The growing public split between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis has grabbed the headlines in Egypt over the past few weeks as the Islamist factions jockey for power ahead of parliamentary elections.
In a series of news conferences and statements made over the last month, leaders of the Salafi al-Nour party have launched an unprecedented public attack on the Muslim Brotherhood, its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and President Mohamed Morsi himself, accusing all of failing to lead the country, appointing a weak government, and power-grabbing.
Further complicating Egypt’s tumultuous political scene, a court ruling issued last week suspended the elections originally scheduled for next month, and ordered a review of the election law by the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The conflict between Islamist factions gained momentum at the end of January, when al-Nour – which came second behind FJP in parliamentary elections after former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down – announced a new initiative for “national reconciliation” that brought its position closer to the National Salvation Front (NSF), Egypt’s main secular opposition group.
The initiative, which supported the changing of the cabinet, selecting a new public prosecutor, and amending the constitution, was praised by the NSF.
“Once Islamist political forces defeat their liberal and socialist opponents … the real conflict will start. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis will turn against each other.“
– Nageh Ibrahim, Islamist leader
Two weeks later, two of al-Nour’s senior leaders left their posts as advisers to President Morsi, complaining of marginalisation and distortion campaigns against them and al-Nour.
Khaled Alam Eddin, Morsi’s adviser for environmental affairs, was dismissed last month for allegedly misusing his public post for illegal benefits. Alam Eddin demanded the president provide evidence against him or apologise.
Amid the hubbub, another al-Nour leader – Bassem al-Zarqa, presidential adviser for political affairs – announced his resignation in solidarity with Alam Eddin.
During a January meeting with Morsi, broadcast live from the presidential palace on state TV, al-Nour’s Chairman Younis Makhyoun told the president that negotiations with other political forces had reached a “deadlock”.
Nageh Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian Islamist leader and writer, said with the election on the horizon the split between the Islamist factions is intensifying. After all, the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis was only temporary, he said.
“Politics is about conflict and defeating your opponents … Once Islamist political forces defeat their liberal and socialist opponents in the National Salvation Front, the real conflict will start,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera. “The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis will turn against each other.”
Salafis adhere to a puritanical interpretation of Islam. For decades they were forced to stay away from politics fearing persecution, and instead focused on religious preaching and social work.
Established in May 2001, the al-Nour party surprised many observers after winning about 25 percent of parliamentary seats during 2011-12 elections, making it the second most powerful political force in the country after the Muslim Brotherhood.
The political rift between the two groups has also spilled over into the religious realm. Several Salafi leaders resigned from The Islamic Legitimate Body for Rights and Reform (ILBRR) – a religious group established after the 2011 revolution to help coordinate efforts among Egypt’s rising religious political forces – accusing it of falling under the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence.
The coalition includes 119 of Egypt’s top religious scholars and activists, and it has helped Islamists converge on political issues, including the constitution, elections, public rallies, and support for Morsi during the presidential elections.
“The ILBRR is politicised. It is always biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ashraf Thabet, deputy chairman of al-Nour told Al Jazeera.
Thabet said his party’s latest actions are a response to the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood. He accused Morsi of appointing numerous unqualified Brotherhood leaders to senior posts to consolidate control over the country’s executive branch, while ignoring al-Nour’s political reconciliation initiative.
“The Islamic project is not owned by any single group. We have no strategic partners or enemies,” Thabet said. “What should we do when there is injustice committed by one of the Islamist parties? Should we keep silent and look the other way?”
Many believe that the coalition between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis has been detrimental to Egypt’s political progress since the 2011 revolution began. Both parties have supported early elections, controlled the majority of post-revolution legislative bodies, set legislative agendas, and dominated the writing of Egypt’s new constitution.
But convergence on these topics has not meant unity. The two groups ran on separate tickets during the elections of Egypt’s two houses of parliament held in several stages between the end of 2011 until mid-2012.
And during Egypt’s presidential elections in May and June of last year, al-Nour initially supported the campaign of Muslim Brotherhood-dissident Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh in the first round.
Ali Baker, an expert in Egyptian political religious movements at Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera the rift between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood is both “ideological and political”.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is committed to a calm discourse. We have a long history and we faced many bigger crises.“
– Ahmed Aref, Muslim Brotherhood
“At the ideological level, each group believes it has the right understanding of Islam and its role in politics,” said Baker. “At the political level, Salafis fear that if Muslim Brotherhood dominates politically, it will exclude them. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to weaken the Salafis’ ability to compete over the Islamist vote.”
Tension over elections
Ahmed Aref, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al Jazeera that al-Nour’s latest criticism of his movement is linked to approaching parliamentary elections.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is committed to a calm discourse. We have a long history and we faced many bigger crises,” Aref said.
But the Islamist writer Ibrahim said the Brotherhood has the wrong attitude towards other conservative groups in the country, acting as a “big brother” with no tolerance for dissent.
“The Muslim Brotherhood sees themselves as the spiritual father of all Egyptian Islamist groups. Their current presence in power gives them more influence. [The Brotherhood believes] all the sons have to come under the banner of the father. They should not disobey …They should [always] support him even if he is wrong.”
Khalil al-Anany, an expert in Egyptian religious groups at the UK-based Durham University, said al-Nour has to take a tougher stand against the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of upcoming elections in order to “energise” its grassroots.
“Al-Nour is often accused of [tailing] the Muslim Brotherhood all the way up. Ahead of elections, they want to tell their grassroots supporters that they are independent.”
Anany also said al-Nour has publicly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood because it failed to offer a clear plan on the country’s future, and how much power it will share with its allies, such as the Salafis, in Egypt.
“Salafis want their piece of the cake,” he said.