Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Muslim Brothers and Salafis

While both are members of the Islamist trend, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have not always been obvious allies, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many are under the impression that the Islamist movement, whether in its proselytising or its political forms, is a uniform homogeneous whole. This tendency becomes more excessive and tendentious at times of sharp political polarisation, when it seems that the followers of these movements have aligned themselves to form a solid and seamless front.

In the current political tug-of-war, those who differ with political Islam and view it as a single political faction have become even more inclined to regard any differences in its ranks as a mere division of labour or façade of plurality for what is effectively a unified movement whose members are all working towards the same ends.

The security agencies are sometimes given to lumping these groups into the same basket, even if the Interior Ministry has compartmentalised them in order to decide the level of leniency or toughness to bring to bear on each within its larger Islamist concerns. Meanwhile, some among the public point to the sermons, pronunciations, fatwas and diatribes of certain Islamist pundits and say, “this is where they all get their inspiration from. This is what they all believe, even if they pretend otherwise.”

However, in fact the Islamists make up a broad and variegated fabric that ranges from the reclusive Sufis to the jihadist Salafis. There have always been varying degrees of interweaving between the diverse threads of this fabric, between these and other political and intellectual movements and trends in society, and between them and society at large, which forms the environment for such interactions in their constant ebb and flow.

One area of interaction is that between the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest movement in political Islam, and the Salafis. The latter have become more widespread than the Muslim Brothers and, perhaps, more influential from both the theological/ideological and social standpoints. Indeed, their outlook has attracted many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, which has effectively led the movement away from the “balanced conception” of the Brotherhood’s founder and first supreme guide, Hassan Al-Banna, and towards a Salafist proselytising approach.

Yet, the relationship between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis in Egypt requires close and continual observation if we are to understand what has been driving the two sides to either embrace or part ways in tandem with the rush of events and changing perceptions of their respective interests in the fluid political scene that followed the 25 January Revolution.


PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS: Before proceeding to answer the central question as to the nature of the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt, it is important to make four observations.

First, the Salafis in Egypt as elsewhere in the Islamic world are not a single movement or order. The Salafist trend instead consists of a broad array of groups that vary considerably in terms of doctrinal circles and sources of theological and legal inspiration, and in terms of their views and attitudes towards contemporary socio-political issues and other Islamist groups and organisations.

Second, the Muslim Brothers do not form a single homogenous whole, regardless of appearances. There are “conservatives” in the movement, for example, people who are more in line with Salafist Qutbist thought, a reference to Islamist theorist Sayed Qutb. While these currently dominate the Brotherhood, there still remain a significant number of members who remain loyal to the thinking of Hassan Al-Banna, which gave birth to the Brotherhood and shaped its rise. This camp is generally inclined to the moderate Salafism of Rashid Reda and averse to the forms of hardline Salafism that have gained so much ground in Egyptian politics and society recently.

Third, the Salafis and Muslim Brothers are not alone in the religious and socio-political sphere. There are other modes of religious/political outlook in their vicinity, and the boundaries of attraction and repulsion are also constantly shifting. Among these are the Sufi orders, which have begun to take an interest in politics since the revolution, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which has revised itself ideologically and renounced violence in favour of peaceful change, the Egyptian Jihad organisation, some of whose members still espouse recourse to arms, and other groups and parties that espouse moderate Islamist ideas and are not averse to secularist culture.

Fourth, no boundaries impede the mobility of individuals within the greater swathe of the Islamist movement, especially now that a large array of groups has been legitimised and engaged in the political process. A Muslim Brotherhood member might gradually shift theologically to a more Sufist outlook out of disillusion with the hardliners leading the organisation, or politically he might move towards the “secularist” trend with which a segment of Muslim Brotherhood youth sympathise.

Indeed, many of the latter have formed what they call the “Egyptian Movement” and have rallied around former Brotherhood official Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh who defied the group’s leadership when he stood for the presidency and formed the Strong Egypt Party. In like manner, a Salafi might drift towards the Muslim Brotherhood, if only to take advantage of the educational facilities of this organisation which prefers to recruit among the young in order better to indoctrinate them.

By the same token, he might join the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which by law is open to all Egyptians. The same might apply to some Sufis, who might align themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood whether for self-serving purposes or out of the conviction that it is important to rally around a group that, out of all the other Islamist factions, has alone succeeded in reaching power.


THE BROTHERHOOD-SALAFIST RELATIONSHIP: Bearing these observations in mind, we might assess the evolution of the relationship between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of three patterns.

