"There is only one God"
A picture dated May 20, 2012 shows a Tunisian Islamist waving a Salafist flag which says in Arabic, "There is only one God", during a rally on May 20, 2012 in Kairouan. © Fethi Belaid - AFP
Last updated: April 29, 2013
Bassem Aly: Salafists are lucky

“Post-Arab Spring societies will not easily sacrifice the interrelation between religion and politics inside their minds”

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Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia went from prison to ruling headquarters after the Arab Spring. The ouster of Ben Ali and Mubarak’s autocratic regimes, the public yearning for another revolution in socio-political and economic conditions, and the portrayal of Islamists in the image of the always-oppressed opposition had easily paved the way for this outcome.

Election results proved evidence. The Tunisian moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party gained almost 41% of the seats in the new constituent assembly, while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 47% of the seats in parliamentary polls.

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However, after spending roughly one year in governing positions, the MB and Ennahda seem under pressure from the angry masses, who feel that a zero-change status quo is currently in place. If you live in any of the two states, this is what you see on a daily basis: never ending protests and sit-ins; government responses that look too unpersuasive to fit complex, transitional periods; gradually collapsing economies; and the extent of societal discussion about democracy reduces by virtue of time. Meanwhile, secular parties continue to blame Islamists of attempting to impose an absolute stronghold over all state institutions, including police and military bodies. 

Islamists raised the slogan “Islam is the solution” both before and after the 2011 popular uprisings, an approach that looked appealing to poor, uneducated and historically religious populations. The secular nature of the old dictatorial ruling regimes did harm the reputation of post-revolutionary secularists and catalyzed for a fast Islamist rise to power.

In Tunisia, two secular political parties gained considerable voting weight that allowed them to join the Ennahda-led coalition. But in Egypt, they remain totally out of the game, watching the political scene from outside just like normal citizens.    

Then, who will win the game? “If we took the wrong decision by choosing the MB who fooled us, we have to think of the Salafists; they are sincerely pro-Islam,” a taxi driver told me. Ironically, the poor and middle class Egyptians, and even Tunisians, proved in the last two years to think of the country’s politicians in terms of their long beards and number of Quran recited within their political speeches: their electoral and political platforms do not weigh much of the equation.

Thus, in light of this reality, the MB and Ennahda do not only struggle with secular groups, but also with fundamentalist groups who accuse them of not being “enough Islamic” in a bid to offer themselves as a political alternative.

Are there real grounds for such an argument? The answer is definitely yes. The ultra-conservative Salafists have attacked theaters, cinemas and hotel bars in a bid to press Ennahda to impose Sharia (Islamic law) in the awaited constitution.

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Secularists, on their side, fear that Ennahda has been too soft on the Salafists. An anti-Ennahda member of the constituent assembly, Mahmoud El-May, told me that the number of Salafist supporters is negligible and that the opposition demands a non-partisan interior ministry to deal with “those kind of phenomenon.”

This background explains the reason behind Ennahda’s rejection to ban alcohol, impose the veil or use Sharia as the basis of Tunisian law: Salafists are not large enough to influence state policies. Nevertheless, Ennahda was recently put in fierce confrontation with the opposition after police probes revealed that a Salafist man killed Chokri Belaid, an opposition figure whose death turned him into a revolutionary icon and led to nationwide protests. Now, only God knows the future of Ennahda in office.

Egyptian Salafists have played it smart since day one. The Salafist Nour party, the first established in the history of Egyptian politics, allied itself to the MB after the revolution, together controlling almost 70% of the seats in parliament.

However, days and months showed that Salafists cannot get higher if they remained the MB followers. The MB members monopolized all key positions in the country (i.e. ministers and governors) following the election of President Mohamed Morsi, the former leader of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Last month, a presidential advisor was sacked for the first time. Khaled Alam El-Din, a leading member of the Nour, protested claims that he was let go because he had "used his post in the presidency for personal gain."

In response, protesting El-Din's "offensive dismissal" was fellow Nour member and advisor to the president Bassam El-Zarqa, who announced his resignation in a press conference held by the party to clarify the dismissal of El-Din.

Nour, along with other two newly-established Salafist parties, announced that its members will enter the secular-boycotted parliamentary race in April, hoping for higher levels of representation on the account of the MB. It would be no surprise if the Salafists presented a presidential candidate after Morsi’ term reaches the final line.

Salafists in Tunisia will, sooner or later, also discover the necessity of politics as an effective alternative to violent activism. The MB and Ennahda failed to improve the lives of their people under their own Islamic umbrella, which might lead voters to resort to another one.

The Salafist option is not apparently a better choice, especially amid their political inexperience in official management of public affairs. But post-Arab Spring societies will not easily sacrifice the interrelation between religion and politics inside their minds.

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