a framework for obligatory consultations. [Structural differences] have led to a state of schizophrenia that has plagued both parties. [What’s more], even before the January 25 revolution, disputes emerged between the two parties regarding [which structure] would be better suited to [spread the call of Islam].

The Salafists’ structural and administrative defects have prevented them from opening up completely to other [parties and political actors]. Because of the nature of their ideological dogma - which is totally detached from the realistic political environment in which they [are now trying to operate], they have not been able to adopt pragmatic political values. Their new brand of Salafism, which was formulated in during the Egyptian revolution with the sole purpose of allowing them into the realm of politics, has not proven adaptable to its ever-changing surroundings. [The Salafists] have been unable and present [the world] with a modern form of Islam that strikes a balance between ideology and politics. As a result of this intransigence, pronounced disputes will surely erupt inside the halls of parliament as much as they will in mosques or from minbars [the pulpit in a mosque from which imam’s deliver sermons].

In practical terms, Islamist movements differ radically from other political movements on the basis that they function within a completely different value-matrix. Moreover, their supporters cast judgment upon them [for different reasons than they would secular parties]. The Salafists are thus ruled by this [seperate] code of conduct, while the Muslim Brothers - who possess longer experience in the realm of politics - hold themselves [accountable to a different type of judgement]. [The Brotherhood] differs from the Salafist establishment in this regard, as the Salafists considers that the people’s support depends more on the level by which they adhere to that code than on their politics. [The Salafists] believe that as long as they live fanatically by [their special set of values], the more support they will receive. It follows that the Salafists will more fanatically defend their extremist ways from within the political playing field, while the Brotherhood will grow more pragmatic. This might lead to further political differences and disputes between them.

While Egypt has seen many a new and varied form of Salafism, and many Salafist parties have been formed recently - bringing it out of the mosques and alleyways and into parliament - the Salafists nevertheless all pledge allegiance to one single authority, which believes in an ideology whose politics differ from those of any nationalist parties. As things progress and the Salafists gain greater experience in how the political game is played, it is expected that they will experience defections whereby some movements will better succeed in politicizing themselves. [There is a chance that certain Salafists will form] political coalitions which are better able to focus on interpreting the times and the circumstances. [These groups might] completely rupture with the old authorities. [On the other hand] while others may return to the alleyways and mosques to curse the game [of politics] if it fails to achieve their goal of implementing Islamic Law. This is where we expect the Salafist parliamentary experiment to lead to. [However, for now], the Salafist iceberg might prove to be a real hindrance to the Brotherhood’s pragmatism.

The electoral competition that we witnessed was not due to diversity in ideas and policies - much of it represented differing styles of dealing with the circumstances in which Egypt found itself after the January 25 revolution. [Supposed political differences] actually related to the composition of the two groups, and their [individual] views on Islam. The diverse ideologies of these two groups does not necessarily translate into their behavior in the [political arena]. [Behavior in parliament] does not depend solely on ideological convictions, especially if the political landscape is characterized by an openness which does not force [opposing sides] to encroach on one another’s discourses. The choices that lie ahead [for these two groups] will not be easy. Instead of Islamic-secular polarization, we will instead witness a state of Brotherhood-Salafist polarization that will test their projects’ practical tenets. [All political groups] - including liberals of all varieties - will therefore need to] jostle for position with the Brotherhood, which has reached a level [of success] far beyond that of the Salafists. [For their part], the Salafists all stand cramped inside the same parliamentary halls trying to prove the superiority of their ideology. 

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