As I’ve observed in a couple of recent Egypt posts (here and here), Islamic supremacism and its sharia system are more popular in Egypt than the Muslim Brotherhood is. While we can be hopeful that the growing unpopularity of the latter indicates an easing of the former’s grip on Egyptian society, we’re a long way from being able to draw that conclusion. In light of this dynamic, the Brotherhood and the so-called Salafists need each other.
I say “so-called” Salafists because, as I’ve pointed out before, Brotherhood apologists in the West use the term Salafist disingenuously. The Muslim Brotherhood is a Salafist organization. Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, respectively, the Brotherhood’s founder and most influential theorist, were Salafists: reformers who wanted a return to what they construed as the Islam of the founding Muslim generation. Yet the press applies the term “Salafist” only to other Islamic supremacist organizations that have greater zeal – or, to be more precise, less guile – than the Brothers when it comes to imposing sharia and crushing dissenters. This usage serves the fiction, urged by the Obama administration and the bipartisan Beltway congnoscenti, that the rabidly anti-Western Brotherhood is a “moderate” organization worth supporting.
In reality, the Brotherhood and the Salafists (I’ll reluctantly accept the convention for present purposes) are allies, albeit wary ones. They compete, and on a personal level often dislike one another intensely. But when push comes to shove, they concur on matters of principle: the imperative of imposing sharia, intractable opposition to the West, and commitment to Israel’s destruction.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood is more established, mainstream and organized. It is popular with about a third of Egyptians, though this waxes and wanes. The Salafist groups – some of which are emerging as political wings of longtime jihadist organizations like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group (Gama’at al-Islamia) – are less well-established, less politically polished, and more extreme in their interpretation of and demand for sharia. In the parliamentary elections, they grabbed an impressive 25 percent of the vote, and they were instrumental in the runaway approval of the new sharia constitution.
When the Brotherhood has their support, it is a formidable force. When the Brotherhood lacks their support, it is considerably weaker. So will President Mohamed Morsi have their support in his effort to cling to the presidency?
Morsi’s got reason to be very worried.
On Tuesday, the Nour party, the Salafist group that performed the most impressively in the elections, stunned the Brotherhood and buoyed the opposition by joining calls for new presidential elections and for the formation of a technocratic government to mind the store. The Nour party does not speak for all the Salafists, some of which are lining up in Morsi’s camp, figuring that this is the only way to preserve a sharia constitution.
But there is clearly disarray. For example, while the Nour party was acceding to Morsi’s opposition, the Islamic Group’s newly formed “Construction and Development party” on Tuesday blasted the military’s ultimatum to Morsi as a “prelude to the empowerment of communism and secularism.” Yet a party leader appeared to break ranks later in the day, saying the Islamic Group would support a referendum on new presidential elections – a statement the Islamic Group has now publicly refuted, reaffirming its support for Morsi. Meanwhile, Mohamed al-Zawahiri – brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri (who led Egyptian Islamic Jihad and incorporated it into al Qaeda) – has vowed to engage in armed jihad if the military tries to remove Morsi. Mohamed Zawahiri leads the Salafi Jihadi organization.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is much more likely to shove Morsi aside if it is convinced that his Salafist support is substantially diminished. Obviously, the military is not anxious for renewed confrontation with jihadist groups, but under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, it has managed that confrontation for more than half a century without allowing the country to slide into civil war.