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Inside political Islam: the borders between moderates and extremists

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Over the last few weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood has aligned with the Salafis in the Constitutional Assembly in order to pass articles that establish Al-Azhar as a religious authority above any elected institution.

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran

A few months ago democratic circles were dominated by a perspective believing that Salafis and democratic groups had placed themselves at polar opposites of state identity. This analysis went as far as saying that the Muslim Brotherhood’s position was more practical, based upon the fact they “support leaving the Second Article of the Constitution as it is.” The holders of this perspective characterised the polarisation of state identity as “bearing a pre-emptive spirit as it hide conflicts and expectations about the regime’s formation and the placement armed forces in it.”

The holders of the above opinion have continuously insisted for the past few months that Salafis are marginal forces, unimportant in the arena of Islamic action and nothing more than disorganised groups ruled by extremist, peculiar ideas. They have also insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood does not like the Salafis and will not align with them in any battle because the Muslim Brotherhood does not agree with Salafis demands regarding the enforcement of Islamic law, et cetera. The holders of this opinion have also added that Salafis demand exerting moral pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and embarrass them in front of supporters of political Islam. Yet, despite this, the holders of this opinion insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is the principle power of Islamic action and a power able to curtail the Salafis and even use them as a scarecrow in their confrontation with the democratic forces in order to lure these forces into a fictitious battle on the state’s identity and leave the constitution, which is more important, to the conflict between the two major competitive parties: the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood as the military council wants a spot for itself and the army in the constitution and both want the president to have powers harmonising with the personal affiliation of the expected president. The most important of the conclusions drawn by the holders of the above opinion have been accusing the main trends within democratic groups of being sick with Islamophobia and believing that these forces must avoid discussing the state’s identity which the they consider to be a fake issue. The holders of this opinion have also attacked those demanding a civil state on the grounds that it is not an issue of dispute except in the imaginations of the democratic forces and some of the Salafi groups that should not be taken seriously. And thus based on these premises, it was not strange this trend supported Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh in the presidential elections.

Over the last few weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood has aligned with the Salafis in the Constitutional Assembly in order to pass articles that establish Al-Azhar as a religious authority above any elected institution. The Muslim Brotherhood has also aligned with the Salafis to change the second Article of the constitution to stipulate that the provisions of Islamic law, instead of the principles of Islamic law, are the primary source of legislation. The Muslim Brotherhood has further aligned with the Salafis to restrict a number of articles to lay out personal and public freedoms in not only law but also “God’s law.” After these consecutive positions taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, it was only natural for some members of the Constitutional Assembly to seek the aid of democratic groups and notify them in detail of the Muslim Brotherhood’s exclusionary performance in the assembly against the civil state, a performance that contradicts all of their promises which were believed by those who accused others of Islamophobia and even by those members of the Constitutional Assembly who exposed this performance, some of whom were allies of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections and Constitutional Assembly negotiations.

Regarding the civil state, the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance has not differed greatly from that of Salafis. Indeed, the only difference between these two parties is between those who want to impose Islamic law immediately and those who want to impose it gradually through trickery and milder wordings because its immediate imposition appears to be impractical at the moment.

There are other facts, however, that may indicate that the moderate and extremist forces have reached the uttermost degrees of intense conflict. The foremost of these include the military operation waged by the armed forces against extremists groups in the Sinai and the death sentences issued against Jama’at Al Tawhid Wal-Jihad. We can say that Salafi extremism is different from jihadist extremism because the Muslim Brotherhood can accommodate the Salafis’ urgent solicitations for the enforcement of Islamic law, et cetera via containment, dialogue and pressure as well as voting mechanisms within parliament and the Constitutional Assembly. Their ability, however, to use the same mechanisms to convince militants is more difficult. Despite this, it is nonetheless striking that the regime reinforced the armed forces with some of the leaders of Al-Nour Party in order to talk with the militants and convince them to renounce the bearing of arms and join the proselytisation through persuasion movement. I should also clarify that that the military operation began in the wake a horrific assault by armed Islamist groups on innocent soldiers during Ramadan. This assault stirred up widespread anger among the people and the army and was then used in the power struggle between the president and Field Marshall Tantawi as sufficient reason to overthrow the military council. However, what has become of military operation in the Sinai? What has become of Hamas’ pledges to clear Gaza of militants? Have the tunnels stopped performing their roles?

In sum, the military operation in the Sinai has ended, or nearly ended, and militants still freely roam the Sinai carrying out sporadic attacks and ordering Copts to leave Rafah. Hamas’ campaign against armed groups has ended and the organisation has resumed its use them without bringing those involved in the killing of dozens of Egyptian soldiers to justice. The tunnels, meanwhile, continue to perform their role. Ismail Haniyeh has even continued to visit important figures in the Egyptian government in order to discuss a free trade zone between Gaza and Egypt despite the clear opposition and deep displeasure of Fatah and the democratic forces in Egypt. These forces have repeatedly demanded that legitimacy not be given to the Hamas regime and Palestinians be supported through the Palestinian National Authority and far from the tunnels through which Egyptians’ food slips into Israel and from which arms and militants enter and exasperate the security situation in the Sinai.

Therefore, according to what has been presented above, the conflict between the moderate and extremist forces represented by President Morsy and the armed groups in the Sinai arose for the achievement of domestic political gains pertaining to the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council. When the Muslim Brotherhood achieved its desires, it immediately moved to end its conflict with the armed groups and widen its dialogue with them, despite the fact that the Egyptian army, which is distinct from the military council, neither applauds nor is pleased with this decision, just as it is not pleased with the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions regarding Hamas and the tunnels.

The death sentences that were issued against the members of Jama’at Al Tawhid Wal-Jihad are another story. They cannot be attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, as the judiciary issued the verdicts. Recently, many indicators have clarified that the judiciary, as well as the military and security services, has a different set of calculations than the forces of political Islam, specifically their most extremist trends. This is confirmed by the fact that the president has yet to approve these death sentences as emphasised by some who sometimes defend the president and other times attack him.

The lack of armed religious violence in Egyptian cities to this point confirms without any measure of doubt that communication and dialogue continues between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed groups and that veil of trust has not been breached. In its final analysis, the issue is fraught with serious risks. In light of the absence of security over the past months, the armed groups have taken the opportunity to grow, arm and spread, while the Muslim Brotherhood has gone from accommodating them, using them directly or indirectly in their confrontation with democratic forces. This may be dangerous but what is even more dangerous is the increasing distance between the Muslim Brotherhood calling for the gradual enforcement of Islamic law and the armed groups calling for its immediate enforcement. In this case, these armed groups may go out of control and enter into a conflict with not only the democratic forces but also the Muslim Brotherhood.

About the author

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party


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