Egypt in Turmoil Salafists Gain Strength amid Political Chaos
After the killing last Monday of more than 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Egypt has become all but ungovernable. The new unity government in Cairo is already crumbling, and now it's the ultra-conservative Salafists who stand to benefit.
There are only a few meters between Mohammed Morsi and the soldiers of the Republican Guard. The heavily armed troops keep a straight face as the man approaches. Morsi steps up to the wall of bricks piled up by protesters in front of the soldiers' barracks in the Cairo district of Nasr City, and says: "We will remain peaceful, even if you continue to shoot at us." Then he steps back again.
Morsi, 51, has a long gray beard and is wearing a galabiya, the traditional robe worn by Egyptian men. He has the same name as the ousted president, but this Morsi is a Salafist, which makes him even more pious than his namesake from the Muslim Brotherhood.
For days, he has been camping in a tent city in the eastern part of Cairo, together with thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. There are piles of garbage along the side of the road, and men doze in the shade of their tents. It is hot and dusty, and it's also Ramadan, the period of fasting, which poses a special challenge to the protesters, who don't want to give in until the president is back in office.
"He must be returned to office. It is God's will," says Morsi, the Salafist. He too was disappointed by the 368 days in which the Muslim Brotherhood was in office, but he also fears the loss of significance that religious groups will experience if they are forced completely out of power. That's why he is aligning himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he doesn't actually like the group.
It was less than two weeks ago that General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, announced the removal of Egypt's first democratically elected president, in the wake of the largest mass protests the country had ever seen. On July 3, an alliance of liberals, leftists, Nasserists, revolutionary youth, Coptic Christians and Salafists appeared together on television for a harmonious group picture.
But the rare pact was fragile. When soldiers opened fire on protesting Morsi supporters last Monday and at least 51 people died, the Salafists of the Al-Nour Party, or Party of the Light, demonstratively revoked their cooperation with the transitional government -- albeit only temporarily.
In fact, the Salafists need to maintain cooperation with the military and the transitional government in order to remain influential. Under Morsi's presidency, they had the same problems as the secular opposition. They were marginalized, and important positions went to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Bassam Sarka, the deputy party leader, has renewed his support for the state, saying that Al-Nour will "demonstrate responsibility" and "cooperate with the military to prevent worse things from happening." The reward came quickly, when the military leaders decided to keep a controversial article in the constitution, whereby the principles of Sharia law are the "primary source of legislation" -- despite the fact that the liberals had just rejected the very same article.
Will the Salafists Unite or Divide?
On the other hand, the new leadership in Cairo is also dependent on the Salafists, if it wants to avoid alienating the religious portion of the population. The Salafists are seen as the "pure" faithful, and as an indication of their popularity, almost a quarter of citizens voted for the Party of the Light in Egypt's parliamentary election. They could now be the force that either unites the country or divides it even further.
The signs currently point toward retribution, suspicion and polarization, not reconciliation. Arrest warrants were reportedly issued against 300 Muslim Brotherhood officials. And more than 10 days after the military stepped in, it is still unknown where the deposed president and his advisors are being held. The only thing the authorities are willing to say is that Morsi is being treated "with dignity." The United States has been critical of the generals' tough approach, saying that the leadership in Cairo must stop its "arbitrary" arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
How can all of this coincide with the goal of "national reconciliation" that el-Sissi and the transitional government are calling for? Is it still possible to avert a civil war, which would probably entail a long period of military rule? These are the questions that will be answered in the coming days. But one thing is already clear: How the Islamists behave will be critical.
Bitterness of the Brotherhood
Especially since the events of July 8, Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been filled with anger and frustration. The bloody clash between Brotherhood supporters and the military destroyed any hope that a peaceful settlement could be reached. And since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has decided against any participation in the transitional government, as the new president, Adly Mansour, had suggested. In response, the Brotherhood mobilized its supporters for yet another pro-Morsi mass protest, and some 200,000 people gathered in Cairo alone.
"Sm ppl r asking us 2 accept #Military_Coup & 2 die silently so not 2 discomfort their 'army-led democracy' brought abt by tanks & junta," tweeted Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad.
But it isn't clear who is to blame for the bloodbath in Nasr City. Employees of Amnesty International spoke with protesters and visited hospitals. Although they confirmed that the army treated the demonstrators with excessive brutality, they also said that the escalation was partly the demonstrators' fault. According to the Amnesty International employees, the demonstrators reacted violently from the very beginning to all attempts by the army to break up the protest. Government newspapers referred to the protesters as "terrorists," while the independent newspapers Al-Masry al-Youm and Al-Watan wrote of a "conspiracy of the armed Brotherhood."
In this overheated mood, precisely what the military sought to prevent with its coup could in fact happen: The Islamists could become radicalized. Last week, Egyptians experienced a taste of what that could mean, when a 60-year-old Coptic Christian was beheaded and a priest was shot on the Sinai Peninsula. In a village in Upper Egypt, a mob beat a Christian supporter of the Tamarud movement to death, while other Copts were stabbed to death and about 20 houses owned by members of the religious minorities were torched. On Monday night, seven people were killed and more than 250 were injured in clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters in Cairo.
- Part 1: Salafists Gain Strength amid Political Chaos
- Part 2: Pious Rivals