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Jan 20, 2012 | 00:08 GMT

17 mins read

Special Report: The Rise of Egypt's Islamists

Stratfor

Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the hard-line Salafist al-Nour party and the liberal Wafd Party convened Jan. 16 to select the future leaders of the incoming People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament. During the meeting, the parties agreed that the FJP, which has won the largest percentage of seats in the lower house thus far at about 46 percent, would nominate a parliamentary speaker. Al-Nour, which has surprised observers both in Egypt and internationally by winning 24 percent of seats so far, and Wafd, which has won 9 percent of seats, each would have the authority to nominate a deputy speaker.

With two of the three parties recording the largest parliamentary gains thus far explicitly Islamist in their political philosophy, the movement appears to have achieved a level of official representation long denied them by the military regime that has ruled Egypt since the 1950s.

Early in Egypt's political crisis, it was clear that Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, would resurface in their role as an opposition force to the military regime. Throughout Egypt's modern history, when these groups — the Muslim Brotherhood, their rivals the Salafists, and in some cases jihadist elements — have challenged the interests of the ruling regime, the state has resorted to autocratic measures and divide-and-conquer strategies to contain their influence.

The developments that led to the January 2011 unrest and the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak have forced the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to allow multi-party politics, which in turn allowed the rise of both Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in the parliament. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movements represent diverse trends in Islamism, but it is not the main reason for their success in polls. Each group has created official political parties with platforms that appeal to the social and economic priorities of large swaths of the Egyptian public. This Stratfor special report will examine the individuals that make up the Islamist movements, the segments of Egyptian society that support them and the groups' political aims for Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

Muslim Brotherhood

Islamist movements have a long history in Egypt, none more so than the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Founded in 1928 in Ismailia, Egypt, the Brotherhood was the first Islamist movement in the country and has served as a springboard from which many other ideologies and factions have emerged, including more conservative movements such as the Salafists and the jihadist groups that began surfacing in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Before the 2011 unrest, the MB was the primary opponent of the monarchy and later the military regime. It adopted nationalist rhetoric against foreign influence and demanded an end to martial law and the restoration of parliamentary democracy. The relationship between the MB and the military throughout modern Egyptian history fluctuated between one of repression, including the 1954 mass arrest of MB leadership, to strategic tolerance in which it was allowed to operate as a social organization.

The MB has survived as an officially banned but still tolerated group for decades because it has learned to adapt. Under President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, it officially disavowed violence and was granted a reprieve by the regime, giving it the ability to rebuild its organizational hierarchy and civil society presence. The group shed its radical elements and learned to operate effectively within the constraints the military regime placed on it. The networks it developed in this period are the same ones that have allowed it to effectively mobilize supporters to the polls and to the streets. MB leaders approached the unrest in Cairo's Tahrir Square cautiously and refrained from official support for the protests until it was clear that it would be to their advantage. They announced their official support on Jan. 27, 2011, as the protests were gaining full strength, and they played a decisive role in organizing protests afterward.

In the transition phase, the MB avoided unnecessarily antagonizing the SCAF or giving the military council an excuse to delay the elections. However, it has taken a different approach when the military has directly challenged one of its priorities. On Nov. 18, the MB participated in one of the largest protests in the transition period in response to SCAF's announcement that it planned to enact so-called "supra-constitutional principles" that would transcend the authority of the constitution. Viewing this as a possible constraint on its parliamentary influence, the MB helped mobilized large protests that made the SCAF back down from the proposal. This ability to mobilize supporters continues to give the group some leverage over the military council, though MB leaders have avoided supporting the diluted, drawn-out sit-ins against issues such as military trials that pro-democracy youth protesters regularly organize.

After Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, 2011, the MB created the FJP, a separate political party that would give it room to maneuver politically and still adhere to election laws regarding the separation of religion and the state. The MB transferred many of its leaders with political experience to the FJP's executive board, such as President Mohammad Morsi, Vice President Essam al-Eryan and Secretary-General Saad al-Katatny, all of whom ran for parliament in 2005 and 2010 as independents or under other parties but unofficially represented the Muslim Brotherhood. The FJP also includes Christians as a way of portraying itself as diverse and tolerant; FJP Second Vice President Rafiq al-Habib was selected because he is a Coptic Christian).

