CAIRO — Followers of a puritanical form of Islam will fill about a quarter of the seats in the lower house of the new Egyptian parliament on Monday, underscoring the political power being wielded by Islamists in the wake of the Arab spring.
Finding themselves badly outnumbered, some Egyptian liberals are weighing whether to align themselves with the moderate Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of preventing an all-Islamist alliance between the Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party will be the largest in the new parliament, and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, the second-largest.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter comments on Egypt's election process. Carter inspected polling sites and vote-counting stations during a five day visit to Egypt. (Jan. 13)
Some liberal Egyptian politicians say a tactical alliance between their forces and the Brotherhood is being encouraged by Western diplomats alarmed by the prospect of a further rightward shift after last year’s toppling of Hosni Mubarak. They say the two Islamist groups could be pushed together if liberals refuse to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming parliament, which will be tasked with appointing a body to write the constitution.
“They’re scared of the Salafis and they want the secular people to join with the Brotherhood so the Brotherhood and Salafis don’t join together,” Mohammed Abou el Ghar, who heads the leftist Social Democratic Party, said in describing what he called Western fears.
The Salafists adhere to a hard-line interpretation of Islam that advocates a staunch segregation of the sexes and forbids alcohol, and have insisted that they won't compromise their Islamic values. A history of rivalry between the two Islamist groups makes an alliance between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood unlikely; the Nour Party’s precursor, the Salafist Call, was born from a movement founded in the 1970s to counter the Brotherhood’s domination at the university campus in Alexandria.
But the two parties do play to an overlapping Islamist base, and the Salafists’ strong electoral showing has given new prominence to issues involving morality. “The Nour Party’s presence definitely puts pressure on the Freedom and Justice Party” in a conservative direction, said Mohammed Beltagy, a Freedom and Justice parliament member, adding that his party’s own wins could pressure the Salafists to become more moderate.
While recent high-level American emissaries have reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, U.S. officials have generally avoided the Nour Party. A first official meeting between U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and representatives of the Salafist Party has been scheduled for Sunday.
Members of the Salafist Party say they are trying to counter what they call a smear campaign trying to depict them as uncompromising and scary conservatives who will transform Egypt into a rigid Islamic state like Iran or Saudi Arabia.
They have stated publicly that they would conditionally respect the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and have tempered language about Islamic tourism and banking laws that scare foreign investors. The party has expressed interest in tacit agreements with liberals on social issues, such as striking the hated emergency law.