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Photo Gallery: Deadly Clashes in Cairo

Foto: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/ REUTERS

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.

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Photo Gallery: The Growing Gap in Egypt

Foto: AP/dpa

Dissolution of a Rare Pact

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.

Pious Rivals

When General el-Sissi read out his declaration on July 3, Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was sitting next to him. This has prompted some Morsi supporters to see a Christian conspiracy at work. "Down with the dominance of the pope!" some are now chanting at their protests.

It seems odd that Egypt's largest Salafist party is opposing the Muslim Brotherhood in this power struggle. The fundamentalist Al-Nour Party has ideological similarities to the Muslim Brotherhood, but many of its members are significantly more radical. During the 2011 parliamentary election, a few of the Al-Nour candidates called for strict gender separation and a comprehensive ban on alcohol in Egypt, and there was even talk of covering up "Pharaonic idols." Nevertheless, the two Islamist groups became rivals.

The Salafists fear the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time rejecting their political claim to power. Both groups exploit the distinctions between the two. The Salafists were already sharply critical of the Brotherhood in 2011, calling it "capitalist" and "loyal to the system," while Muslim Brotherhood members used the radical competition to portray themselves as "moderate Islamists." In last year's presidential election campaign, the Al-Nour Party did not support Morsi at first, but rather Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Brotherhood. The Salafists only threw their support behind Morsi in the second round of the election.

Al-Nour on the Rise?

Cairo analyst Ashraf al-Sharif sees a long-term strategy in their maneuvering. "The Salafists want to replace the Muslim Brotherhood as the most important Islamist player in Egypt," says Sharif. He notes that one also shouldn't forget that Al-Nour has an important sponsor, Saudi Arabia, and that it wants to keep down the Muslim Brotherhood, both in Egypt and the kingdom. A monarchy has no place in the Brotherhood's philosophy, whereas the Salafists are more flexible.

If Al-Nour truly aims to replace the Brotherhood, it will have to come to terms with the military. And it will also have to hold together the disparate forces within its own camp. Part of today's complex reality in Egypt is that even the ultra-religious group is divided.

Quite a few Al-Nour supporters are critical of the course taken by their leadership. Some, like Salafist Morsi, are now demonstrating alongside the humiliated Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Nasr City. And some stay out of politics altogether, while others have sided with Tamarud, the revolutionary youth movement.

One of them is Nabil Naim, 56, who trims his moustache in the Salafist manner. From his office near Tahrir Square, Naim organizes a group he calls the Jerusalem Rescue Front. Naim was part of the jihadist movement among the Salafists. He fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia before he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned in Egypt for 18 years.

Ironically, it was the military regime that released him after the 2011 revolution, so it stands to reason that Naim is one of the Salafists who admire the military. "Our military chief is a clever man," says Naim. A surprising number of the ultra-religious share this sentiment.

And Morsi? He was very pleased that the Muslim Brotherhood leader was removed from office, says Naim. He argues that the former president was neither a revolutionary nor particularly pious. Naim believes that politics in Egypt will not be shaped in palaces in the future, but rather "on the streets."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan