Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Unholy alliance

Is an ideological shift behind the revival of the Brotherhood-Salafist alliance or is it a marriage of convenience mainly serving electoral purposes in preparation for the parliamentary elections? Omayma Abdel-Latif weighs the possibilities

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Al-Ahram Weekly

One of the unintended consequences of the recent battle over the constitution has been the re-emerging (resurfacing) of the political alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist forces.

Following months of separation and attempts by either side to distance itself from the other and act independently, the alliance made a strong comeback, putting on several displays of force in support of President Mohamed Morsi against his opponents. The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have suddenly been singing from the same music sheet, identifying a common enemy in the opposition alliance, the National Salvation Front.

The looming question, however, is whether such an alliance will be able to maintain its coherence and unity until the forthcoming parliamentary elections due in two months after the constitution is ratified by a popular vote. Put another way, has this alliance been revived mainly to serve pure electoral purposes or does it reflect an ideological shift pushing the Brotherhood away from the centre of politics and religion towards a more conservative view of both?

Islamists from across the spectrum argue that their alliance was only a response to the opposition ganging up in what appeared to be a united front with the sole goal of bringing down an elected president and destroying state institutions. Islamist figures viewed the opposition’s escalation against President Morsi as amounting to a “declaration of war” in the words of Tarek Al-Zomor, head of the political bureau of the Construction and Development Party, the political wing of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. “The liberal and secular forces were the first to declare war on Islamists by forming this front,” said Al-Zomor, but, he continued, they did the Islamist forces a great favour when they made us unite under the banner of Islam.”

The alliance, no doubt, has been boosted by the majority “yes” vote for the constitution. Despite the meagre difference in percentage between those who voted for and against the constitution, Islamists are viewing the passing of the constitution a victory for their agenda and some even think they have a popular mandate to take things into their own hands.

The Coalition of Islamist Forces (CIF) brought together 19 groupings and political parties, including the Freedom and Justice , Construction and Development, the Nour, Al-Wasat Party, Salafist Calling, Salafist Front, Asala and Islah parties.

In its first public appearance in a press conference, on 8 December, the CIF threw its weight behind holding the referendum maintaining an aggressive tone against Morsi’s opponents and threatening that “all options were open before Islamist forces to defend the legitimacy and the elected state institutions.” The conference was headed by MB Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat Al-Shater who lashed out against the opposition and appeared to be masterminding the coalition strategy in defence of President Morsi. The coalition urged its supporters to take to the streets to show support for Morsi.

The CIF surfaced at a time when opponents argued that the popularity of Islamists is at an all-time low and that the dismal performance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing in handling the crisis triggered by the president’s constitutional declaration, issued on 22 November, led not only to an erosion of confidence in the movement and its willingness to power-sharing with other political forces but also to a decrease in street support for Islamists. The referendum was cited as evidence to support this. “If the Muslim Brotherhood — and Islamists in general — continue with the ‘winner takes all’ attitude, they will end up isolated more than ever and the Brotherhood reliance on an alliance solely with Salafist parties will hurt its standing among larger segments of society,” said one commentator.

Other experts of political Islam suggested that the revival of the MB-Salafist alliance was telling of how the MB has increasingly become more isolated from the larger society and is only catering for a conservative view when it was hoped that they would take the Salafis to a rather moderate view of politics and religion. It was their failure to maintain the fragile alliance with the liberal and non-Islamist forces, explained an opposition source, which forced them to go back to a marriage of convenience with the Salafis.

If experience is anything to go by, it shows how such an alliance in previous times did not necessarily reflect a coherent and monolithic entity that is unbreakable or defies change. Or that it even reflected unison in political and social visions. Previous alliance was not maintained due to what one Salafist figure described as Brotherhood attempts to marginalise other forces in the alliance and their constant attempt to portray Salafis as “troublemakers” and just followers of the Brothers.

The alliance has gone through tense moments. Larger segments of the Salafist electoral base voted for presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh in the first round of elections. In the second round, Salafis did not mind making under the counter deals with the incumbent Ahmed Shafik, reflecting a sense of pragmatism unexpected from what it claims to be a conservative movement.

In August, the Salafist Nour Party protested against its meagre share in the new cabinet. The party occupied what it said was a marginal ministry, the Ministry of Environment. Salafis felt they had been left out in the cold and that their idea about a national coalition government was not taken seriously by the president and his group. That’s not what it had in mind when formulating a national coalition government. The Salafis did not participate in the pro-Morsi rallies organised by the Muslim Brotherhood under the title “yes to legitimacy”.

Some Salafist figures, nonetheless, argue that it was too early to suggest that the CIF is an electoral alliance. Adel Afifi, head of the Asala Party, hoped that Islamist-oriented parties could form a unified front to run for the upcoming election. He, however, remained sceptical this alliance could materialise any time soon. “Everybody is waiting for the election law to decide on electoral alliances. It’s still premature although we hope to be united under one umbrella so that the Islamist vote is not squandered,” said Afifi whose party was in alliance with both the Nour and Construction and Development in the parliamentary elections held in November 2011.

News reports of the defection of head of Nour Party Emad Abdel-Ghafour with some other members including the party’s spokesperson on Tuesday to form a new political party raises questions about the ability of the Islamist coalition to remain coherent until election time. Salafist parties are currently split into five political parties. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a leading popular figure is also expected to announce a new party, Al-Ummah Al-Masriya (the Egyptian Ummah). Then where do Islamist-oriented parties like Strong Egypt Party and Al-Wasat Party find a place in this alliance?

The challenge facing Islamist forces ahead of elections is how to avoid the fragmentation of the Islamist vote in light of the existence of several Islamist parties whose agendas overlap. In the absence of a serious alliance, a coherent opposition might end up winning the day.

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