By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript
Since the 2011 Arab Spring, upheavals in domestic politics, shifting regional power balances and international shocks have affected Islamist movements and parties that have been coming to the forefront of the political arena in the Middle East.
They came on the scene as powerful political actors in the 1970s and have evolved over time. However, it is the strong showing they made in Egypt, where they finally came to power through electoral politics, that represents the most striking turning point in their recent history.
In January of 2011, the Egyptian people mobilized in massive numbers against the political regime of President Hosni Mubarak and ended his 30-year reign. A year later Egyptians conducted an election which chose as president Muhammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
This victory and the subsequent Islamist-led government in Egypt in 2012–2013 aroused fierce opposition. After the favourable momentum they enjoyed in the aftermath of the 2010–2011 uprisings, they found themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.
The 2013 military coup in Egypt against Morsi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood proved how easily elected institutions could be toppled as a result of social discontent. It exposed the vulnerability of the Islamists’ condition, even when in power.
The modern Egyptian state has been engaged in complex and dynamic relations with the Brotherhood for decades, just as it has alternately tolerated, censored, suppressed, and promoted a wider range of Islamic voices in public discourse.
A new party, the Salafist fundamentalist Islamic Party of the Light, formed in 2011, adapted to this environment to gain relevance at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its origins lay in a powerful religious organization called the Salafi Da‘wa, or the Salafi Call, established in the late 1970s.
The party was founded by Imad Abd al-Ghaffour, a medical doctor, who decided that, in the post-revolution era, they needed a party of their own separate from the FJP to have a say in the post-Mubarak transition.
Applying Islamic Sharia in all aspects of life was the party’s main goal. They called for people to follow the Islam that was practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhamad and his companions, and for Islamic ethics to be the terms of reference of daily life.
However, the political behavior the party adopted puzzled most observers, who had expected it to become an Islamist party on the far right of the FJP and therefore more politically intransigent.
Instead, it took a pragmatic, flexible approach to politics, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood. Abd al-Ghaffour even rejected the label “Salafi” for the party, arguing that it was a “party for all Egyptians.”
Showing a greater extent of flexibility and strategic thinking, it contested the 2011 parliamentary elections and won 112 seats out of 498 in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls held between November 2011 and January 2012. This made them the second-largest political force in parliament after the FJP, which won 222 seats.
It also captured 45 seats in the Senate elections in January 2012, coming in second to the FJP, which won 105 seats, out of a total of 270 seats.
Though the Party of the Light had joined an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, it would later support the July 3, 2013 military coup against President Morsi.
Meanwhile, Abd al-Ghaffour lost a leadership battle with Younes Abd-al-Halim Makioun and launched the new Homeland Party in early 2013; however, it has faded as a political force.
Have the Islamic parties had their day under the post-Morsi regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi? During the 2015 parliamentary elections, in which the Party of the Light was the sole religious party to compete, some speculated that the party would do well, since it was now the only electoral option for religious conservatives. However, it gained only 12 seats out of 596.
In last October’s vote, it fared even worse, with just seven seats. The failure of the party as well to capture any seats in the 300-member Senate elections a month earlier, in September, won overwhelmingly by pro-Sisi forces, raises questions about the prospects of the party as well as the future of political Islam in the country.