The parties that have received the most votes in Egypt’s elections are the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour Party. Both are Islamist parties. Yet Western observers — including Obama administration officials — claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “moderate Islamist” group while the Salafists are radical.
There are indeed important differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, but they are really issues of timing and tactics rather than of goals or principles. One way to think of them is as Coke traditional formula and Coke Light.
The Brotherhood seeks to transform Egypt into a radical state governed by Sharia. The Brotherhood, however, is more cautious — one might say, smarter — in its tactics.
This caution is rooted in the organization’s history. After the Egyptian military seized power in 1952, the Brotherhood, which had a history of terrorist activity, was its main rival. The military suppressed the Brotherhood, sending some of its leaders to concentration camps and others to the gallows. It would be 20 years before the regime allowed the Brotherhood to operate, and even then only illegally.
Knowing it could again be shut down at any moment, the Brotherhood became very careful. Its leadership declared a strategy of “da’wa” — that is, long-term propaganda and organization to build a base of support. Only in October 2010 did the new Brotherhood leader, Muhammad al-Badi, say that the time for revolution had arrived. Within weeks, it helped launch the revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak.
In contrast, Salafi groups only began to emerge in the 1970s. The assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat by Salafi terrorists in 1981 triggered repression against them. But this was far less severe than the repression the Brotherhood experienced in the 1950s and focused on those responsible for the killing. Many groups continued to operate.
These groups were all small, based on community and campus organizing, and each had its own leader. A lot of the members had left the Brotherhood, which they found too moderate in behavior. They did not want to wait for revolution; they wanted it immediately. During the 1990s, many took up armed struggle and killed hundreds of people in terror attacks, focusing especially on killing Christians, government officials and tourists.
But they were crushed by the government in the end. Many of their leaders, while in prison, concluded that they had made a strategic error and renounced violence. They were largely inactive in the dozen years leading up to the 2011 revolution.
While the Brotherhood furnished organized cadres and played a central role in the events of January and February of this year, the Salafists were still recovering, though many participated, especially in the most violent activities, like the attacks on Christians and on the Israeli embassy.
Again, it should be emphasized that the Brotherhood and the Salafists have the same goals. But the Brotherhood is far more patient. It has learned the lesson of the Turkish Islamists: If you go slowly and conceal your aims, victory is far more likely.