Similarly, the FJP in June 2011 created a political coalition called the Democratic Alliance with several other parties from across the political spectrum, ostensibly to coordinate electoral strategies. In the Democratic Alliance, the FJP collaborated with secular, liberal parties in order to make its identity as Islamists less threatening to the Egyptian public and international community. However, the FJP overwhelmingly dominates the alliance. At its peak, the alliance included 40 parties, but it now includes only 11. Many parties, including the al-Nour and the Salafist al-Asala, left the coalition complaining that the FJP was not offering them enough seats on the electoral list.

The public statements of FJP leaders sometimes contradict the party's official stance, but their written platform was constructed to resemble those of many liberal, non-Islamist parties and appeal to the demands of voters in the middle and middle-lower classes. The FJP's platform only briefly discusses religion, but FJP leaders have made public statements advocating a civil state that references the "Maqased," or objectives of Sharia, as guidance. Economically, the FJP emphasizes social services, microloan programs, subsidies for lower income homes and fair wages and health insurance for laborers. To accommodate their broad base among Egypt's professional middle class, the party emphasizes its commitment to private enterprise and liberalizing Egypt's economy, saying the government's role is limited to maintaining a healthy investment climate. It is too early to know how these positions will be interpreted as the FJP actually begins governing, but the party's emphasis on the economy and on stability has played a large part in its electoral success.

The MB's support base consists mostly of the urban professional middle class and certain poor urban communities. Almost half of Egypt's urban population lives in shantytowns. Both the MB and the Salafists have areas of influence that extend into different shantytowns because of the social and administrative services they have provided since the 1970s. The young men who live in the urban shantytowns built by Nasser on the margins of Cairo look to these movements for jobs because without jobs they cannot afford the dowry necessary for marriage and family life. Urban professionals who support the FJP — doctors, lawyers, and professors — mainly seek stability in governance. The MB has deep roots in this middle-class segment of society and influential professional associations. In the October elections for the national board of the doctor's association, MB candidates won 75 percent of the seats and the chairmanship. This trend repeated itself in similar professional associations for engineers, lawyers, recreation clubs, teachers, and pharmacists. These victories were the indications of the level of support the MB would find in the November elections.

The MB has generally demonstrated an ability to adapt to its political landscape, but it historically has had difficulty reconciling the views of the old guard with those of the young leadership. The Wasat Party (founded in 1996) and the Egyptian Current Party (founded in June 2011) are former organs of the MB that split off to form their own moderate political parties. The Egyptian Current Party is led by the former leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood's youth wing, Mohamed al-Kassas, Islam Lotfy and Ahmed Abd al-Gawad. The leaders describe the party as "pragmatic and non-ideological," embracing Islamic values without the enforcement of Islamic law, and condemn the FJP leaders for opposing diversity. After splitting from the FJP, they allied with the Revolution Continues coalition, which garnered only 3.5 percent in the first round of polls for the People's Assembly. They have a presence in the polls and represent emergent trends in moderate and activist Islamism but have not posed a serious challenge to their parent organization.

Salafists

Al-Nour

The al-Nour party came in second to the FJP in elections that have taken place thus far, winning about 24 percent of parliamentary seats in lower house. It is the largest Salafist party and derived from the ultraconservative Salafi Call religious movement. The ideological movement derived from the Salafi/Wahhabi movement that originated in Saudi Arabia but emerged in Egypt at the University of Alexandria in the 1970s. They are characterized by a strict interpretation of Islam and publicly state that their goal is the "gradual transition to Sharia." This emphasis on gradualism is a key element of the Salafist doctrine, which posits that a society must be transformed before it can become an Islamic state. However, it also conveniently serves their political purposes as they try to ingratiate their party with the broader Egyptian and international communities.

