Throughout the spring, many analysts covering Egypt’s presidential elections argued that Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, a Muslim Brotherhood leader until last summer, would at least secure a place in any runoff round, if not win it. In the months leading up to the vote, Abou el-Fatouh appeared to have captured a broad coalition of supporters, including several Salafi parties, which, this past January, had won a surprising 25 percent of the seats in Egypt’s new parliament. Yet their expected electoral power never materialized. Meanwhile, Abou el-Fatouh’s popularity faded, and he placed a distant fourth in the first round of voting on May 23 and 24.

Abou el-Fatouh’s downfall disappointed his many supporters, from secular revolutionaries to Christians and former Brotherhood youth. But it represented a particular defeat for the Salafi parties. They compromised their principles to back him, and his loss will likely discourage such pragmatism in the future.

From the beginning, Abou el-Fatouh attracted a diverse array of supporters. After he announced his candidacy in May 2011, the Brotherhood expelled him for violating its policy, at that time, of not fielding a contender. Even so, he retained the sympathy of many youth figures in the organization, who saw him as a champion for much-needed reform. Some even risked expulsion to endorse his campaign. As one of the first Brotherhood leaders to join the Egyptian revolution, Abou el-Fatouh also enjoyed the backing of many secular activists. And some Christians supported him in hopes that he would take a more moderate position than the Brotherhood or the Salafis on the role of religion in the state.

But Abou el-Fatouh’s real break came in April, when Egypt’s election commission disqualified Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an independent Islamist, and Khairat al-Shater, a deputy guide in the Brotherhood, from the race. For non-Brotherhood Islamists, Abou el-Fatouh and the underwhelming Mohamed Morsi became the only viable candidates to support. And despite being Islamist groups with similar hopes of making Egypt a state governed by sharia, the Brotherhood and the Salafi parties often disagree on how best to achieve those goals. Whereas the Brotherhood has called for the gradual introduction of Islamic law as a frame of reference for legislation enacted by the state, the Salafis have advocated for its immediate implementation as an actual code of law, complete with Koranic penal regulations. Seeing themselves as purists, the Salafis have argued that the Brotherhood is tainted by years of participating in politics and tacitly cooperating with the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Unwilling to back a Brotherhood candidate, the two largest Salafi factions -- the Nour party, which holds the second-largest bloc in parliament, and the Building and Development party -- chose to back Abou el-Fatouh. This decision appeared to be more about politics than principle. Although a Brotherhood president would more likely move Egypt in the direction that the Salafis seek, they had more to gain politically by playing kingmaker to an independent Islamist candidate than by remaining in the shadow of the Brotherhood.

At first, the Salafi endorsement appeared to make Abou el-Fatouh one of the strongest candidates in the race. As Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution scholar, has noted, Abou el-Fatouh's campaign was a "big-tent movement" because everyone from the Islamists to the revolutionaries saw him for what they wanted him to be rather than for what he actually was. But his diverse coalition quickly began to dissolve. In a debate with him, Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and another presumptive front-runner in the race, repeatedly called his rival a flip-flopper, accusing him of being “a Salafi with the Salafis and a liberal with liberals.” As Moussa attacked from the left, telling secular voters that the ex-Brotherhood official was really an Islamic radical, the Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, attacked from the right, claiming that Abou el-Fatouh was not Islamic enough.

Under this pressure, Abou el-Fatouh’s momentum collapsed. As his candidacy receded, the two most polarizing candidates, the Brotherhood’s Morsi and a former Egyptian air force commander, Ahmed Shafiq, took almost half the vote combined, and both moved on to the runoff election. Their success demonstrated that Egypt has yet to form a coherent political center. Although Abou el-Fatouh attracted a wide variety of constituents, those constituents did not rally around a unified agenda so much as choose the most palatable candidate, an unsustainable formula. In many ways, the Salafis had staked their endorsement of Abou el-Fatouh on their ability to mobilize conservative voters to support the more centrist candidate. To a large extent, Salafi voters either backed Morsi or simply stayed home. The recognition that the Salafi bloc could not sway them to Abou el-Fatouh will likely alter its strategy dramatically.

As the Salafi parties now realize, their endorsement of Abou el-Fatouh, however politically practical, alienated their base. Salafi voters did not display any enthusiasm for backing a candidate with whom they strongly disagree on a number of issues. Salafi parties either wrongly assumed that their adherents would follow the party line, or else did a poor job of explaining why they should vote for Abou el-Fatouh. Recognizing that Egypt’s Islamic conservatives will not sacrifice religious goals for political expedience, it is likely that the Salafi parties will avoid similar compromises in the future.

In fact, the Salafi factions are already shedding the language of political pragmatism. Failed candidates and their parties have attempted to win promises and concessions from the two front-runners before declaring their new allegiances. Abou el-Fatouh himself presented Morsi with a four-point plan that would help the Brotherhood address concerns over its monopolization of Egyptian politics, and the secular parties conditioned their support on the acceptance of several of their own conditions, such as a coalition that includes all political forces. But the Salafi parties backed Morsi without any such requests. Shaaban Abdel Latif, a leader of al-Nour, went so far as to say that it was not worth negotiating with the candidates for the party’s endorsement: Backing Morsi, the Islamist candidate, was a religious obligation.

To be sure, Salafi political parties will work with a non-Islamist president and remain open to working with other factions. But they are likely to do so only to advance their religious agenda. If they can strike deals on issues that matter less to them, such as relations with the United States and Israel, in order to influence Egyptian policy on education, social programming, or religious policies, then they can justify such bargains to their constituents without losing support. Beyond that, however, the Salafis will likely avoid compromise for the sake of gaining political power, hampering the rise of a pragmatic political center.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ZACK GOLD is a Washington-based Middle East analyst conducting research on Egyptian Islamist groups. Follow him on Twitter at @ZLGold.
  • More By Zack Gold