Any Egyptian Muslim who does not vote for Mohammed Morsi will be bitten by a serpent in his grave for four years. That fatwa, attributed to a Salafi cleric last week, made headlines in the Arabic-language media because of its absurdity. There is no such punishment in Sharia, let alone one exacted for failing to vote a certain way in a presidential campaign.
But statements such as this, which are increasing during Egypt’s election season, merit a closer look. They underline two significant facts about Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: first, the two groups share more in common than either side would like to acknowledge. Second, the rift within the Salafi movement over which candidate to endorse shows that some factions are in many ways closer to the Muslim Brotherhoodthan to Salafism.
It is, of course, not surprising that Salafis endorse either Mr Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, after they failed to qualify an Islamist candidate of their own. But it is one thing for Salafis to endorse a Brotherhood candidate to ensure the implementation of Sharia, and quite another to campaign for the Muslim Brotherhood as a religious group. The Brotherhood, after all, has historically been the Salafis’ putative enemy.
A quick look at the history of Egyptian Salafism helps to explain these dynamics. It started as a grassroots movement in the late 1920s, a few years after the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, based on the promise to cleanse Egyptian society of newfangled, un-Islamic practices. The movement, known as Ansar Assuna Al Mohammadiyya, considered the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organising, underground activism and allegiance to a figurehead other than the ruler as un-Islamic. Nasser Addin Al Albani, who is considered the father of Egyptian Salafism, went so far as to say the Muslim Brotherhood was not part of Sunni Islam “because they flout the traditions”.
The Salafis’ confrontation with the Brotherhood reached an apex in the 1970s. During that period, dubbed the “Golden Age” of Egyptian Salafis, former president Anwar Sadat gave Salafis a free hand in universities to counter the creep of communism. After the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the Brotherhood was allowed to organise in public after decades of repression. The rivalry between the two groups in the public sphere intensified.
The focus of Salafi attacks was on the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood, which were considered too moderate. But in the universities, the Brotherhood demonstrated a superior organisation, and tried to prevent Salafis from holding public events. This prompted the Salafis to better organise themselves.
Shortly before Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the state again clamped down on the Brotherhood, and remained hostile for the duration of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But up until 2002, Salafis continued to have a free hand in society. Meanwhile, Egyptians who wanted to study Sharia outside the state curriculum turned to Salafi clerics. Many Egyptians who were not necessarily Salafis frequented their mosques to study religion away from the state institutions.
To escape government persecution, even Muslim Brotherhood members joined Salafi mosques. Many devout Egyptians are closer to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood despite the influence of their Salafi teachers.
The contemporary movement known as Salafi Call, and its political offshoots Al Noor Party and Al Wasat Party, which have endorsed Mr Aboul Fotouh, all belong to the traditional Salafi movement. Although these groups have recently been involved in politics, they are still true to their rivalry with the Brotherhood. One of the stated reasons for endorsing Mr Aboul Fotouh is to check the Brotherhood and prevent its political monopoly.
Another Salafi group that was formed last year, known as the Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation (ILBRR), along with its offshoots the Fadhila Party, Asala Party and Islah Party, have all endorsed Mr Morsi. The ILBRR, in fact, has striking similarities with the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of political tactics and organisation.
The group has been criticised by other Salafis for its inclination towards the Brotherhood. Mohammed Abdel Maqsoud, deputy chairman of ILBRR, has been accused by Salafis of “defending the Muslim Brotherhood as though he were one of its clerics”. In a rally for Mr Morsi on Saturday, Safwat Hijazi, a member of both the ILBRR and the Asala Party, said: “Not only do we support Mohammed Morsi but also the group [the Muslim Brotherhood] and its party.”
As a group, Salafis are still repositioning themselves ideologically in light of the fall of Mr Mubarak, which explains why Salafi members have rebelled against their own parties over the endorsement of Mr Aboul Futouh or Mr Morsi. It is also hard to tell whether some figures, such as Mr Hijazi, belong to the Brotherhood or to the Salafi movement.
It has been said that Islamist groups tend to splinter as they approach political power. This appears to apply to Salafis more than the Muslim Brotherhood. More Salafis are moving closer to the Brotherhood as so many of the differences between the two groups have collapsed after the downfall of the Mubarak regime and the Salafis’ involvement in politics. Now, Salafi scepticism about the Brotherhood, entrenched over decades, is further eroding as Salafis campaign for their lifelong rivals.by Hassan Hassan