The formation of the al-Nour political party in June 2011 is a noteworthy phase in the evolution of the Salafist movement. For most of their existence, Salafists have been apolitical, which is why elements of the movement have historically turned to terrorism to achieve their ends in what they perceive as a society increasingly distancing itself from Islam. Many Salafists previously condemned any laws not explicitly stated in the Koran as heretical, believing that the religious text should dictate how they live. Because of this belief, the Salafists were not considered by the military regime to be a viable political threat. They were given room to maneuver on the ground in the 1950s and 1960s while the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and its leaders, such as Hassan al-Hudaybi, were detained. This room to maneuver allowed Salafists to begin establishing roots in these communities, organizing out of mosques and with many of the leaders serving as local sheikhs.

Their entrance into the political sphere after the 2011 unrest was not expected for several reasons. First, part of their demographic base was woven into the populous urban slums that often operated outside the attention of the official government and security apparatus. Also, the absence of the Salafists from the political stage in the previous decades offered few indicators of their political potential, which, with the party winning the second-largest percentage of the vote, has proven considerable.

The al-Nour party emerged directly from the Salafi Call movement based in Alexandria and was officially licensed in 2011. The Salafist movement developed in pockets in other regions as well, such as Cairo, where the al-Asala Party is based. Despite their leadership difference, it is clear that the al-Asala Party is dependent on the activities and momentum of the al-Nour party for its success. The leader of al-Asala, Adel Abdel-Maqsoud Afify, previously founded the al-Fadila party, but it disbanded after Mubarak's ouster, most likely the result of internal disputes.

The al-Nour party is led by Salafi al-Dawa preachers and scholars, including its president and founder, Emad Abdel Ghafour and co-founder Yasser Hussein Borhami. Abdel Ghafour was a potent force in the Egyptian Salafists' move into the political realm and is a prominent Salafi scholar who has traveled across the region. Borhami is an Egyptian preacher whose father had been detained for involvement in the MB when he was 17. He studied medicine at Alexandria University when radical Islamism was on the rise and was active in Salafist student circles. He has no official post in the party, but he speaks regularly at al-Nour rallies and is an influential force in shaping their political beliefs.

The official al-Nour platform is based on a stricter interpretation of Islamism than that of the FJP. They seek to apply Sharia in a gradual way that suits the nature of Islam and emphasize that science, not secularism, is the key to modernity. However, their platform extends beyond religious matters to cover the key bureaucratic and economic concerns of their constituents. Al-Nour frames their socioeconomic platform in the Islamic principles of Zakat (almsgiving), Waqf (donations or investments in religious or charitable organizations and projects) and Islamic banking, which prohibits interest on loans.

While the party backs a more conservative version of Islamism than the FJP, it also favors a more activist role for government, befitting its status as the advocate for the urban poor. Al-Nour is a proponent of universal healthcare and the expansion of national vocational programs and public projects. The party favors anti-trust laws and backs raising government investment in research and development for civil and military industries to at least 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product. It also backs nationalizing strategic food and military industries to not be dependent on foreign nations.

Salafism exists in many regions of Egypt as a social movement, but the al-Nour political party's base centers in Alexandria. The party's leaders recognize that this geographic concentration serves as a constraint. The rival Freedom and Justice Party has loyalties that cut across social strata and pervade most of Egypt. After leaving the Democratic Alliance, al-Nour created the Islamist Bloc political coalition, which allows the party to manipulate political loyalties in its favor and extend its geographic reach beyond the Egyptian Nile Delta. The Islamist Bloc is made up of the al-Nour party, al-Asala Party, and Gamaa al-Islamiya's Building and Development Party (BDP), but on official polling sheets they operate only under the name of al-Nour. Of the 695 seats that the Islamist Bloc will be competing for, al-Nour candidates will take 610 of those candidate positions (about 85 percent), al-Asala will take 40 and the BDP will take 45.  

