Egypt’s Islamist divide

The coup against president Mohamad Morsi has exposed fissures in political Islam.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans and wave Egyptian flags during a protest around the Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Nasr City
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters shout pro-Morsi slogans in Nasr City [Reuters]

Cairo, Egypt – Stunning events over the past few days have shown Egypt is sharply polarised between conservative Muslims on one side, and young, secular liberals on the other, but also exposed serious divisions among Islamists themselves.

Dozens have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in clashes after president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military last week, a year after he came to power through the country’s first democratic elections.

Morsi supporters have taken to the street chanting verses from the holy Koran and praying for “martyrdom” in their quest to reinstate the president, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood leader. Noticeably missing from the demonstrations are the Brotherhood’s former Islamist allies from the Al-Nour and Salafi Call parties.   

The Salafis – who adhere to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam – had been Brotherhood backers since the 2011 revolt that toppled autocratic president Honsi Mubarak, whose regime had oppressed all Islamist factions during his hardline rule.

It's not an ideological nor a religious conflict, but a political one. The Nour and Salafi Call parties feel betrayed. They have endorsed Morsi ... but the Brotherhood would not share.

by Khalil al-Anani, political analyst at Dunham University

After demonstrations against Morsi heated up late last month, the Salafis bailed out on the Brotherhood, with the Nour Party – Egypt’s second-largest religious force – even supporting the military coup against him.  

The two Salafist parties have upheld a “roadmap” imposed by the army that replaced Morsi with an interim president, suspended the Islamist-drafted constitution, and called for early elections.

Some observers see the split as payback by the Salafis for perceived Muslim Brotherhood slights as they shared the reins of Egypt’s government over the past year.

“It’s not an ideological nor a religious conflict, but a political one,” explained Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Dunham University.

“The Nour and Salafi Call parties feel betrayed. They have endorsed Morsi as a presidential candidate, and in November supported the constitution shaped by the Brotherhood, all in exchange for more power. But the Brotherhood would not share,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters have taken to the streets across the country in recent days, in defiance of a declaration made by the army’s chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Angry crowds have engaged in deadly confrontations with Morsi opponents, and the violence is showing no signs of abating.

‘No rift’

While the Salafis supported the army’s move to remove Morsi, one political insider denied to Al Jazeera that there was a split among Islamists.

“There are no rifts, the Islamist bloc is solid and unified,” said Mohamed Hassaan from the Salafi Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya party, a Morsi-ally. “Nour Party is not that influential anyway, and their defection isn’t significant.”

But the analyst Anani disagreed, highlighting the 2012 elections in which Nour won 25 percent of the seats and became the second-biggest party in the legislature. “After the Brotherhood’s fall, Nour is currently the strongest Islamic political party in the country,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood held about 50 percent of the seats in the now-dissolved assembly.

Gehad el-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said Nour had lost much of its political base after siding with the military overthrow of Morsi.

“The Nour Party has lost most of its supporters and members over the past period,” Haddad told Al Jazeera. “In statesmanship, military coups are the highest levels of treason, and those who support them are traitors.”

But the Nour Party said Morsi left it with no choice, alleging he declined moves aimed ending a months-long row that had festered between the parties.

“Egypt was on the brink of a civil war and he was not accepting any proposals or compromises that would save the situation,” Ashraf Thabet, a Nour member and former legislator, told Al Jazeera.

“We were always supporters of Morsi’s legitimacy as an elected president, but things kept getting worse and nothing was done about it,” he said.

Morsi, 61, rapidly won the animosity of secular and liberal movements shortly after he came to office in June 2012. He was accused of marginalising them, breaking promises made in electoral speeches, bolstering Islamists’ authority in the country, and worsening an already-deteriorating economy.

Foundations shaken

The unhappiness surrounding his rule culminated in massive protests that overflowed Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other parts of the country starting June 30, until the army stepped in last Wednesday and ousted Morsi.

“The ideological grounds which the Muslim Brotherhood had of democracy being the correct way to rule is now shaking,” the group’s spokesman Haddad said. “We’re now receiving comments of, ‘We’ve told you so, democracy is not for Muslims,’” he said.

And the threat of violence continues throughout the country with spirited protests and counter demonstrations each day.

Islamist militias on the Sinai peninsula have vowed to retaliate against the Egyptian army for Morsi’s removal. A Coptic priest was shot and killed in the region on Saturday, and five security force members died Friday after checkpoints came attack in Rafah, on the Egyptian-Palestinian border.

“The significant part of the Islamist youth have lost faith in democracy,” the analyst Anani said. “They’ve found themselves facing two options: either to resort to violence, as was the case in Algeria, or adopt a different ideology like in the Turkish scenario. I hope they’ll be wise and realistic.”

Anani said Morsi’s ouster will lead to further fissures among Islamist groups. “More divisions are bound to happen among political Islamists. We will see more fractures among Morsi supporters and more members will split from the Nour Party. These developments have put political Islam in Egypt at stake.”

Islamist parties have been the biggest winners since the Arab Spring swept over the region in 2011. In Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood linked Ennahda Party that holds power is also facing demands for political change.

Nour’s Thabet said like any political entity, his party will continue participating in Egypt’s political scene “although our main focus at the moment is to end the bloodshed”.

Hassaan from the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya party, meanwhile, ruled out the army’s “roadmap”, saying it would never work without the support of Islamists.

“It’s impossible for such massive protests staged by Islamists to be ignored,” he said.

Asked if the Brotherhood would reemerge as a political force, Haddad replied, “We’re the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no worst case scenario for us. We press till our demands are met.”

But Anani said he wasn’t so sure a comeback by any Islamist party was in the cards.

“The game is over for Islamists now. They will not be able to come back to power at the moment, and they must learn from their lessons, change their ideologies and look ahead,” he said.  

Source: Al Jazeera