Saturday, June 23, 2012
Dynamics of inter-Islamist conflict
One of the features of the Islamist scene following the Arab Spring is discord and fragmentation, due to an unprecedented rise in the degree of competition, polarisation and conflict within that movement. Egypt offers a unique window into the tensions between Islamist groups whose relationships are shifting around the clock as the result of the political decisions one faction or another might make.
It is possible to speak in terms of four dynamics to the conflict between and within Islamist movements. The first plays out on a purely political game board and is totally focused on attaining mundane interests that have no connection with religion or ideology. The most visible political conflict in Egypt now (apart from the conflict with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is between the two largest Islamist forces. The Muslim Brotherhood with its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Calling together with its Nour Party have locked horns over control of the state, society and public space, and their struggle has grown fiercer with every hurdle of the transitional phase, the latest being the presidential elections. The Salafist Calling's decision to throw its weight behind Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh was a purely political decision that reflected the Salafis' fears of Muslim Brotherhood control over all the institutions of government. Surprisingly, a similar political logic led other Salafi leaders and sheikhs to reject Abul-Fotouh and back Mohamed Mursi (the Brotherhood's candidate), on the grounds that he had a "project for national revival", not because he was more religious or pious than Abul-Fotouh.
If the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have not yet reached the point of open conflict, they nevertheless reflect the anxieties each have about the other. Since the revolution, the Muslim Brothers have treated the Salafis as their political subordinates. The Salafis needed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brothers thought, not only because they were organisationally and politically weak and inexperienced, but also because, even if they had no great love for the Muslim Brotherhood, they would at least want to align with it in a front against the secularists and liberals. The Muslim Brothers' condescension towards the Salafis reached such a peak during the last parliamentary elections that the Salafis suddenly decided to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood-led list, which did not feature many Salafi candidates, and instead formed their own list. The results that the Salafis achieved in the parliamentary polls startled the Muslim Brothers more than other political forces.
The Salafis, for their part, tried to co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood for their own purposes. They gave it the lead in areas where they knew they lacked sufficient expertise, such as in parliament or in negotiations with SCAF, but they never allowed themselves to fall into the Muslim Brotherhood's pocket. At the same time, the Salafis deftly averted becoming the "sacrificial lamb" in the conflict between the Muslim Brothers and SCAF over the questions of the dismissal/formation of a government and the formation of the Constituent Assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. The Salafis best demonstrated their astuteness at the political game during the presidential nominations when they decided to back Abul-Futouh. Judging by subsequent statements issued by El-Nour and Salafist Calling leaders, there is little doubt that this move was primarily aimed against the Muslim Brotherhood rather than prompted by any particular fondness for -- or conviction in -- their candidate of choice.
But what is truly amazing is that Salafi leaders and preachers would then market Abul-Fotouh in conservative Salafist circles. In a lecture to his fellow Salafis, Sheikh Yasser Burhami, the religious ideologue and spiritual leader of El-Nour Party, sought to persuade his audience that the Salafist Calling and Nour Party took the politically and religiously correct position in declaring their support for Abul-Fotouh. Was it Abul-Fotouh's persuasiveness and negotiating brilliance that won over the Salafis, or was the realism and pragmatism that the Salafis adopted since the revolution that was key to their choice of him as their candidate? The question is difficult to answer. What is certain is that this move exposed the tensions seething beneath the surface. The Brotherhood-Salafist conflict is now out in the open, splashed across the front pages of the newspapers and blaring over the satellite television stations. Mahmoud Ghazlan, a prominent Brotherhood hardliner, launched a scathing attack against Salafi leaders such as Sheikh Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, a Salafi hardliner, accusing them of deviating from the "Islamic interest" by supporting Abul-Fotouh. Salafi leaders returned the fire and the two sides have since been exchanging barrages of accusations and invective, hurling at each other charges of treachery, betrayal of fixed principles, and sinfulness.
The second dynamic of inter-Islamist conflict has to do with spheres of activity and influence. Rivalries between the Islamists have begun to spread through both the religious and non-religious satellite television programmes, and each side is racing to expand its political and ideological umbrella beyond the boundaries of its organisational and religious bases. Take, for example, the intensive religious sloganeering in FJP candidate Mursi's campaign, which far outstrips the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary campaigns in this regard. True, the use of religion in political propaganda is one of the Muslim Brotherhood's trademarks, but their use of it in the current elections has been unprecedented since the 1990s. Of particular note, today, is the heavy emphasis the Mursi campaign places on the application of Islamic law, which seems intended to win over the hardliners in Salafist circles and other Islamist conservatives. As though to confirm this, the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood have been parading a number of prominent Salafi figures who have come out in favour of Mursi in campaign rallies and conferences. Prime among these figures are Sheikh Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud and Safwat Higazi (who recently likened voting for Mursi to an Islamic re-conquest of Egypt).