First, there has been parallel antibiosis. Initially, some Salafis were neither ideologically nor organisationally far removed from the Muslim Brotherhood. However, they gradually diverged from the mother organisation on the grounds that it no longer reflected what they believed to be true Islam. By 1980, tensions between the two had grown so great that they erupted into open clashes, reaching a height at the University of Alexandria where a group of Salafis influenced by the ideas of Sheikh Mohamed Ismail Al-Mukaddem had begun to gain a strong foothold. The two sides later remained rival camps, eyeing each other warily as each moved to advance its respective calling. The competition was perhaps at its most visible during the post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in 2011.

Following the 25 January Revolution and after many years of remaining aloof from politics, the Salafis plunged headlong into the political fray. One of their main reasons for doing so was in order not to leave the field entirely open to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they justifiably believed had set its sights on monopolising power. Above all, they feared that once the Brotherhood was in this position it would seize control of the pulpits from which the Salafis had long disseminated their ideas during the pre-revolutionary period.

While they may not have been involved in mainstream politics at that time, this did not prevent them from lashing out at the Brothers, whom they regarded as having deviated from the essential principles of the faith in exchange for political gain. They reserved particularly scathing criticism for Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna, whom some of the more fanatical among them described as “a man who erred and led others to err”.

Politically, differences between the two sides reached their most intense levels on issues regarding the question of whether women and Christians should be entitled to serve in high office. Whereas the Muslim Brothers have recently shown some flexibility on this matter, the Salafis remain adamantly and uncompromisingly opposed on theological and legal grounds, maintaining that these command the ascendancy of Muslim men over women and non-Muslims in the conduct of public affairs in Muslim societies.

More recently, the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers have also come to loggerheads over foreign policy matters. The former have kept up constant pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood to prevent it from showing a more tolerant attitude towards Shia Iran. The Salafis also disapprove of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s stances with respect to Israel and the West in general.

For its part, the Brotherhood sees the Salafis as the foremost, if not the strongest, threat to its standing and influence in society. It was surprised at the extent of the Salafis’ victories in the last parliamentary elections. Even though Salafi politicians and parties had only a few months of party politicking experience under their belts at the time, they managed to form the second-largest parliamentary bloc. The Brotherhood was particularly concerned that Salafi newcomers had succeeded in snatching a large part of the harvest that the Brothers had been cultivating over the past 80 years.

The Brotherhood has also cast a wary eye at the Salafis’ connections abroad. It is especially concerned by their links with the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and other such connections in the Gulf area, which the Brotherhood claims could make them potential instruments for foreign powers.

Some Brotherhood officials believe that some governments in the Gulf are uncomfortable with Brotherhood rule in Egypt and are reluctant to support it for fear that this could induce the Brotherhood to mobilise its not-so-visible, but reportedly well-manned, branches in those countries against their ruling regimes. In addition, some wealthy businessmen in the Gulf who subscribe to a Salafist outlook fear that the Brotherhood’s vision may one day prevail over the entire Islamic world.

From the Atlantic to Asia, the Islamic world remains an arena rife with intense rivalry between the two sides, whether this flares into open conflict or seethes beneath the surface. It is a conflict over ideology, recruiting followers, expanding influence and eventually winning power and wealth and the opportunity to represent Islam before the world.

Second, there has been ideological and organisational osmosis. There has always been considerable scope for intersection and overlap between the two sides. As mentioned above, both sides are in constant flux, ideologically and organisationally, in accordance with the latest products on the theological market and the ever-changing demands of their interests.

Among the areas in which the Brotherhood and the Salafis converge is in their capitalist economic outlook. They subscribe to similar interpretations of certain scriptures, which they claim support the right to private property unrestricted by anything but the duty incumbent upon Muslims to give alms. Both converge in their ultimate aim, which is to “Islamise” society, even if their vision of what such a society would look like and their prescriptions of how to get there differ. They also share a largely similar worldview, especially now that Salafist Qutbist thinking has taken hold among those who control the Muslim Brotherhood.

The founding proclamation of the Muslim Brotherhood states that it is a “Salafist calling that follows the Sunni path”. But it is far from being just a religious association. It is also a political organisation, a sports club, a cultural and academic league, an economic company and a social concept. Most of the Brotherhood’s cultural programme was also Sufi-inspired. Its prescribed reading list included works by prominent Sufi thinkers such as Ibn Atallah Al-Sakandari, Al-Hareth Al-Muhasibi, Al-Nabahani, Al-Kashiri and Al-Ghazali. However, since the 1960s works by Salafi theorists have begun to gain precedence in the Brotherhood curriculum, in large part due to the fact that many Muslim Brothers had taken refuge in the Gulf from the Nasserist regime in Egypt.

The “Salafisation of the Muslim Brotherhood”, as Hossam Tamam has put it, has naturally influenced its organisational approach. Here it is useful to turn to Reda Al-Baz, who had first-hand experience in the ranks of a Salafist group and then in the Muslim Brotherhood, recounting this in his Why Muslims lag behind: Annals from my Experience with the Subordination Groups. It is interesting to note the overall similarity between the two groups in terms of their essential values and their attitudes towards those who differ in opinion, approach, and treatment of their followers.

