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Dec 6, 2014 | 14:00 GMT

5 mins read

Egypt's Fragmenting Islamist and Secular Camps

Egypt's Fragmenting Islamist and Secular Camps
(MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The return of protests to Egypt is a sign of potential trouble for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's military-backed government, especially in the lead up to parliamentary elections in March 2015. As long as Cairo can maintain the current ideological polarization in the country, it does not face any significant threat. The government benefits from tension between Islamists and secularists and among various Islamist movements. However, the fragmentation of the secularist camp risks a realignment of Egypt's cross-ideological, pro-democracy forces.

Three different forces are trying to launch protests in Egypt, but so far they are staying out of each other's way. Periodically throughout the past 17 months, the Muslim Brotherhood has continued staging demonstrations against the July 13, 2013, coup that ousted the government of Mohammed Morsi. Similarly, a new Salafist entity called the Salafi Front has been calling for protests and even planned a demonstration Nov. 28, though as expected it could not muster enough of a crowd to make a decent showing. Now, with a court clearing former President Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his interior minister of any involvement in the killing of protesters in the Arab Spring uprising in early 2011, secular groups have also begun agitating.

Divisions Among the Islamists

Essentially, the political landscape in the world's largest Arab state is extremely fragmented. Islamists are generally divided into two camps. On one side is the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement, and its allied groups; on the other side are the Salafists. The crackdown following the 2013 coup mounted by current President (and then-military chief) Field Marshal al-Sisi has prevented the Brotherhood from destabilizing the current government. However, the movement still can stage low-level but sustained protests with the expectation that al-Sisi will not be able to address the economic problems plaguing the country, which depends heavily on cash infusions from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies.

On the Salafist side, there have been many divisions. The country's second-largest Islamist party, al-Nour, which came in second place in the last legislative polls in 2011-2012, is eyeing the next round of elections slated for late March. Al-Nour abandoned its earlier alignment with the Brotherhood government, supporting the coup against Morsi. The party continues to back the al-Sisi government despite opposition from secularist forces within the state and society. Fellow Salafists and other Islamists have also criticized the group, calling its unusually pragmatic stance as tantamount to selling out on Islamist principles. 

Some half a dozen other Salafist parties do not support either al-Nour or the Brotherhood. The quietist Salafists continue to press ahead with their apolitical approach. Jihadist Salafist groups, such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr, continue to stage attacks in Sinai and the mainland, and there is evidence that some jihadists may have aligned with the Islamic State. Most recently, the Salafi Front emerged and called for protests to foment an "Islamic" revolution.

The Secularist Side

Elsewhere, post-Islamist forces such as the Strong Party, Hizb al-Wasat and several others are trying to create a centrist position by aligning with more democratic secularists. The secularists are also deeply divided — largely between those who support the military and those who want democracy. The pro-government groups include Tamarod, the Egyptian Front, Masr al-Orouba and the Egyptian Wafd Alliance. The pro-democracy groups include the Civilian Democratic Alliance and the April 6 Youth Movement. The pro-democracy camp is slowly emerging after aligning against the Brotherhood. These democratic-minded secularists have yet to decide whether they love democracy more than they hate the Brotherhood and Islamists. 

Herein lies a potential problem for the government, which forms the biggest component of the secular camp but suffers from its own fissures as well. Al-Sisi and military leaders understand that they have to work with some Islamist forces as well as maintain a safe distance from the old guard. But the state that al-Sisi and the generals preside over contains hard-line elements, many of who either are Mubarak-era officials or have ties to the ousted president and his allies. These elements are strewn throughout the state, in both civil and security sectors of the bureaucracy, and are likely responsible for the verdict clearing Mubarak, his sons, his interior minister, six police commanders and some close businessman friends of murder and corruption charges.

It is noteworthy that al-Sisi has avoided commenting on Mubarak's acquittal for his role in the killings of protesters during the 2011 uprising. Al-Sisi's prime minister is citing the principle of separation of powers as a way to deflect criticism from secularist groups who are opposed to the verdict and are preparing to take to the streets. Al-Sisi and the military do not want anything that could unify the different protesting groups on the streets, because it could create an unmanageable state of unrest. There is also the fear that if the economy does not improve, public support for al-Sisi could eventually wane. Moreover, the Supreme Electoral Commission has rejected applications from former army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan and Tamarod — the movement responsible for the massive agitation that led to Morsi's ouster — to form political parties. This political rejection, along with the Mubarak verdict, shows that the state is at odds with itself, which does not bode well for its ability to contain social dissent.

As it deals with its internal disagreements, the government must prevent the emergence of conditions for cross-ideological cooperation, especially if public patience runs out amid continuing bad economic conditions. Put differently, the government wants the fault lines between Islamists and secularists, and among Islamist groups, to endure in order to prevent the alignment of democratic players versus autocratic players. This is especially important ahead of parliamentary elections, after which al-Sisi could have a divided legislature that he can more easily manage. But fragmentation is a process that cannot be managed easily by autocratic systems, especially if it spreads to the ruling camp. 

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