The Salafis are aware that the field is more open to them now than ever before, and they are taking advantage of this to expand their presence in the public sphere and to broaden the base of their calling, which they have steadily built up over the past three decades. A large portion of the Salafist camp believes that the time has come to "come out into the open" and to do battle with the Muslim Brotherhood's proselytising machine, which has been steadily eroding since the late 1990s as the Muslim Brotherhood poured more and more of its energies into politics at the expense of proselytising. Whether or not this assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood's activities is correct, it has become the premise on which many Salafis are now operating.
At the civil level, the rivalries and conflicts between Islamists are more blatant and more vicious yet. The Muslim Brotherhood's push for the presidency cannot just be explained by the mounting crisis between it and SCAF. It has very much to do with their resolve not to waste the historic opportunity that opened to them following the revolution, a resolve that blends with a determination to avert the reproduction of the Mubarak regime in any form whatsoever. The Muslim Brothers seem to have recently wakened to the realisation that SCAF had deceived them by ensuring that the parliament they inherited is "lame" and without real powers, and that the keys to the country still remain firmly in the hands of the generals and of the old networks of vested interests and influence that remain deeply entrenched in the Egyptian state and that have been lurking beneath the surface since the fall of Mubarak, waiting to make a comeback. Some months ago, when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to expand their influence in government bodies, they were taken by surprise by the stiff resistance they met from those networks of interests and from an array of groups within the bureaucratic establishment that were not ready to move aside and sacrifice the power and influence they had built up over the decades.
Since the revolution, the civil sphere has also afforded the Salafis a golden opportunity to expand their influence and develop a more prominent public profile. The Salafis now make daily entrances into the Egyptian political diaries, and many of their religious leaders have taken advantage of this to extend their social influence beyond their customary circles. If the Muslim Brotherhood's tactics are to bite and grab, the Salafis seem more intent upon subtle and gradual infiltration with the ultimate aim of "Salafising" government and the law. Many Salafi leaders believe that time is on their side and against their rivals in both the Islamist and liberal camps.
The third and most salient dynamic is unfolding at the level of what we can term intra-Islamist politics, now that many Islamist organisations and movements no longer have the same degree of internal political and ideological cohesion and personal commitment. True, some movements and parties continue to enjoy a relatively high degree of internal cohesion; however, the realities and complexities of political calculations have increasingly become a source of internal tension and dispute that is difficult to cap. For example, within the Salafist camp there is little consistency of opinion on many political issues, not least of which the current presidential elections. In spite of the efforts on the part of some Salafi leaders, it is impossible to speak of a single candidate that all Salafis support. Indeed, the Salafist vote will probably be split among several candidates. Moreover, internal discord sometimes flared beyond acceptable limits, as was the case when some branches of the Salafist Calling defied the organisation's decision to back Abul-Fotouh and held a conference in support of Mursi. Salafi preacher Higazi went further and accused Salafist Calling leaders of being "agents for state security". A similar situation arose in the highest echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood, when some members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau and even some members of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood's FJP came out in favour of Abul-Fotouh instead of Mursi, the Brotherhood candidate. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood-Salafi tensions have spilled over into internal rifts within each side.
The fourth dynamic involves the conflict over the "Islamist project". All Islamist factions, from the Muslim Brothers to the Salafis, to independent Islamists and Islamists of the revolutionary camp, are now claiming to speak in the name of this project and of working towards its realisation. Yet instead of serving as the pivotal calling around which all Islamists rally, this project has become a source of contention and division. Moreover, some Islamists have begun to suggest that they no longer even favour this project. I have met many Salafis who have told me that they believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has abandoned the "Islamist project" (regardless of what the actual nature of the project is and what it means to Islamists). Meanwhile, many Muslim Brothers praise Abul-Fotouh for keeping a distance from this project and perhaps even opposing it.
Against the backdrop of such disarray, the question of the moment is no longer who speaks in the name of Islam but rather who speaks in the name of the Islamists.