In one of the many bizarre twists of Egypt’s recent political convulsion, hardline Salafi parties look poised to replace the Muslim Brotherhood as the most important Islamist players in the political process. It’s a situation ripe with irony: For years, the Brotherhood represented the “good guys” of the Islamist world – a movement that other parties could deal with – while the Salafis were irreconcilable zealots bent on establishing an Islamist state by any means necessary. But with former “bad guys” redeeming themselves by siding with the opposition in the weeks preceding President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster, they now have a shot at becoming the standard-bearers for Islamist politics in the Arab world’s largest nation.
The Nour Party, the largest Islamist organization, joined in the opposition’s call for Morsi to step down, claiming that he and the Muslim Brotherhood were attempting to monopolize power. But it did not participate officially in the street protests against the Brotherhood, and has been sitting on the fence ever since, criticizing the military’s transition roadmap and its constitutional proclamation, and declaring that their members would neither join the transitional government nor oppose it.
Salafist participation, however, will come at a price – and there’s no guarantee that Egypt’s new rulers will want to pay it. The military officers that deposed Morsi – along with the parties and personalities now trying to ride their coattails into power – are facing a difficult choice: Should they include Islamists in the new system? Or should they seek to push them resolutely to the margins, as Hosni Mubarak and a succession of previous governments did?
It’s not clear that this decision has been made yet. Officially, the military and its civilian appointees now argue that Islamists must be included in the political process. In practice, however, the actions of the military and its allies tell a different story: Muslim Brotherhood leaders are being rounded up in growing numbers, Islamist television channels have been shuttered, and dozens of Morsi supporters have been shot dead on the street by the police and army.
At the same time, the new leadership has made a huge concession to Salafis by including in its July 8 constitutional proclamation some of the most controversial clauses of the suspended 2012 constitution. Article 1 of the proclamation proclaims Islam to be the religion of the state and the principles of sharia the main source of legislation. It was the Salafis, particularly members of the Nour Party, who insisted on including these stipulations in the constitution.
There is no guarantee, however, that the Salafi parties can coexist in the long term with their new secular allies. Tamarod, the “rebel” movement that spearheaded the June 30 demonstrations, was incensed by references to sharia in the constitutional proclamation and is opposed to Islamist participation in the new government. Many of the so-called liberals in the National Salvation Front and in the business community also call, at least privately, for the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party – and do not hide their desire to see a ban on all parties with a religious orientation in the new constitution. Indeed, a major secular-Islamist battle is brewing over the writing of the new constitution.