Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists and Salafists in contemporary Arab politics can only be described as “frienemies.” In its more nuanced form, this word describes the relationship of those who are simultaneously, for different purposes, both valued allies and deadly rivals.
This is particularly true in post-dictatorship Egypt and Tunisia. Salafists and Muslim Brothers disagree about much, but stand in common opposition to secularists, liberals and progressives. Ultimately, each would prefer to live under systems dominated by their Islamist rivals than any form of secularism. There is obviously a huge range among the Islamist, and especially Salafist, groups. Any quick overview like this is bound to be reductive. But its general outlines are accurate.
Islamists often, but not always, unite against secularists or remnants of the old dictatorships. In Egypt, the Salafist Al-Nour party courted former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq when it appeared he might win the presidency. And there have been numerous other instances in which various Islamists have tried to leverage temporary alliances of convenience with non-Islamist parties against each other.
Insofar as Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties now dominate the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, Salafist agitation almost invariably undermines their rule. The long-term Salafist goal of unseating the Brotherhood as the vanguard Islamist movement is obvious. They do this by continuously attempting to upstage the Brotherhood on “Islamic” piety.
One of the silliest instances of this was at the outset of the first post-Mubarak Egyptian parliament, when a Salafist MP rose in the middle of opening proceedings and began shouting out the Muslim call to prayer. The Muslim Brotherhood parliament speaker admonished him that there was a mosque nearby, and this was Parliament, not a house of prayer. To everybody else it looked completely ridiculous, but from the Salafist point of view, mission accomplished.
Salafist riots in Tunisia against “un-Islamic” cultural expressions such as art galleries and cinemas proved deeply embarrassing, and even destabilizing, to An-Nahda. Salafist TV preachers in Tunisia urged their young cadres to engage in street battles with An-Nahda toughs. And over the past few weeks, Egyptian Salafists have been staging large and angry protests against the Muhammad Morsi government, as have their Tunisian brethren against the An-Nahda-led troika coalition.
The two sides in Egypt are wrangling over, among other things, Article Two of the draft Constitution. The Brotherhood appears prepared to live with the traditional reference to “principles of Sharia Law” as the main source of legislation, a vague wording with limited legal impact. The Salafists, however, are demanding the removal of the word “principles,” theoretically making Sharia the direct source of legislation.
With Brotherhood parties now leading governments that have to be responsible for actual policies rather than mere rhetoric, they find themselves open to an endless series of accusations of impiety or hypocrisy from their Salafist rivals.
When ideologues seriously vie for power, they typically find their slogans often don’t match their interests or imperatives. The new Egyptian government, for example, has been borrowing and lending money at large amounts of interest, performing extraordinary feats of theological and rhetorical contortions to explain how this does not constitute some form of “usury.” The Salafists themselves had for decades denounced politics, government and, above all, voting, as sinful and “worldly,” only to form parties and stand for elections the minute the opportunity presented itself.
To make matters worse, there is a crucial difference in political perception at play. In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, there is every indication that the Brotherhood feels deeply vulnerable in spite of its apparent strength. They seem to fear they may have peaked too early, and won’t be able to replicate their strong victories in future elections. And they appear to recognize that while they may have secured the cooperation of, they have not yet gained control over, the greatest sources of government power: the military and police.
This is what An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was trying, apparently in vain, to explain to Tunisian Salafists in his embarrassing video comments urging them to be patient while his party worked to seize control of the army and security forces to forestall “a secularist comeback.” Ghannouchi says he fears that if Salafists push the Islamist agenda too far or too quickly, they could experience a repeat of the bloody backlash against them in Algeria in the 1990s. It’s hyperbole, perhaps, but indicative of the different attitudes that stem from power and opposition, and a thinly-veiled threat as well.
Salafist and Brotherhood preachers inveigh against secularists on television and from the pulpit in unison, and sometimes in seeming coordination. On that much, they agree. But they also regularly accuse each other of any manner of misdeeds and frequently leverage alliances with the very secularists they both detest.
At one register they are the strongest of allies, while at another the bitterest of enemies. They are the closest of frienemies.