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.