By Barry Rubin
The two parties with the largest number of votes in Egypt have been the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party along with the Salafist al-Nour Party. Both are Islamist parties. Yet Western observers—including the Obama Administration—claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “moderate Islamist” group while the Salifists are radical.
There are indeed important differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists but they are really issues of timing and tactics rather than of goals or principles. One way to think of them is as Coke traditional formula and Coke Light.
The Brotherhood seeks to transform Egypt into a radical state governed by the Sharia. It is, however, more cautious—one might say, smarter—in going slowly.
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This caution is rooted in the organization’s history. It began in 1928 as a revolutionary group to restore the caliphate and in the 1930s and during World War Two collaborated with the Nazis. After the war it launched a terrorist campaign against the government. When the military seized power in 1952, the Brotherhood was its main rival. The officers suppressed the Brotherhood, sending some leaders to concentration camps and others to the gallows. It would be 20 years before the regime allowed the Brotherhood to operate, and even then only illegally.
Knowing it could again be shut down at any moment, the Brotherhood was careful. There were frequent of arrests. The Brotherhood leadership declared a strategy of “da’wa,” that is long-term propaganda and organization to build a base of support. Only in October 2010 did the new Brotherhood leader, Muhammad al-Badi, say that the time for revolution had arrived. Within weeks, it helped launch the revolution that brought down President Husni Mubarak.
In contrast, Salafi groups only began to emerge in the 1970s. The assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat by Salafi terrorists in 1981 triggered repression against them. But this was far less than in the 1950s and focused on those responsible for the killing. Many groups continued to operate.
These groups were all small, based on community and campus organizing, and each with their own leader. A lot of the members had left the Brotherhood, which they found too moderate in behavior. They did not want to wait for revolution but wanted it right now. During the 1990s, many took up armed struggle and killed hundreds of people in terror attacks, focusing especially on killing Christians, government officials, and tourists.
But they were crushed by the government in the end. Many of their leaders, while in prison, concluded that they had made a strategic error and renounced violence. They were largely inactive in the dozen years leading up to the 2011 revolution.
While the Brotherhood furnished organized cadre and played a central role in the events of January and February, the Salafists were still recovering though many participated, especially in the most violent activities like the attacks on Christians and on the Israeli embassy.
Again, it should be emphasized that both the Brotherhood and the Salafists wanted the same goal. But the Brotherhood is far more patient. It has learned the lesson of the Turkish Islamists: go slowly, conceal your aims, and victory is far more likely.
Brotherhood leaders understand the disadvantages of going for power quickly. It will be more likely to lead to a clash with the army; the economy would suffer due to a loss of investment and loans. Indeed, Egypt is headed for a serious economic crash and the Brotherhood does not want to be in charge at the moment when that happens.
Far better, Brotherhood leaders think, to work with the army as much as possible, perhaps even to support a non-Islamist president. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood can play the key role in writing a Constitution that would move Egypt toward Islamism. It would take such ministries as education, social welfare, and religion that would help it increase and strengthen the size of its support base due to both ideological indoctrination and patronage.
On foreign policy, the Brotherhood is having great success in lulling the United States and the West to sleep, even supporting it as “moderate,” thus getting money and help from the West while denying it to the army or moderate forces. The Brotherhood would use its power to empty the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of content without officially abrogating the agreement. It could give a lot of support to Hamas and to the Jordanian and Syrian Brotherhood branches without getting directly involved in any conflicts.
This is a sensible policy. In contrast, the Salafists want revolution right now and trust in God to overcome all problems and barriers for themselves. Take an issue like tourism. The Brotherhood might permit the sale of alcohol to tourists and let women wear scanty bathing suits on beaches where few Egyptians would ever see them in order to keep revenue coming in. To the Salifists this is mere treason against proper piety.
This kind of tactical difference is by no means uncommon in revolutionary movements. Lenin wrote a pamphlet, “Left-Wing Communism, An infantile Malady,” about it. In this attack on the Salifist equivalents in the Marxist movement, Lenin quoted Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of Marxism; “What childish innocence it is to present one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!”
Lenin’s words fit perfectly the struggle among Egyptian Islamists. A revolution, he explained, is:
“A war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complex than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to renounce in advance any change of [tactics], or any utilization of a conflict of interests (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating or conditional allies)—is that not ridiculous in the extreme?”
Of course, Lenin was consciously seeking to mislead Western democracies into thinking they could work with the “moderate Communists” so that, divided and weakened, they could be more easily destroyed.
And that’s why the Brotherhood approach generally succeeds and that of the Salafists fails. Of course, by their extremism the Salafists will push the Brotherhood into a tougher stance, and by their readiness to use violence, they will help crush moderates, women who want more rights, and Christians. The two groups will compete but they will also work together, at least tacitly, in fundamentally transforming Egypt.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com