Cairo attorney Montasser al-Zayat, a former member of the Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah and an independent candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections, received the endorsement of the secular Wafd party Oct. 31. The arrival of more hard-line moderate Islamists in Egypt's political mainstream poses a unique challenge to the moderate-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which now faces a challenge for influence from both radical and moderate Islamists, with the ruling National Democratic Party standing to benefit the most from these divisions.
The parliamentary campaign of Montasser al-Zayat, an attorney and former member of the Gamaah al-Islamiyah militant group, received a political endorsement from the secular Egyptain Wafd party Oct. 31. Al-Zayat will be competing against candidates from both the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as a candidate who has received the endorsement of the moderate-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The rise of hard-line political actors in Egypt willing to adopt electoral politics as opposed to armed struggle presents a new challenge to the officially banned moderate-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The group faces a challenge to its perception of itself as the rightful political representative of Islam from both the more radical portions of the Islamist political spectrum, including the Hizb al-Wasat political party, as well as from more hard-line conservative factions as embodied by al-Zayat's candidacy. In this battle for influence, the NDP stands to gain the most. Al-Zayat recently reiterated that he renounced violence as a means of achieving Islamist objectives several years ago, adding that he had no qualms about receiving support from secular-minded groups, given that one of his main campaign supporters is a Coptic Christian. A critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Zayat expressed his displeasure with the group's decision to field a candidate against him, saying the Muslim Brotherhood did not adequately use its influence in parliament to seek the implementation of Shariah, instead focusing on efforts to exclude non-Brotherhood participants from politics. The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist movement; its founding prompted the rise of all subsequent Islamist movements. Additionally, all other Islamist groups in Egypt — both a militant and more moderate groups — splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood. This heritage leads the Muslim Brotherhood to see itself as the rightful political voice and representation of Islam in the country. Though nearly all Islamists inside the country share dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime and a desire for Islamist principles to be implemented in government, their commonalities end at that point. STRATFOR has learned that many Islamists from various movements feel that tensions among Islamists are actually greater than the tensions Islamists have with the regime. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood now faces internal tensions between the old guard and the younger generation regarding issues and approach, in addition to challenges from moderate and radical points of view from outside the movement. As a result, instead of Islamists waging political battle against the regime or Islamists battling jihadists, the Islamists increasingly are battling other Islamists. A battle to gain influence among Islamists has erupted on all sides of the Muslim Brotherhood, which threatens the influence the Muslim Brotherhood holds over the political aspects of Islam within Egypt. At this point, no Islamist group clearly leads the pack. November's multi-staged parliamentary elections will serve as a partial predictor of the level of influence enjoyed by the competing Islamist groups. However, many factors will hinder a clear glimpse of the actual political situation among Islamists in the country. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, it likely will not be able to make the kind of showing it would make unhindered by the government. Additionally, as most political groups outside the regime — Islamist or secular — are in their infancy and experience frequent government-imposed obstacles, such groups' electoral showings will be stunted. Finally, Egypt's lack of free and fair elections in the country to this point will persist through the parliamentary elections, thus allowing the regime a continued unfair advantage and so further concealing who is winning the competition for influence among Islamists. In the short run, the NDP stands to gain most from the divisions among the various Islamists factions. Such fractures in Islamist philosophy and leadership mean the NDP will not need to work as hard to divide the opposition. It may also mean NDP victories in some parliamentary constituencies in which a majority of voters support Islamist candidates, given that the Islamist vote will be divided among several Islamist candidates. Additionally, if al-Zayat's move into politics emerges — as he hopes— into a trend, the movement toward political solutions to problems raised by militants could diminish the jihadist resurgence in the country.