Al-Baz writes that “in the 1990s, I turned to the Salafis in my quest for religious guidance. I grew my beard long and withdrew into their company. I did not last long, for many reasons. Primarily, I was unable to feel that I had value as a human being, or as an individual with the right to express an opinion that was worthy of respect and discussion. I felt uncomfortable whenever I had a question, but felt compelled to refrain from asking it for fear that someone would accuse me of being ignorant or rude.”

“I learned that the Salafis’ prime criterion for ranking their members was their degree of knowledge of Sharia law, as they defined it. Not the slightest appreciation was given to individual talents. I never heard anyone say, ‘my opinion is such and such,’ for example. They always searched for an opinion of some earlier authority, and that then became binding and irrevocable even if someone came up with a different opinion from another earlier authority. I could not accept this.”

“Another reason I rejected them was because of their constant readiness to indulge those in authority and to fight anyone defying them. They condemned opposition parties as heretics, and they attempted to tarnish the reputations of anyone who called for a protest demonstration. I learned that some members of the group I had joined worked with State Security, because while I was with them other members alerted me to their presence.”

Of his experience with the Muslim Brotherhood Al-Baz says that “in 2003 I joined the Muslim Brotherhood, also in search of religious guidance. I attended what they call educational sessions... My first objection to Brotherhood thinking was due to the militarisation of the group. They use such military terms as ‘soldier’, ‘regiment’, and ‘squadron’, which make you feel as though you are in a state of war and that these things are intended to secure your blind obedience. No one had the right to ask how or why a particular decision was made. My greatest shock came when I was considering running in the elections without obtaining their consent. Suddenly, I was the object of a uniform glowering scowl and my friends of yesterday became my enemies.”

“It was then that my eyes were opened to the nature of this organisation, which lived solely for the elections and which knew no mercy in the process. Everything was permissible, but in a furtive way. Eventually, they issued orders to ostracise me as a type of disciplinary measure. No one was permitted to speak to me or phone me. Gone was the companionship, the visits to each others’ homes, the inquiries after my well-being, the exchanges of advice. I was now totally alone. Then they started a campaign of defamation against me. Whenever I attempted to object, some official would say, ‘that’s a personal problem. I can’t control all the members of the group.’”

“The rumours about me were ruthless. To anyone who is not yet familiar with this, the Muslim Brotherhood has the most powerful machine in Egypt for inventing and spreading rumours.... I also discovered that the Brotherhood had no desire to rebel against the tyrannical ruler [Hosni Mubarak]. In a frank discussion I had with one Brotherhood official, I asked, ‘why don’t you take to the streets? The people will stand with you.’ He answered that ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto is the Muslim person, the Muslim family and the Muslim society [i.e. to proselytise]. Anyway, the people will desert us and that will give the regime a pretext to eliminate us and thereby eliminate the bearers of the banner of the faith.’”

There have been many other similar testimonies in various books, studies and newspaper interviews. Some of these have been made by former Brotherhood members such as Tharwat Al-Kharabawi, Abdel-Sattar Al-Meligui, Haithem Abu Khalil and Intisar Abdel-Moneim. Others have been written by persons spending several years in Salafist groups of one type or another. These people became involved in these groups not out of academic or journalistic curiosity, but out of personal conviction. With experience, that conviction changed, and they left them because of the dictates of their conscience. 

Third, there has been symbiotic buttressing. Here, each side tries to capitalise on the inroads the other has made in sowing its values and ideas in Egyptian society, in order to strengthen their own hold over society and the state. They are indifferent to the veiled accusations coming from the other side because what matters most to them are the ends, not the means.

In the past, the Salafis had never formulated a political project or platform. Prior to the revolution, their efforts and those of their societies and associations were devoted to proselytising and charity work. They had no political experience, and the public had never regarded them as a political player capable of promoting a coherent political vision and producing the type of officials capable of managing the affairs of the state.

However, by partially identifying with the Nahda Project that served as the Brotherhood’s campaign platform and entering into calculated alliances with the Brothers on certain political positions, they succeeded in persuading a broad segment of the public that they had the necessary political skills. The task was not that difficult, since they realised that Egyptian public opinion in general did not differentiate in any meaningful way between the Salafis and Muslim Brothers. To the vast majority of Egyptians, who would never have read the articles by specialists, the two sides formed a single indivisible group, rather than two distinct movements.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood had closely studied how to turn the Salafis into an asset for itself. It knew that the Salafis had the ability to attract broad grassroots support for Brotherhood ideas, and so, in an exercise of consummate pragmatism, it entered into tactical alliances with the Salafis on certain major issues. A prime case in point was when the Brotherhood and the Salafis joined forces against the Egyptian left and liberals in the 19 March 2011 referendum on the constitutional amendments that laid the groundwork for the Brotherhood’s eventual arrival in power.

