Egypt's Islamists: Not One and the Same

Moises Saman for The New York Times.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s first free and fair elections signals a major turning point in the country’s history – an event that evokes apprehension in the West over the possible Islamist takeover of an important Middle East ally.

There exists a variety of Islamist strains, each with its own distinct worldviews, objectives and participating actors. As the oldest and largest Islamic organization in Egypt aside from the state-sponsored Al-Azhar University, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most recognized of these groups in Egypt. Though they attract the most attention, several other Islamist groups vie with the Muslim Brotherhood for power and influence. 

In Egypt, for example, the main Islamist struggle during parliamentary elections pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against the Salafis, who received 40% and 25% of the vote respectively.  Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered the most influential Islamist organization, and can be characterized by its aims to achieve political power at a national level.  It generally accepts the nation-state, works within a constitutional framework and forgoes violence except under conditions of foreign occupation, although the Brotherhood did not fully renounce violence until the 1970s.

Salafis, on the other hand, emphasize the Salaf (predecessors) or earliest Muslims as models of Islamic practice, and base their beliefs on Saudi Wahhabism’s puritanical interpretation of Islam.  Salafism emerged during the 1970’s oil boom in Saudi Arabia, where many impoverished Egyptians were able to find work and later returned to Egypt with newly found wealth as well as a fundamentalist outlook.  Salafis consider it their mission to preserve Muslim identity and Islamic faith against unbelievers. While political power is not their primary objective, Salafis may leverage any political advantage to force the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood into taking a more conservative stance, radicalizing Egypt. 


Diwaniyya Contributor