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Salafists are the lucky ones

After spending roughly one year in governing positions, the MB and Ennahda seem under pressure from frustrated publics who feel that a zero-change status quo is currently in situ. So who will the people turn to?

Bassem Aly
24 April 2013

We all have to admit the facts: Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia went straight from prison into the ruling circles after the Arab Spring. The ouster of Ben Ali and Mubarak’s autocratic regimes, the public yearning for a further revolution in socio-political and economic conditions, and the portrayal of Islamists in the image of the always-oppressed opposition easily paved the way for this outcome. The election results were confirmation. The Tunisian moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party gained almost 41% of the seats in the new constituent assembly, while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 47% of the seats in parliamentary polls.

However, after spending roughly one year in governing positions, the MB and Ennahda seem under pressure from frustrated publics who feel that a zero-change status quo is currently in situ. If you live in either of these two states, this is what you see on a daily basis: never-ending protests and sit-ins, government responses looking far too crude to match the complexity of these transitional periods, gradually collapsing economies, and a steep decline over time in the profound social process of self-questioning about the kind of democracy people want to live. Meanwhile, secular parties continue to blame Islamists for attempting to impose an absolute stronghold over all state institutions, including police and military bodies. 

Islamists always raised the slogan of “Islam is the solution”, whether before or after the late 2011 popular uprisings, an approach that seemed to appeal to poor, uneducated and historically religious populations. The secular nature of the old dictatorial ruling regimes did harm the reputation of post-revolutionary secularists and acted as a catalyst for the rapid Islamist rise to power. In Tunisia, two secular political parties gained considerable votes that allowed them to join the Ennahda-led coalition. But in Egypt, they remained totally out of the game, watching the political scene from outside, just like normal citizens.     

Who will win this game? “If we took the wrong decision by choosing the MB who fooled us, we have to think of the Salafists; they are sincerely pro-Islam”, a taxi driver told me. Ironically, poor and middle class Egyptians, and even Tunisians, have tended to judge their country’s politicians in terms of how long their beards are and the number of Quran (Islamic holy book) verses recited within their political speeches: their electoral and political platforms do not seem to weigh much in the equation. In the light of this heartbreaking reality, the MB and Ennahda do not only do battle with secular groupings, but also with a fanatical, fundamentalist group who accuses them of not being “Islamic enough” in a bid to offer themselves as a political, fundamentalist alternative.

So are the Salafists really heading for success? The answer is definitely yes. The ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims have attacked theaters, cinemas, theatres, and hotel bars in a bid to press Ennahda to impose Sharia (Islamic law) in the long-awaited constitution. Secularists, on their side, fear that Ennahda has been too soft on the Salafists. An anti-Ennahda member of the constituent assembly, Mahmoud El-May, told me that the number of Salafist supporters is negligible and that the opposition demands a non-partisan interior ministry to deal with “those kind of phenomena”. This background explains the reason behind Ennahda’s rejection of the banning of alcohol, the imposition of the veil or the use of Sharia as the basis of Tunisian law: Salafists are not large enough to influence state policies. Nevertheless, Ennahda was recently put in fierce confrontation with the opposition after police probes revealed that a Salafist man killed Chokri Belaid, an opposition figure whose death turned him into a revolutionary icon and led to nationwide protests. Now, only God knows the future of Ennahda in office.

Alternatively, Egyptian Salafists have played it smart since day one. The Salafist Nour party, the first established in the history of Egyptian politics, allied itself to the MB after the revolution, controlling together almost 70% of the seats in the parliament. However, as days and months went by they showed that Salafists cannot rise in the ranks if they remain MB followers. The MB members monopolized all key positions in the country (i.e. ministers and governors) following the election of President Mohamed Morsi, the former leader of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Last month, a presidential advisor was sacked for the first time. Khaled Alam El-Din, a leading member of the Nour, protested claims that he was let go because he had "used his post in the presidency for personal gain."

In response, protesting El-Din's "offensive dismissal" was fellow Nour member and advisor to the president, Bassam El-Zarqa, who announced his resignation in a press conference held by the party to clarify the dismissal of El-Din.

The Nour, along with two other newly-established Salafist parties, announced that its members will enter the secular-boycotted parliamentary race in April, hoping for higher levels of representation on the account of the MB. It would be no surprise if the Salafists presented a presidential candidate after Morsi’s term reaches its end. Salafists in Tunisia will, sooner or later, also discover the necessity of politics as an effective alternative to violent activism. The MB and Ennahda failed to improve the lives of their people under their own Islamic umbrella, which might lead voters to resort to another one. The Salafist option is not an obvious better choice, especially given their political inexperience in the official management of public affairs, but post-Arab Spring societies will not easily sacrifice the interrelationship between religion and politics inside their minds. So now you know why they seem to be in luck!

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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