Khairat Al-Shater, whom many regard as the de facto leader of the Brotherhood, forms the hidden link between the Brothers and an influential portion of the Salafist movement. What makes this link so strong is that Al-Shater himself is strongly inclined to hardline Salafist thought and, indeed, some Salafis consider him to be one of their own even if he is a senior Brotherhood official. His preferred tool has been the Islamic Law Organisation for Rights and Reform, which he has used to generate Salafist backing for the Brotherhood.

The symbiosis between the two groups has sometimes been achieved through deception. For example, in the parliamentary elections of November and December 2011, the Salafis charged that the Brotherhood had duped voters who were going to cast their ballots for the Nour Party (whose symbol was a lantern) into casting their votes for the Freedom and Justice Party (whose symbol was a set of scales).

But the Brotherhood has also used the Salafis in another manner. When Brotherhood interests dictate, the Salafis become the Brotherhood’s bogeyman, much in the manner in which the former Mubarak regime used the spectre of the Brotherhood itself to alarm public opinion at home and abroad in order to perpetuate the regime’s hold on power.

The Brotherhood has proven itself equally successful in this regard. Western officials have said on numerous occasions that they have no objections to working constructively with the Brotherhood, which they have come to describe as a “moderate” religious force with which it is possible to reach understandings that will safeguard Western interests. After seeing and hearing the opinions and behaviour of many Salafis, large segments of public opinion have been willing to indulge the Muslim Brotherhood’s excesses on the grounds that the “Brotherhood’s hell is better than the Salafis’ heaven.”

This is an eerie echo of the attitudes that once prevailed with respect to Mubarak and that are now beginning to catch on at home.


THE FUTURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP: The foregoing analysis is a response to an answer given by Salafi leader Yasser Burhami in an interview with Al-Doha magazine (November 2012) when he was asked whether the Nour Party would be an opposition party or whether it would support the regime that the Brotherhood headed. Burhami said that it would be “an opposition party that will accept what suits [its] interests and that sometimes allies itself with rivals or opponents.”

His statement sums up the three patterns above of antibiosis, osmosis and symbiosis. But how will these three patterns evolve from here?

The immediate tendency is to say that everything is possible, but that is not quite the case since all probabilities rest on certain relatively stable ideological and theological constants and on the exigencies of self-interest, which, by definition, are in dynamic flux.

After all, the relationship between the two sides is not unfolding in a void. Instead, it is strongly affected by the position and relative strength of the secularist camp. The more powerful that camp becomes, the more the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will find common cause, while the less they perceive a threat from that direction the greater will become their mutual repulsion.

A second crucial factor will be the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to share the political pie with the Salafis and to make it appear that power is in the hands of the Islamist trend as a whole and not just in those of the Muslim Brothers. Following the parliamentary elections, in which the Salafis won the second-largest bloc in the People’s Assembly, and after they supported Morsi’s candidacy for the presidency, many Salafis expected that they would be rewarded with a reasonable level of representation in the executive.

They were in for a big disappointment, though some have not despaired and still believe that their hopes will come true, if only after a while. Others, however, have lost any last remnants of trust in the Muslim Brothers. These have resolved to help themselves, and they have rolled up their sleeves for the next parliamentary elections in the hope of imposing their presence through the polls.

There is a fourth factor in the equation in the shape of the other Islamist forces. These include the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the Jihadist Salafis and some of the more extremist fringe groups, as well as the Civilisational Islam Movement or independent Islamists, the Islamist-oriented Labour Party, Brotherhood breakaways such as the Al-Riad, Al-Nahda and the Egyptian Trend Parties, and the moderate Strong Egypt and Wasat parties.

These parties or movements could become adversaries or allies of the Muslim Brotherhood and/or the Salafis, and therefore they collectively form a field in which the two sides will compete in order to win as many supporters as possible, if only for temporary electoral purposes. There is also the likelihood that the more moderate and centrist Islamists could move closer to or ally with the liberals and leftists, which would present a major challenge to the Brotherhood and Salafis.

The relationship between the Brotherhood and the Salafis is also contingent on a range of domestic, regional and international contexts. The latter will be crucial in view of the two sides’ divergent political commitments abroad. However, the likelihood is that purely Egyptian concerns will play the greatest role in determining the future of this relationship.

If the Brotherhood manages to achieve economic and social successes in Egypt, the Salafist parties will most likely try to cuddle up to it in order to benefit from its growing popularity. Naturally, the reverse will occur if the Brotherhood fails, in which case the Salafis will try to distance themselves from it and will perhaps join the ranks of the opposition and try to position themselves as an alternative.

The writer is a political analyst.

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