Divisions emerge between Islamists in Egypt

Egyptian voters queue at a polling station in the Manial neighborhood of Cairo
Egyptian voters queue at a polling station in the Manial neighborhood of Cairo Ahmed Asad/APA Images/Zuma Press/MCT

CAIRO — Islamist parties are the top two vote-getters after the first two phases of elections for Egypt's new parliament, but despite fears of a hard-line coalition, serious divisions have erupted between the two main Islamist groups before the parliament has even been seated.

The tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups have raised questions about how Egypt's first parliament convened since President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in February will perform amid ongoing instability and protests against the country's interim military rulers.

In the second phase of elections, whose results were announced last week, the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, maintained its leading position, raking in more than 4 million votes. It was followed by the Al Nour Party of the Salafists, a more hard-line Islamist group, with about 3.2 million votes.

Mohamed Morsi, head of the Freedom and Justice Party, dismissed talk of forming an alliance with the rival Salafists soon after results were announced by the Higher Electoral Committee on Saturday morning. Although only partial results are available, both parties together control roughly half the parliamentary seats, with the Brotherhood holding about 30 percent.

"There is no alliance. ... I don't think it will happen any time soon due to conflicting ideologies," Morsi told Al Mehwer, an Egyptian cable channel, on Monday.

The Salafists agreed. "Any coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood is far from possible," said Nader Bakkar, the official spokesman of Al Nour Party. "We have significant differences and we don't think that we will be able to build any form of coalition with them."

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, formed an 11-party election bloc called the Democratic Alliance, which includes the prominent liberal parties Al Ghad ("Tomorrow") and Al Karama ("Dignity"). Asked whether U.S. officials welcomed the Brotherhood's outreach to liberal groups, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said earlier this month that it signaled "a very positive start" for the new parliament, which is expected to be seated on Jan. 23.

"I think we find that encouraging that there's politics going on there, that there's these kinds of discussions ... taking place," Toner said. "Again, it's very, very early. We just have preliminary results. There's a lot of elections that need to still be carried out, but we're off to a very positive start."

Although Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood were both officially outlawed here for decades — members of the groups have shared prison cells — Salafist leaders have made several statements that have alarmed Egyptians and underscored their differences with the more moderate Brotherhood.

Abdel Monem el Shahat, a prominent Salafist cleric and a leading figure in the Al Nour Party, recently described the ancient Egyptian civilization as "rotten" and called for the country's Pharaonic statues to be covered in wax because they resembled those worshipped in pre-Islamic times.

The Egyptian Coalition for Tourism Support filed legal action against el Shahat on behalf of tourism companies, which complained that tourists canceled trips to Egypt after his remarks. El Shahat ran in the first phase of elections and lost his seat to a Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

U.S. officials, aware of the Brotherhood's influence — even when effectively banned, the group's members won around 20 percent of parliamentary seats in 2005 — have appeared to be open to dialogue with the organization's political wing. On Dec. 10, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson made an official visit to Freedom and Justice Party headquarters.

The widening gap between the Salafists and the rest of Egypt's political powers could prove a major hurdle for the parliament, which faces tremendous challenges following the upheaval of the past 11 months.

Salafists hold slightly more than 20 percent of parliamentary seats. Under current rules, a bloc needs 30 percent of votes to exercise a veto. But Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist and a member of the civilian advisory council appointed by Egypt's ruling military, said that Salafists will definitely stir controversy over tourism, arts, Islamic banking and other issues.

"Their hard-line approach and lack of political experience will definitely influence the performance of the coming parliament," Nafaa said.

Soon after the uprising that ousted Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood made moves to show it wasn't a hard-line group. It announced that it had formed the Freedom and Justice Party and replaced its slogan, "Islam is the Solution," with "Delivering Good for Egypt."

Brotherhood officials pledged to "respect civil rights and international treaties that have been signed in the past." They denied reports that the group aimed to re-examine Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, a linchpin of regional stability.

The Salafists — whose Al Nour Party was established earlier this year by the Salafist Call Movement, which supports the imposition of Islamic religious law, or Sharia — said that while they would respect the Israel treaty, their party "will continuously work on amending its unfair articles through all legal means."

The unprecedented alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood, liberals, democrats and even communists, which is also gaining international support, left the Salafists in a state of isolation that raised concerns about how they might respond.

"The isolation they are now experiencing is very dangerous," said Mohamed Farahat, a researcher of Islamist movements at the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. "They might end up resorting to more extreme or violent measures instead of becoming closer and more understanding of the community."

Farahat questioned whether even the few changes the Salafists have made in their public positions — the Salafist Call Movement, for example, no longer openly preaches that parliament is against Islamic law — were merely a ploy to earn votes.

"We don't see any solid revisions in their ideology," Farahat said.

"Despite their parliamentary win, they are losing popularity on the ground."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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