The coalition also lets the al-Nour party effectively exploit the geographic bases of the other two parties in order to extend its geographic reach and political influence — and al-Asala and the BDP have few options other than to let them. Because of their ultraconservative ideologies and Gamaa al-Islamiya's use of political violence in the past, alliances elsewhere are unlikely, and they do not have the traction to take to the polls on their own.

The al-Nour party's main stronghold is in the Delta region. In a press conference Oct. 27, the al-Nour party spokesman said it will project influence from Alexandria in the north, and al-Asala will project influence from Cairo south into Upper Egypt. The spokesman said Upper Egypt would be the main region of contention. Deep-rooted tribalism and loyalties still exist to remnants of the Mubarak network, which sit at the head of influential families in those villages and towns. They have delegated Gamaa al-Islamiya's Building and Development Party to campaign there on behalf of the Islamist Bloc to convince prominent sheikhs in the region to court voters and warn them that voting for the Mubarak remnants will send Egypt backwards. Whether or not these expectations will be realized in poll results, a geographic strategy was a key factor in the organization of the Islamist Bloc campaign.

Gamaa al-Islamiya

Gamaa al-Islamiya, or the Egyptian Islamic Group, formed the Building and Development Party (BPD) on June 20, 2011. The party was founded by Tareq al-Zumur, who spent 30 years in prison for participation in the planning of Anwar Sadat's assassination. Like al-Nour, Gamaa al-Islamiya is ideologically Salafist and is the third party in the Islamist Bloc political coalition. The Gamaa al-Islamiya movement was formed by a small group of university students that held militant views of Islam and wanted to overthrow the government. They led violent campaigns against the state in the 1990s and killed several foreign tourists, but in 1999, Gamaa al-Islamiya renounced violence and declared they wanted to participate in democratic elections. To many Egyptians, Gamaa al-Islamiya's views are still too extreme. For instance, they seek to apply the strict "Hudud" Quranic punishments to the penal code and to subject freedom of expression to Islamic law. Their principles include challenging Westernization and secularization and supporting the "traditional roles" of family and women in society.

The Egyptian government's committee that determines eligibility for political parties denied the BDP a license because of their religious views until it appealed the ruling in October. The military council may have used this as a move to check the influence of the FJP. In the past, they have often played extreme Islamists off the more moderate elements of MB. In another instance, SCAF banned religious slogans in political campaigns on Oct. 8 and insisted the FJP change their slogan from "Islam is the Solution" to a slogan without religious overtones but they refused. SCAF then approved the BDP's appeal for party licensing, and soon after the FJP changed their slogan to "We carry the good of Egypt," which they have continued to use throughout the elections.

Conclusion

The various Islamist parties garnered approximately 70 percent in People's Assembly polls, but this 70 percent represents a spectrum of characters, organizations, and beliefs that developed gradually and often in tension with one another. To be successful in the polls, the diverse Islamist groups have to compete with one another just as much as they have to manage their relationships with the SCAF, the media, and liberal groups. The Freedom and Justice Party and the al-Nour party similarly exploit the Democratic Alliance and Islamist Bloc, respectively, to compete with one another and overcome what they perceive as their greatest constraints. For the MB, this means countering its image as a potentially radical actor, and for al-Nour, it means growing beyond its relatively limited base of support and competing with the considerable historic legacy of the MB.

The elections in Egypt will not produce a government of liberal, secular parties as some believed during the tumultuous days of the so-called Arab Spring, but an Islamist-dominated parliament. It is not yet clear what political power the parliament will be delegated by the constitution, but this is only one constraint among the many that the Islamist parties must deal with. They do not have experience in official administration and have many audiences that they must address. To the SCAF, they will try to balance encroaching on the military regime's prerogatives against their political ambitions. To international spectators and liberal, secular elements in Egypt, they will try to portray themselves as inclusive and pragmatic. And to the large segments of society that voted for them — the urban poor, the professional middle class, and the others who just see them as an uncorrupted alternative to the Mubarak regime and the military — they will strive to meet the promises laid out in their campaign platforms, as the failure to do so will erode their leverage against the military council and allow their opportunity to take control of the country's affairs to pass unrealized.

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