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The overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last week unleashed a torrent of analysis about the country’s opposition and its democratic future. But perhaps more interesting is its Islamist future. If anything, the coup was the latest sign that the Muslim Brotherhood, the fraternal order to which Morsi belongs, has ceded its role as the vanguard of Islamist politics to the ultraconservative Salafis, adherents of a Sunni revivalist movement.
That transition has been going on since at least the early 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world largely ceased revolutionary violence in favor of party politics alone. Even Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s militia in Gaza, opted to join parliament and put armed resistance on the back burner. Salafi terrorist organizations such al Qaeda and the Islamic Group, in Egypt, quickly rushed to the void. In a few cases, they even attempted to follow the Muslim Brotherhood into legislatures. After the Arab Spring, that trickle became a waterfall, and since then, Salafis have proven more adept than the Brothers at setting Islamist agendas in governments and surviving revolutionary aftershocks.
Like Salafi militants, Salafi politicians advance their causes by successfully appealing to a narrow constituency on the far right. Because that far right wants to curtail individual rights and freedoms, in keeping with their ultraconservative vision of Islamic law, Salafi politicians will forever be a minority in most societies, meaning they have to ally themselves with others to achieve their political objectives. Thus, the largest Salafi party in Egypt, Nour, was equally at ease working with the Muslim Brotherhood to enact a conservative constitution as with the secular opposition to oust Morsi when he failed to include Nour members in his government. By accepting its minority role, Nour not only kept its Islamist credentials intact but also weathered the secular outrage that sent the Islamist president packing.
Not all Salafi parties in Egypt were equally nimble. A number of the smaller ones, including the Islamic Group’s Building and Development Party, had tied themselves to the Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of offsetting Nour’s power -- an alliance they only abandoned just before Morsi’s fall. Now, furious that they have lost their patron, some Islamic Group members have made veiled threats about returning to the organization’s violent past. Other Salafis, too, have threatened violence -- and some seem to be willing to act on it. In the last few days, several Salafis formed a new terrorist organization in the Sinai, Ansar al-Sharia. Salafis outside Egypt are also outraged. Many ultraconservative leaders such as Libya’s Sheikh Abu Sidra, who had taken a gamble by eschewing violence after the Arab Spring, worry that they will no longer be able to push their fellow Salafis to toe the line.
In that respect, no Salafi is likely more pleased with the turn of events in Egypt than Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda. For decades, Zawahiri has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's engagement in party politics does nothing more than strengthen the hands of its adversaries and ratify an un-Islamic system of rule. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, he has continued to make his argument that the West and its local proxies will never allow an Islamist government to actually rule. He doubtless views the coup last week as a final vindication of his argument.
Not surprisingly, Zawahiri’s fellow jihadi travelers saw events in Egypt the same way. One prominent member of the jihadi online commentariat tweeted in Arabic, “It is as if God wanted to assure the failure of the ‘democratic’ system in Egypt today and Algeria two decades ago to benefit the Syrian revolution before its completion.” The Somali al Qaeda group al Shabab tweeted, “It’s time to remove those rose-tinted spectacles and see the world as accurately as it is, change comes by the bullet alone; NOT the ballot.”
The threats of violence and the anxious questions they produce center on the Salafis. No one knows whether Nour will continue to work with the opposition as the military continues its crackdown on Islamists. Nor is it possible to say whether the threats of the Islamic Group and Ansar al-Sharia are serious. Even less clear is the extent to which Salafis in Egypt and abroad will continue to try their hands at peaceful politics.
What is clear is that none of these questions has to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. Having ceded the revolutionary and moral high ground to the Salafis, the organization is no longer in the vanguard of the Islamist movement. Even in the realm of parliamentary politics, the same outsiders who for decades portrayed the Brothers as political geniuses now describe them as bumbling naïfs compared with the Salafis.
Understanding all that, the Muslim Brotherhood could be forgiven for looking to the Salafis as a model for reinvention. If it does, the lessons it will draw are these: It is better to appeal to a narrow audience, legislate as a minority party, and strengthen ties to violent actors. But those are not the lessons the Muslim Brotherhood should draw from Morsi’s downfall. Had the Brotherhood governed as a big-tent Islamist party in the way its leaders promised to do, it would have been on far surer footing. Unlike the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood was ideologically equipped to govern in this manner. But its organizational bias toward authoritarianism and secrecy, coupled with the extraordinary difficulty of governing in post-revolutionary Egypt, pushed the party over the cliff.
It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has climbed out of deeper holes than this. And it will likely do so again. But what emerges into the sunlight this time might not be to anyone’s liking.