Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

An elusive bloc

How will Islamists vote in the presidential election? They probably won’t bother, writes Amany Maged

Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite disarray following the 30 June Revolution and the subsequent branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, the Islamist trend can still carry weight in the presidential elections. While leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are behind bars they still have followers and sympathisers on the outside. There is the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL), which consists of a number of Islamist political parties. There are Salafi groups, such as the Salafist Calling and its political wing the Nour Party, Jihadist movements and parties, and the Sufi orders. Combined they form a not inconsiderable voting bloc. But how will they cast their ballots in the poll between Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi.

The NASL is made up of 11 parties: the Construction and Development Party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the New Workers Party, the Fadila (Virtue) Party, Islah (Reform) Party, the Arab Unity Party, the Islamic Party, the Watan (Nation) Party, Wasat (Centre) Party, Al-Raya (the Banner) Party, and the Labour Party. It also includes student unions from Al-Azhar, Cairo and Ain Shams Universities. Formed in late June 2013 to defend then president Mohamed Morsi, the alliance has sought to present a united front.

Some of the Islamist parties mentioned above are the political wings of larger movements. The FJP is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Construction and Development Party is the political wing of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and the Fadila and Islah parties are the political wings of sectors of the Salafist movement. Like the rest of the members of the alliance these Salafi groupings view the events from 30 June to 3 July as a coup rather than a revolution, unlike the Salafist Calling and its political wing the Nour Party which subscribed to the post-3 July roadmap.

Several political analysts had predicted that the NASL would support Sabahi in the presidential polls. The organisation recently announced that it would boycott the elections, which it deemed a farce. It also called on Egyptians at home and abroad to join the boycott.

Justifying its stance NASL, which also boycotted the referendum on the new constitution, declared that the office of the president was not vacant. Reiterating its position that Morsi is still the legitimate president the NASL’s spokesman stated that Morsi came to power on the basis of the free expression of popular will in accordance with proper constitutional procedures supervised by government institutions, and that his term of office and title to the authorities of that office had not expired.

NASL also holds that “unconstitutional measures” (the elections) were a waste of public money. It added, in a statement issued on Sunday that “the ongoing bloodshed and arrests do not furnish the natural and appropriate environment for any democratic processes.”

The alliance further stated that it would not recognise the international supervision of the presidential elections, as this was merely a means to falsify legitimacy. “The people are not interested in the views of the directors of the play at home and abroad,” the statement proclaimed, after which it appealed to “friendly people who love democracy to bring to account those who champion democracy in words but boldly oppose it indeed”.

Yet some of Hamdeen Sabahi’s recent statements suggest that he hopes to court Islamist voters. He has said, for example, that the Muslim Brothers should be allowed to demonstrate peacefully and to raise the “Rabaa hand” — the four fingered pro-Morsi salute. NASL has ignored such overtures and its recent confirmation of its intent to boycott the elections has put paid to any hopes Sabahi may have entertained for winning the backing of a significant segment of Islamist opinion.

In a press release NASL member Magdi Qarqar said: “Hamdeen Sabahi’s statements have not altered the position of the alliance. The process in its entirety is a farce and it will not achieve legitimacy no matter how many people take part in it.... As for Sabahi, he can say what he wants but that will not alter the position of the alliance. We object to his participation in this play to begin with.”

Some politicians and observers argue the NASL declaration of a boycott is only for show and that many of its members are secretly instructing their supporters to vote for Sabahi. Their reasons for doing this may be informed by the results of the referendum on the constitution, with respect to which the focus of media and public opinion was on the 90 per cent vote of approval while the voter turnout was relatively low. According to some analysts Islamists opposed to the current government might be inspired to vote for Sabahi simply to forestall a similar approval rating for Al-Sisi.  

If the above-mentioned bloc is set on boycott, the jihadists do not recognise democratic elections to begin with. They regard them as a heresy and will not be turning out to the polls.

The Salafist Front, formed by a group of Salafi preachers and some Brotherhood members, most notably Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat Al-Shater, announced on Monday that it would be boycotting the elections and sustaining the protest drive.

The Sufi orders, which have supported actions taken by Field Al-Sisi, are expected to back him in the polls. With these millions of Sufis plus the Arab tribes, which number around 20 million, the Al-Sisi campaign is hoping to secure an enormous voting bloc.

The Salafist Calling and its political wing the Nour Party have not yet declared which candidate they support. Nevertheless, the votes of their leaders and some of their membership base will certainly go to Al-Sisi. After all, this faction of the Salafist movement supported the roadmap from the outset. When Al-Sisi appeared on television to announce the roadmap he included the most powerful religious leaders in the country among the group that surrounded him. To his right were the Coptic pope and the Rector of Al-Azhar. And there was Galal Al-Morra, the most prominent Salafist leader. Salafist Calling and the Nour Party have supported every position Al-Sisi has taken and are known to be hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and the NASL which contains some Salafist parties that broke away from the Salafist Calling. In addition, Al-Sisi fits the criteria that the Nour Party has listed for a candidate it might back. Vice president of the Salafist Calling Yasser Burhami’s statements on the personality of Al-Sisi, one of which described him as religious, seemed to prelude a Nour Party announcement that it would support him in the polls.

One Nour Party official, Yehia Al-Said, has publicly stated that, unlike Al-Sisi, Sabahi has no hands on experience of government. He also held that as important as reform plans and development programmes were what really counts is whether the various branches of government will work together to carry them out. Here, too, Al-Sisi had an advantage over Sabahi because, according to Al-Said, he enjoys the support of government agencies and institutions. In addition, he said, Al-Sisi has the ability to solve foreign policy problems, such as the Renaissance Dam crisis with Ethiopia.

The Salafist official had no problem with a person with a military background running for president. What mattered was whether that person had the necessary qualities to serve as president at this time. Most important were whether that person was capable of reviving Egypt’s prestige at home and abroad and whether he had a realistic reform programme. In addition, he would have to dedicate himself to progress on all issues, especially security and the economy. He should not favour one faction over another and work to include all political parties in the field. “These are the qualities I see in the candidate Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi,” he said.

Ahmed Ban, an expert on Islamist movements, believes that while Salafist Calling preachers, Nour Party leaders and some of their followers are likely to vote for Al-Sisi many younger Salafist Calling and Nour Party members are likely to sit out the elections, just as they did the referendum on the amended 2012 constitution. Disillusion with their leadership has begun to affect a large segment of younger Salafis, says Ban. Most recently Yasser Burhami has become a target for their anger after issuing a series of fatwas, the most controversial of which was his decree that a husband who saw his wife being raped was entitled to flee if he knew that he would be killed if he tried to defend her.

If the Salafist Calling and its political wing take part in the presidential elections it is certain to trigger conflict with other Salafist factions.

The Salafist Calling will be attacked by other Salafist groupings, especially those that continue to regard politics and political involvement as sinful and believe that the decision of some Salafist factions to engage in politics is the source of current fissures in the Salafist movement.

Tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Calling will increase to unprecedented levels, obviating any mediation efforts in the foreseeable future. Already the gap between the two is great, particularly following Burhami’s remarks in which he said that there could be no reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood until it undertook ideological revisions and made significant compromises. In short, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Calling are on the threshold of a new phase of animosity. Attacks by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against mosques frequented by Salafist Calling members already offer a glimpse of what may be in store. In addition to spray painting offensive graffiti on the mosque walls Muslim Brotherhood supporters have attacked some Salafist Calling leaders.

Rifts within the Salafist movement itself are likely to increase. The breach will broaden between the Salafist Calling and the Nour Party, on the one hand, and those Salafists that parted ways with them last year and eventually sided with NASL, on the other. This may herald the outbreak of a fierce religious/doctrinal war within the Salafist portion of the Islamist spectrum and perhaps beyond that.

In short, while Al-Sisi can expect some votes from the Salafist Calling and Nour Party, Sabahi will be limited to ballots cast in his support by those seeking to spite his rival.

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