Sunday, December 04, 2011

Islamist vs. Islamist: Musings

Trying to figure out the results of the first portion of the Egyptian vote should be easy for anyone who follows Israeli politics. The first results indicate surprising strength for the Islamists, but they are Islamists of 2 very different stripes. That is to say: how do we understand the two political parties that have garnered the most votes in Egypt, the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP; representing the Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Nur (representing the Salafists)?

For those who follow Israeli politics, the parallels are clear: the Muslim Brotherhood is akin to Shas or the National Religious camp and Nur is akin to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi. While these Israeli minority parties are never called upon to form Israeli governments -- and it seems reasonable to believe that their Egyptian counterparts will be called upon to form the next Egyptian government -- the difference between these two religious camps capture the difference between the FJP and al-Nur. FJP represents a political position of religious sentiment; al-Nur represents a political position of religious totality. And while Shas and the Haredi parties speak the same religious language, they hardly see eye-to-eye. Shas represents a low- and middle-class constituency and is willing to engage in both domestic and international issues; the Haredi represent an impoverished underclass and are focused on a set of narrow social issues and on acquiring funding for their institutions.

So too the FJP and al-Nur. The FJP represents a legacy movement led by members of the professional class, saturated with religious sentiment. It has waited for decades for the chance to lay claim to Egyptian society. al-Nur hasn't a clue what to do with its new-found strength, other than demand for a piece of the pie. The Salafists want strict Wahhabism for Egyptian society, and while this orientation surely has implications for international and security questions, there can be no doubt that like the Haredi, al-Nur's focus is exclusively on xenophobic questions of the role of women, the role of minorities, and the centrality of shari'a. Whether it is Egypt or it Israel, just because you are religious doesn't mean you'll get along.

All this transpires against the watchful eyes of the Egyptian generals, who might work in tandem with the FJP, but not with al-Nur. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) believes it is entrusted with the security and viability of the Egyptian state. SCAF has no intention of relinquishing that role. It will be interesting to see if the FJP and al-Nur can work together, with SCAF looming from above. My bet is no.

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